Aggression: the rat edition

Since we’re talking about aggression, I have to tell you about our rats. We’ve had the older trio for a year now and the young once arrived in the beginning of March. They could move into a shared cage after two weeks and during that time we had opportunity to observe plenty aggressive behaviors (see video below).

The truth is that we know very little about the social life of rats. And whatever we do know is not 100% applicable to our situation because they looked either at wild rats, or laboratory rats. At the moment we have 6 rats and while we do let them out to roam for 2-3h a day, their territory is much more limited and they live in a much smaller group than wild rats.

What we do know is that rats – as opposed to dogs – do establish dominance hierarchies which are then maintained through a wide range of social behaviors (such as grooming, sharing (stealing :D) good), huddling, sleeping together, submissive posturing and marking). In this case it is also true that once stable relationships are established, the frequency of aggressive behaviors drops a lot.

At the same time, we probably don’t know more than we do just because our experience of the world is vastly different. Two crucial components for rat communication are vocalizations and olfactory communication – we simply can’t hear most of the sounds they make (the frequency is too high) and don’t even get me started on our sense of smell, or rather lack thereof.

Our rats met for two weeks only outside, first on a neutral territory (in the bathroom) and then in my room. We swapped the dirty bedding between their cages so that they could get used to each other’s scent.

And how did we know that they were ready to move in together?

  • the frequency of aggressive behaviors decreased (chasing, fighting, vocalizations, forced grooming etc.)
  • the young rats would come out of their hiding places much faster after conflicts
  • the young rats started eating when they were out with the old rats – after a while they started eating side by side (we scatter feed)
  • they all just started hanging out next to each other, on us and in the cages

One more important fact: during the two weeks no one ever got hurt! I admit it was hard to watch sometimes through the eyes of a dog trainer but I trusted a professional’s advice (Klikk patkányok/Sunny Side Dog Behavior) and there truly was no need whatsoever to intervene. After all aggressive behaviors are a natural part of communication – both in rats and in dogs.

Medication in behavior work

Even though the stigma surrounding psychotropic meds for humans has decreased in the past decades, many dog owners are still afraid of pharmacotherapy. They worry that medication will change their dog’s personality, turn their companion into a “zombie”. Many still believe that medication is a last result, but actually in some cases behavior modification can be quicker and more effective if it is paired with a medical intervention.

When should we consider using medication?

It makes sense to consider including drugs when the dog:

  • experiences a lot of fear, anxiety, and stress on a daily basis,
  • recovers very slowly after stressful events (days/weeks instead of minutes/hours),
  • does not respond to training: the condition either does not improve or even if one “problem” gets solved, another one pops up in its stead (for example the dog stops showing stereotypic behaviors but starts reacting aggressively to something).

What kinds of medication are out there?

There are two main medication groups:

  • “Maintenance” medication which works long-term. It usually takes several weeks before its effect can be observed. It is used when the triggers are frequent and unpredictable (for example the dog is terrified of traffic and the owners live in the city center).
  • “Situational” medication which starts working within a couple of hours. It is used when the triggers are rather rare and predictable (for example vet visits, fireworks).

What is the goal of pharmacotherapy?

Medication is used so that the dog:

  • is calmer and more balanced – the reactions to triggers are less intense and/or less frequent; everyday management is easier and more effective;
  • learns better, responds faster to behavior modification protocols;
  • feels better, because the underlying neurochemical imbalance is adressed;
  • recovers faster after stressful events.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Will the medication “cure” behavior problems?

NO, it won’t. Medication is practically always applied together with behavior modification protocols. It’s very rare that medication itself is enough.

Will the dog have to take medication for the rest of their life?

Just like humans this is an individual matter. Some stay on medication long-term, some can discontinue meds after a while. The start and discontinuation of pharmacotherapy must always be supervised by a veterinarian!

Why is the dosage so high?

Compared to human dosages it often seems like dogs are getting an extremely high dose of medication, but their metabolism is just much faster than ours – the active substance leaves their system much faster. Therefore, they need a higher dosage compared to the human one.

ATTENTION

  • Medication can only be prescribed by a veterinarian!
  • Pharmacotherapy requires regular check-ups!
  • Since animals can’t tell us how they are doing, finding and maintaining appropriate medication regimen can be tricky. The owner must watch their dog’s behavior closely!

Gomba is a charming dog with a lot of issues. Her owners first reached out to me because she was showing some concerning behaviors around guests. Unfortunately, over the following weeks we discovered that this was the least of her problems.

Gomba’s situation is an example of a perfect storm. She:

  • came from an impoverished environment
  • probably did not come in contact with people during the socialization period
  • might have a genetic predisposition (her mother was chained because she bit someone)
  • faced a host of medical issues (prolonged ear infection as a puppy, pseudopregnancy followed by an early spaying, allergies…)
  • fell victim to aversive training (alpha roll, flooding, corrections)

Her owners are some of the most dedicated people I know but it soon became clear that the issue was not the type or quantity of training we were doing.

We encountered all the signs that medication is necessary that I mentioned above:

  • Progress was slow and often as soon as we improved one problem, another one popped up (for example loose leash walking improved but she started barking as cyclists).
  • It was impossible to keep Gomba under threshold because we couldn’t avoid the two things that scared her the most: the staircase of the house and the buses on the nearby road (and people…).
  • A single incident was enough to set us back by weeks.

Eventually Gomba’s veterinarians prescribed her medication and her owners could relax a little:

  • The protocols we’ve been trying became easier to apply and more effective.
  • She can handle minor triggers much better.
  • When she does react, her reactions are less intense.
  • It’s easier to get her to disengage.
  • She can process stressful incidents without regressing.

ATTENTION! The medication is not a magic wand and it did not solve any of her problems. But it has allowed Gomba and her family to get out of crisis mode and start working on them.

 

Help, my dog is aggressive! Part 2

(Disclaimer: It is not my goal to diminish the problem. Aggressive behaviors are not acceptable in our society and showing them can have serious consequences for the dog and their owner, as well as for the victim. Living with an aggressive dog can also cause a lot of stress and anxiety for the owner. It might be a good idea to see a therapist yourself!)

“Aggression” is one of the most frequent reasons for seeking out professional help.  Basically, any strong reaction (barking, lunging, snapping) in any context can get labeled as “aggression” and people usually assume bad intent behind it. While some dogs certainly aim to bite, many – if not most – show aggressive behaviors simply in order to get more space. When dealing with any kind of problems, it is important to separate our narrative from the facts.

This post examines what aggression is and how it can be analyzed. Catch up on what aggression isn’t in part one.

two dogs snarling at each other over a toy Continue reading “Help, my dog is aggressive! Part 2”

Help, my dog is aggressive! Part 1

(Disclaimer: It is not my goal to diminish the problem. Aggressive behaviors are not acceptable in our society and showing them can have serious consequences for the dog and their owner, as well as for the victim. Living with an aggressive dog can also cause a lot of stress and anxiety for the owner. It might be a good idea to see a therapist yourself!)

“Aggression” is one of the most frequent reasons for seeking out professional help.  Basically, any strong reaction (barking, lunging, snapping) in any context can get labeled as “aggression” and people usually assume bad intent behind it.

While some dogs certainly aim to bite, many – if not most – show aggressive behaviors simply in order to get more space. When dealing with any kind of problems, it is important to separate our narrative from the facts. This post’s goal is to look at some common misconceptions about aggression, which may be clouding our judgement.

This part focuses on what aggression is not. Read part 2 to learn how aggression can be defined and analyzed.

Aggression is not anger

When talking about aggression people often equal aggression with anger (as defined in our society).

They might say that the dog:

  • lashed out
  • was angry
  • “hates me”
  • “is jealous”

There are two problems with this.

Continue reading “Help, my dog is aggressive! Part 1”

Help, my dog is a resource guarder! Part 2

Resource guarding (food, toys, etc.) is a common problem among dog owners. In the first post I talked about how we define resource guarding, what does it look like and what are the usual causes. Now we will discuss the options you have if your dog is a resource guarder:

  • management – making everyone safe again
  • emergency interventions
  • training

Continue reading “Help, my dog is a resource guarder! Part 2”