Border Collie Aggression

My Border Collie is extremely aggressive. She has never been beaten or abused in her life and yet she has turned into this barking and snapping nightmare. Where does this behavior come from?

Animals fight amongst themselves for two reasons: either to establish themselves in a social hierarchy or to establish their territorial rights over a particular piece of ground or resource. Dogs do both. The basic way of canine life is hierarchy. Most move about frequently and don't stay long enough to maintain fixed territories. They have a very strong "pecking order".

Circumstances change a bit when dogs begin to establish a fixed home base with cooperative hunting. They become territorial, usually as a group.

Physical Features of Aggression

Dogs must gear up, as all animals do, for aggressive encounters. This is controlled by the autonomic nervous system which is made of 2 sub-systems: sympathetic (that prepares the body for violent activity) and the parasympathetic (that restores the body to lower states, preserves the body's reserve). Normally dogs maintain a balance between the two. But at times they listen only to the sympathetic side.

In these circumstances, adrenalin pours into the blood, the heart beats faster, blood is transferred from skin to muscles and brain, blood pressure increases, red blood cell production increases, coagulation time decreases, digestion and food storage stops, salivation is restrained, the rectum and bladder do not empty as easily as under normal conditions, stored carbohydrates come out of the liver and flood the blood with sugars, respiratory rate increases dramatically, temperature-regulating mechanisms are activated, hair stands on end, and there is profuse panting.

But out-and-out fighting, though it may lead to victory, may also lead to injury or death. So dogs threaten first, to avoid such a cost. If it can be known who will win the fight before the fight occurs, then no blood needs to be shed, leading them to ritualized combat. Physical violence is only a last resort. But the rituals and physical cues must be true indicators of one's ability to fight or else cheaters could win as well. (Which, by the way, is why humans are much better verbal liars than physical liars, yet strangely we still rely on verbal cues.)

Another problem is that the parasympathetic system battles for control as well. This results in a series of aggressive intention movements and desperate counteractions of flight, resulting in dashing forward, pulling back, crouching, sneering, staring, etc. In the end, these are elaborated into threat rituals and combat dances. Tail wagging is often associated with this internal conflict. Just because a dog is wagging its tail, doesn't mean it is friendly or won't bite. It shows that there is an internal battle going on in its mind - with fear, flight, fight, friendliness, or submission vying against one another for control.

This also produces some side-effects, behaviors that are not fitting of either. These are called displacement activities. The animal can't fully do either so it vents its feelings in some other way. Feeding movements, self-preening, sleep and yawning. Canines have elaborated some of these signals so much that they have now become threat indicators and are very showy.

There are other activities which are displayed that are called redirected activities - this is why your dog turns to the other dog and bites it. The levels of aggression have built up so far that they must be released or reduced and if the dog wants to avoid a direct confrontation with the opponent that he is still uncertain whether he can beat or not, he needs to release it in some other manner. Your other dog just happens to be the punching bag. Chimps mangle branches when faced with this confict. Humans do the same thing - we pound our fists on the table or throw a vase and break it instead of striking our spouse (which we don't know the consequences of).

In the end, the main goal for the loser is to remove himself (but not always physically possible) so it must signal to the other animal that it is no longer a threat, resulting in submissive displays. The dog can do one of two things - 1) switch off aggressive signals or 2) switch to other non-aggressive positive signals. Dogs display them in the following ways:

1) gross inactivity, stopping movement, cowering, crouching, facing away, offer vulnerable areas (like rolling over and displaying the genitals - dogs don't roll over for you to get their tummies scratched. They are showing submission to you.)

2) adopt juvenile food-begging behavior (which is why dogs lick you in the face {particularly the mouth, adoption of a female sexual posture, arouse mood to groom or be groomed.

Hope this helps you understand aggressive encounters between your dogs, between your dogs and other dogs, or between your dogs and human strangers.

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Page last updated April 1, 1997. All material Copyright © 2004 Border Collie Rescue, Inc. and Dr. Nicholas B. Carter
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