Pavlov, the great Russian researcher, struggled with a theory that inhibited dogs had a “weaker” nervous system than normal animals, a concept largely discarded due to later findings that a combined structural chemical interaction determines the balance of the nervous system. Both excitability and inhibition can be heightened or abated by many herbs and synthetic drugs, as well as those extracted from living tissues. The fact that such drugs do not affect all individuals (dogs or people) in the same way supports the belief that the balance among internal neuro-chemicals may be the primary factor influencing the behavioral expression of excitability or inhibition.
The individual body chemistry of animals develops and fluctuates throughout life. Hormonal imbalances produce not only structural and physiologic, but behavioral changes as well. Among the body’s hormone-producing glands and controlling organs, the emotional centers of the brain’s limbic system appear to exert considerable influence. It may be that excitability and inhibition depend to a large degree on what has been called the “brain, pituitary, adrenal, gonadal axis.” Further, not only can drugs influence the balance among these factors, but mild or extreme psychological stress can produce subtle and gross neuro-chemical imbalances.
The fact that seemingly mildly stressful experiences induce these reactions may help explain a good deal of what is generally described as “spontaneous aggression” if we consider yet another nervous system process called facilitation. In this, the nervous processes responsible for defensive behavior, such as a dog’s biting, can be sensitized but not fully activated by mildly threatening stimuli. However, depending on the particular dog’s nervous system makeup, repeated stimulation can push the dog over the brink and into a full-blown “rage avalanche,” wherein up to several minutes of furious behavior are necessary to exhaust the imbalance and restore equilibrium. The dog then often resumes its usual gregarious personality or appear contrite and confused.
In investigating the histories of many aggressive cases, you will find most of the dogs to be excitable or highly excitable types exhibiting a behavior problem for which the owners have applied various degrees and types of punishment. These included finger-in-the-face scolding (a stimulus that can facilitate a snapping response), muzzle-clamping with the hands, shaking by the scruff or jowls, physical take-downs, and mild to severe hitting with the hands or objects such as rolled up newspapers.
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