Despite barking aggressively, growling, and showing their pearly whites in a scary snarl, most dogs have a tendency to be natural conflict solvers.
Often the aggressive display of dogs leaves dog owners quite shocked and concerned, especially if the dog in question is a normally placid pooch. Dogs may raise their hackles, lift their lips and release the deepest guttural growl for the main purpose of scaring off the boldest opponent. However, when the dog is exhibiting such aggressive display, notice that more likely it all ends there. Best of all, when the aggression is directed to another dog, the latter will likely readily recognize the warning and keep clear without second thoughts.
What is Ritualized Aggression and Why Dogs Use It
Thanks to the dog’s ability to engage in ritualization, an effective strategy to tone down any conflicts, serious injuries are often avoided. This way, many animals can resolve conflicts without resorting to actual violence. Truth is, in the animal kingdom, too much energy would be lost and wasted in fighting when there are more important tasks to engage in, such as hunting, raising offspring and general survival.
Of course, there are cases where actual violence takes place, and at times, with fatal results. But these events are fortunately unlikely and physical contact is avoided thanks to ritualization where symbolic displays of threats to bite are displayed but without actually resorting to biting. This significantly reduces the chances for serious injuries and deaths.
How Dogs Use Ritualized Aggression With Each Other
There are several ways dogs effectively diffuse a critical situation from escalating. Being excellent in using body language, dogs will likely use body postures to create distance and prevent problems. A dog may make itself appear larger using its ability to raise its hair on its back (piloerection) or it may give a direct stare and become stiff and tense. If the dog wants to further convince the opponent, it may engage in vocalizations communicating that getting closer is totally not worth it.
Most dogs will readily understand such body language and will steer away from problems. Some will manifest submissive displays to appease (OK, got the message, please don’t harm!) such as looking away or rolling on their backs to demonstrate their will to give up.
Problems With Dogs Engaging in Ritualized Aggression
Obviously, the more a dog is successful in diffusing critical situations the better it gets at it and the more such displays will be used. Dog owners often think the dog is becoming more and more aggressive when in reality the dog is simply practicing more and more ritualized aggression. However, it is important to consider that poorly socialized dogs often resort to ritualized aggression because they lack proper communication skills and are dog language illiterate. They, therefore, may use ritualized aggression when there are really no threats from the other dog. Well socialized dogs instead will use ritualized aggression when there is a valid reason. They may use it to tell the other dog to stay away from the food bowl or to stop pestering.
In poorly socialized cases, dogs engaging in ritualized aggression must be rewarded the moment they do not engage in such displays when exposed to other non- threatening dogs. This, over time, gives the dog the opportunity to learn other more socially acceptable behaviors. For instance, the dog sits when he sees another dog and gets a treat instead of posturing and barking.
Ritualized aggression, however, should never be underestimated. Some dogs really mean it and should a dog still approach despite their display, they will have no problem delivering even serious injuries. Some dogs display ritualized aggression simply because they are prevented from actually resorting to their real intentions of biting and attacking. This is especially true to some dog breeds prone to inter-dog aggression.
As seen, ritualized aggression is, overall, not a totally negative behavior. Alexandra Semoyonova, author of the book, The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs, claims ”the domestic dog by nature is anything but an aggressive species’‘. Ritualized aggression, therefore, helps prevent conflict when needed, but when exhibited towards other dogs that pose no threat, it may be a sign of insecurity, anxiety, and lack of social skills.