Understanding Dog Maternal Aggression
Maternal Aggression in Dogs
So your mother dog just gave birth to a litter of puppies, and she just greeted you with the deepest, guttural growl and a shiny demonstration of her pearly whites. Don't take it too personally. You are dealing with a classic case of maternal aggression. While it may be shocking to see this form of aggression in a docile dog that perhaps never showed any form of aggression before, at a closer look, you'll see that it somewhat makes sense. Let's take a look at what is going on in momma's mind during this time.
After mother dog gives birth, powerful chemical alterations start taking place in her brain. This is not her fault; it's a natural process meant to help her bond with and protect her puppies. These hormones at play are there to up the chances of survival of both mom and her vulnerable puppies. Puppies are pretty much born helpless. They are blind, deaf, without teeth, and on top of that, they're also unable to regulate their temperatures. This makes them totally dependent on their mothers, and rightfully so! It's quite normal for her to be protective.
"OK," you may think..."but, why is she protective with me, since I am the one who has been feeding her all these years, petting her, and treating her like a queen? How can she hold a grudge against me?" The answers is hormones, and if you're a man you know you shouldn't mess with a lady's hormones, and if you're a gal, you know how hormones affect you in the first place. In this case, we are looking at three hormones at play: oxtyocin, prolactin and estrogen. Let's take a closer look at these hormones, shall we?
Oxytocin is a hormone released by the hypothalamus and acts as a neuromodulator of the brain. The release of this hormone is triggered by the pressure of a puppy against mother dog's cervix, along with the tactile signals received when the puppies nurse. This hormone has a bonding effect between mother and baby, and for a good reason is known as the "love hormone".
When mother dog is about to give birth, her progesterone levels, which are the hormones of pregnancy, fall abruptly while the estrogen levels climb. The functionality of progesterone, which has a calming effect, therefore is lost, explains Dr. Nicholas Dodman. So this may play a role in making mother dog a bit more grumpy.
On top of that, when momma dog's levels of progesterone drop, her levels of prolactin (the hormone that stimulates lactaction) rise. According to the American Kennel Club Breeder's Handbook, these hormonal changes are responsible for causing the nesting and protective maternal behaviors.
So, the combination of the puppies being so vulnerable along with the series of chemical changes poor momma dog undergoes causes what we call mother dog protectiveness. Not all dogs are maternal aggressive. Yet, surprisingly, your dog doesn't have to have puppies for this form of protectiveness to occur. Some intact female dogs guard items (like stuffed animals) as if they were puppies during a false pregnancy.
Did You Know?
False pregnancy is a bit of a misnomer, since all intact dogs act to a certain extent as if they are pregnant regardless of whether they are pregnant or not. Indeed, during diestrus, all intact dogs undergo progesterone secretions.
How to Deal With Maternal Aggression
So mother dog has been telling you in canine language to stay away, how to proceed? The following first tips are for dogs who have just had puppies and are acting protective, the last tips may apply to dogs undergoing a false pregnancy.
Magical management is central when dealing with maternal aggression. This means you will try your best to allow the new mom to have a quiet place where she can feel less stressed and less threatened. This is definitively not a good time to invite all your family and friends to view the pups.Too much commotion around her may interfere with her new, important motherly duties. It's important that the pups drink colostrum during the first 24 hours. This is a special immune boosting fluid mother dog secretes from her nipples before producing milk.
Safety is important during this time. Mother dogs may bite if you ignore her growling and snarling. The more you hang around the whelping area and touch the pups, the more mother dog may feel the need to be aggressive. If you need to weight the puppies each day, you may want to take advantage of when mother dog leaves the pups to potty outside and eat. Have somebody accompany her outside, give her water to drink and distract her with some food. However, many new mothers may go outside just to relieve themselves and will try to immediately come back right inside and may not be interested in food. If children are around, it's best to play it safe and keep mother dog and pups in a room where children cannot have access to.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
Fortunately, the maternal aggressive display tends to fade as the days go by and the pups grow bigger. You can take advantage of this time to teach mother dog that great things happen when you are around the puppies. Every time you enter the room, and come close, feed mother dog high-value treats. You don't need to reach out to her (which she may perceive as an attempt to touch the pups), just toss some treats in her direction. When she appears more accepting of your presence, keeping safety in mind (consult with a behavior professional if you need help), you can try briefly touching a puppy and then feeding mother dog a tasty treat. Repeat several times so mother dog makes the connection between you briefly touching the puppy and her getting a treat. Afterward, you can raise the bar, and touch the puppies for a bit longer and feed mother dog a treat, then lift the puppies briefly and give mother dog a treat. If at any time mother dog growls, you may be going too fast for her comfort and need to take a step back.
Whether mother dog is having a false pregnancy or has maternal aggression after giving birth to pups, spaying will prevent future episodes of maternal aggression. Many breeders agree that should a mother show excessive maternal aggression, she should be removed from the breeding pool and spayed.
Fortunately, maternal aggression is rather short lived. It generally starts to fade a few days after giving birth and is generally gone once the puppies reach 2-3 weeks of age and are more independent.
A Note About Safety
If your mother dog is showing any type of aggressive displays, play it safe and see a vet to rule out medical conditions. Consider consulting with a force-free professional to help you out.
For Further Reading
- Why is my Dog Panting After Giving Birth?
Why do dogs pant after giving birth? There are several possibilities, but it's always best to consult with your veterinarian if something doesn't look right.
- Dog Pregnancy: Complications After Giving Birth
What complications and problems after giving birth are expected in mother dog? Learn signs of abnormal and normal behaviors and some of the most common conditions requiring immediate intervention of your vet.
- How to Dry up a Dog's Milk?
How to dry up a mother's dog milk? After nursing for quite some time, a time comes when the puppies are being weaned and you want to dry up mother dog's milk supply. How to proceed?
- Understanding Dog False Pregnancy Behavior and Signs
What exactly is false pregnancy in dogs and why does it happen? What are the signs of false pregnancy in dogs, and most of all, what is the treatment of false pregnancy in dogs?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
My dog became aggressive after giving birth, and she is not giving milk to her puppies. What can I do?
If the puppies are in danger, you will have to bottle feed them with a puppy milk replacer product.Helpful 19
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