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The Hidden Multifaceted Systems Impacting Aggression in Dogs

Updated: May 25

In a thought-provoking course The Forensics of Aggression, Jim Crosby, PhD., imparts valuable insights into dog bite incidents from a single bite through to catastrophic bites leading to death. The course is offered through the IAABC for Professional Dog Behaviourist Consultants and Trainers. One of the most intriguing aspects is the revelation that Level 6 biter (Dunbar’s scale) are triggered through provocation, and Crosby's teachings offer a compelling dog's perspective on this matter. The course work is riddled with fascinating experiences, both spoken and through videos, from Crosby’s career. It provides participants with a comprehensive set of scientific facts, methods and techniques to absorb.

Shedding light on my work with Level 5 biters, and our specialisation in trauma and rescued dogs, aggression and biting is a common case in our practise. Our practice is built on Systems Thinking, and it was so it was satisfying to hear from this highly experienced expert on the hidden, multifaceted systems impacting aggression cases in dogs. Crosby’s first session tapped into the connection between the level of safety the dog feels and the activation of behaviour. This concept is reflected in the Polyvagal Theory developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. A regular question in our practice is, “does/did the dog feel safe?” - a subjective question to be sure, but it opens up hypotheticals on the capabilities of the caregiver and their relevant belief systems. It is not a common question by trainers … yet. The Polyvagal Theory is likely to become more pronounce in the dog behaviour field as it gains popularity. In our practice, the Polyvagal Theory’s principles support our advanced education course, allowing caregivers to go beyond the basics. It teaches them to optimise their observations of dog signals, connecting them to what is likely happening in the brain and body. The capability scaffolds to learn three pathways to reduce or minimise the heighten emotions driving aggressive behaviour, while maintaining a trusted relationship.

The teachings found in “The Forensics of Aggression” align seamlessly with our comprehensive Canine System Strategy, delivering analysis of all systems impacting aggression cases in dogs. In part, our strategy considers 80 factors across a dog's 8 primary systems. As many of our cases come from failed attempts to change behaviour, our need to dig deeper and further with scientific rigour is essential and why we achieve our exceptional 98% success rate, year over year.

Crosby's enlightening lectures highlight the importance of thoroughly investigating the influential factors behind serious dog bites. His approach demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of the complexities involved, showcasing his expertise as one of the world's top dog bite experts. While not explicitly labeled as "systems thinking," his rigorous approach aligns with the principles of systems-based thinking and systems impacting aggression cases in dogs.

The course sought to impart on the students, dealing with aggression, can be challenging for both dog caregivers and professionals. These complex problems often require a comprehensive understanding of the underlying dynamics at play.

To shed light on this subject, we can turn to the Bathtub Analogy—a powerful metaphor from systems thinking. By exploring this analogy, we can gain valuable insights into the factors that contribute to persistent behaviour issues in dogs in general and including aggression, and how to address them effectively.

The Bathtub Analogy:

Imagine a bathtub filled with water. The water level represents the dog's behaviour, and the bathtub itself represents the system surrounding the dog. In this analogy, the water level represents the intensity or manifestation of the dog's behaviour, such as aggression. When we observe aggression, it's like the water level in the bathtub remaining high, despite our efforts to reduce it.

Water Inflow: Triggers and Influences

Just as the water level in the bathtub can rise due to various factors, aggression and persistent behaviour problems in dogs can be influenced by multiple triggers. These triggers can include genetics, past experiences, environment, socialization, and more. Each factor adds to the inflow of water into the bathtub, gradually increasing the water level. Understanding these triggers is crucial in identifying the root causes of the dog's behaviour issues.

Water Outflow: Interventions and Strategies

To address aggression and persistent behaviour problems, we need to focus on managing the outflow of water from the bathtub—the interventions and strategies we implement. These interventions aim to reduce the water level and bring the dog's behaviour under control. They may include human caregivers edification and building capabilities to identify and support traumatized dogs, positive reinforcement training, behaviour modification techniques, environmental adjustments, socialisation exercises, and more. By carefully evaluating and implementing appropriate interventions, we can gradually reduce the water level and address the persistent behaviour issues.

Feedback Loops and System Dynamics:

In the Bathtub Analogy, feedback loops play a vital role in the water level's stability. Just as feedback loops influence the water level in the bathtub, there are feedback loops within the dog's behaviour system, including their human’s lifestyle, beliefs, and approaches to care. Positive feedback loops can amplify the dog's undesirable behaviour, leading to an escalation of the problem. Negative feedback loops, on the other hand, can help stabilize the behaviour by countering and reducing the unwanted responses. Understanding these feedback loops and their impact is essential in designing effective interventions for aggression and breaking the cycle of persistent behaviour problems.

The Holistic Approach to Aggression:

In the “The Forensics of Aggression” course, Crosby reminds of the larger interconnected system to gain a deeper understanding of the underlying causes and dynamics that contribute to aggression. The Bathtub Analogy helps to view his approach, and is a reminder of the importance of adopting a systems thinking mindset when addressing persistent dog behaviour issues. In our practice, Systems Thinking involves considering the dog's behaviour as part of a larger interconnected system that includes genetics, environment, social dynamics, past experiences, and more, allowing us to see complex dynamics at play. This comprehensive perspective allows us to develop targeted strategies and interventions that address the root causes rather than merely addressing the immediate aggression event. Understanding the triggers, interventions, feedback loops, and the holistic nature of the dog's behaviour system empowers us to develop effective strategies that help reduce persistent behaviour problems and create a harmonious and balanced relationship with our canine companions.

As Systems Thinking is a cornerstone in our practice’s approach, let’s illustrate this concept, by exploring the Canine System Strategy we have developed. This strategy involves evaluating 80 factors across eight primary systems within a dog's overall system. By considering these factors, we gain a holistic understanding of a dog's behaviours and can tailor our interventions accordingly, ensuring a comprehensive and effective approach.

System Level 1 - Internal System

The first primary system in our Canine System Strategy is the dog’s “Internal System”, which delves into the intricate workings of a dog's physical health and development. It encompasses the dog's physical health, including its cells, nervous system, organs, and genes, plus development. Within this system, we consider various factors that contribute to a dog's behaviour.

The health and functioning of their cells, provides the foundation for all bodily processes. The nervous system, consisting of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, plays a vital role in processing information and coordinating responses. A well-functioning nervous system contributes to balanced behaviour and emotional regulation. The organs within a dog's body, such as the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys, play essential roles in maintaining overall health and vitality. Each organ system has its own set of functions that contribute to the dog's overall well-being and can have implications for their behaviour. Genes also play a significant role in shaping a dog's behaviour. Genetic predispositions can influence temperament, disposition, and certain behavioural tendencies. Understanding the genetic makeup of a dog can provide valuable insights into their behaviour and potential challenges they may face.

It is important to recognize that these elements within the dog's internal system are transactional in nature. They interact with one another, shaping and influencing behaviour in complex ways. By considering the dog's internal system within our Canine System Strategy, we gain a comprehensive understanding of the biological foundations of behaviour, allowing us to provide tailored interventions and support for dogs in need. The internal systems helps us to understand the things the dog may not be able to change in their behaviour, and areas, with nurture and attention, can be recovered and even thrive.

System Level 2 - The Individual

The second system is that of “The Individual”, the character traits, preferences, experiences, cognition, emotions and learned skills. The Individual System creates transactional connections to activate behaviours. Within this system, we delve into various aspects that contribute to a dog's behaviour, such as what encompasses their innate qualities and tendencies, shaping their responses to different situations. Additionally, their preferences play a role in influencing their behaviour, as certain stimuli or activities may elicit specific responses. Experiences such as past encounters, abuse, neglect, abandonment, poor social interactions, and exposure to violence all leave imprints on a dog's behaviour. Positive experiences may reinforce certain behaviours, while negative experiences can lead to fear, anxiety, or other behavioural responses. Cognition, meaning how the dog processes information, provides how they perceive and navigate their environment and influence their behaviour in various contexts. This is a key point in Crosby’s discourse, about the perception of a threat and an appropriate response of a dog is based on their perception, formulated by many factors including memories. He states the (individual) dog is a complex emotional being who feels joy, fear, frustration, and contentment, to name a few, and that these emotions can influence their behaviour and responses to stimuli. Understanding a dog's emotional state through their body signals is heavily emphasised as critical in remaining safe and interpreting their behaviour accurately.

System Level 3 - The Environment

The third system we encounter is the environmental system, which captures all the factors that influence a dog's well-being and satisfaction of its needs. This system includes aspects such as the dog's living environment, access to resources, and exposure to various stimuli. Understanding and addressing these environmental factors is essential in promoting positive behaviour outcomes.

System Level 4 - The Dog’s Family

The family unit system represents the fourth primary system within our strategy. Recognizing the unique culture, beliefs, ways of learning and dynamics of a family is key to understanding the transactional occurrences that shape a dog's behaviour. This system level emphasizes the vital role that human-dog interactions, relationships and the family environment that play in behaviour activation and is critical in resolving persistent behaviour issues using a holistic approach to promote the well-being and harmonious integration of the dog within the family unit.

System Level 5 - The Service Systems

The services system is another important primary system, and our fifth system. This system encompasses the various professional services that support a dog's health and well-being, including veterinary care, grooming, training, and other specialized interventions. This system comprises a range of professional services that contribute to the overall care and development of the dog. When it comes to the services approach, each professional service provider has their own unique methodologies, techniques, and philosophies. One significant aspect to consider is that many of these services are experienced by the dog without the caregiver present to witness the interactions and can influence their behaviour.

Interestingly, the interconnection and interdependency of the services system with a dog's behaviour may not be immediately apparent. For example, the quality of veterinary care can impact the dog's overall health, which in turn can affect their behaviour and emotional well-being. If a dog is experiencing pain, discomfort, or untreated health issues, it may manifest in undesirable behaviours such as aggression or anxiety. Similarly, grooming experiences that are stressful or negative can contribute to fear or aversion behaviours in the dog. Recognizing the interdependency between these services and a dog's behaviour is essential and receives careful consideration within our Canine System Strategy.

System Level 6 - Neighbourhood | Society

Expanding further, we encounter the sixth system, the neighbourhood or society system. This system incorporates the larger social environment in which a dog resides, encompassing factors such as community norms, bylaws, and interactions with other pet owners. Understanding the impact of this system helps us recognize the broader influences on a dog's behaviour. The neighbourhood and society system holds significant influence over the behaviour of an adopted traumatised dog. While it may seem distant from the immediate environment of the dog and their adoptive family, it plays a crucial role in shaping the dog's behaviour through its transactional and cascading effects. Negative encounters, such as confrontations with aggressive or unrestrained dogs, loud noises, or unfamiliar stimuli, can trigger fear and anxiety in the traumatised dog. These experiences can further reinforce existing traumas or create new ones, leading to heightened stress and potentially problematic behaviours. Additionally, societal factors within the broader community also contribute to the dog's behaviour. Bylaws and regulations pertaining to pet ownership, leash laws, and noise restrictions can directly affect the dog's daily life. For example, a dog living in a condominium with strict regulations may experience limited opportunities for exercise, socialization, or mental stimulation, potentially leading to frustration or behavioural issues.

Moreover, the attitudes and perceptions of neighbours and society towards dogs, particularly rescued or traumatised ones, can impact the dog's behaviour. Negative biases or prejudices can create an unwelcoming environment for the dog and their adoptive family. Instances of discrimination or conflicts between neighbours due to the dog's fearful or reactive behaviour can further exacerbate the human and dog’s trust development, and the anxieties of both beings. It simply complicates their journey towards healing and integration. The cascading effect of the neighbourhood and society system becomes evident as these external factors intersect with the dog's individual characteristics and their adoptive family's efforts. The dog's behaviour within the neighbourhood can also impact the perception of other residents, potentially reinforcing stereotypes or stigmas surrounding rescued or traumatised dogs.Our Canine System Strategy recognises this level as a distinct system that is crucial in understanding the complexities of a dog's behaviour and the challenges faced in their healing process.

System Level 7 - Environment | Ecology

In the realm of forensics of aggression, understanding the larger environment and ecology systems becomes crucial in uncovering the complexities of a dog's behaviour. The Canine System Strategy recognizes this as the seventh primary system, acknowledging the interconnectedness of the dog's behaviour with its ecological surroundings.

These systems include factors such as pollution, toxins, and the intricate relationships between organisms and their physical surroundings. Pollution and toxins present in the environment can have profound effects on a dog's behaviour and overall well-being. Exposure to harmful substances, whether through air pollution, water contamination, or toxic substances in their living environment, can lead to physical discomfort, health issues, and even neurological disturbances. Such disturbances may manifest as changes in the dog's behaviour, including increased irritability, anxiety, or aggressive responses.

The relationships between organisms and their physical surroundings, or the ecological dynamics, also play a role in shaping a dog's behaviour. For example, the presence of other wildlife, such as aggressive or territorial animals, can trigger defensive behaviours in the dog. The Canine System Strategy emphasizes the importance of considering these ecological factors in cases of traumatized dogs and persistent behaviour issues which have failed to be resolved. By utilizing our strategy as a holistic approach, we are able to better support dogs and their adoptive families by identifying and addressing the underlying factors contributing to persistent problematic and aggressive behaviours, leading to more effective and targeted intervention strategies.

Crosby course outlines the importance in forensic (meaning legal) analysis of aggression involves delving into the dog's history, experiences, and environmental context to piece together the puzzle of their behaviour. By integrating the larger environment and ecology systems into the assessment, professionals can identify additional stressors or contributing factors that may be influencing the dog's aggressive responses.

System Level 8 - The Earth

One cannot discuss systems without acknowledging the planet Earth as the ultimate interconnected system that encompasses all other systems right back to the System 1 - the dog’s internal systems. Earth functions as a complex web of interconnectivity and interdependencies, and its influence on a traumatised dog's behaviour cannot be overlooked. Earth’s climate patterns, natural resources, and the delicate balance of ecosystems, have a direct impact on the dog's well-being and behaviour.

For instance, changes in the global climate can affect the dog's environment, leading to alterations in temperature, weather patterns, and availability of resources. These changes can disrupt the dog's routine, trigger stress responses, and potentially influence their behaviour. Moreover, the planet's systems are interconnected with social and cultural systems. Environmental conservation efforts, sustainability practices, and societal attitudes towards nature and animals can shape the overall treatment of dogs and impact their behaviour. For instance, if society values and promotes responsible pet ownership, advocates for animal welfare, and emphasizes ecological consciousness, it can create an environment that supports the rehabilitation and well-being of traumatised dogs. Conversely, neglect or disregard for the planet's ecosystems and biodiversity can contribute to a less conducive environment for dogs, hindering their healing process and potentially exacerbating their traumas.

As a vast and intricate system, System Level 8 ensures that interconnectivity between ecological, social, and cultural components are noted and not overlooked. Understanding the interdependencies and interconnectivity of these systems is crucial in comprehending the factors that influence a traumatised dog's behaviour. By recognizing the impact of Earth as a whole system and set of systems surrounding a dog’s behaviour, we can strive to create a harmonious and sustainable environment that promotes the well-being and rehabilitation of dogs, providing them with the necessary support for their healing journey.

The exploration of the eight primary system levels and the over 80 factors that contribute to a traumatised dog's behaviour sheds light on why many solutions fail to address the root causes effectively. Superficial approaches that focus solely on symptoms or immediate behaviour modification often overlook the intricate web of interconnected systems at play. To truly understand and address a traumatised dog's behaviour, a deeper investigation and comprehensive root cause analysis are necessary.

Inadequacy of Surface-Level Behaviours

Crosby's work with aggression events highlights the inadequacy of merely looking at the surface-level manifestation of a bite. There are numerous underlying factors and quantifiable reasons that can provoke or contribute to aggressive behaviours. It could stem from the dog's past experiences, the presence of trauma, inadequate socialization, or even the actions of an irresponsible or inexperienced owner. By delving deeper and analyzing these factors, a more accurate understanding of the dog's behaviour can be obtained, allowing for tailored and effective intervention strategies.

In order to provide effective solutions for traumatised dogs, our Canine Systems Strategy moves beyond quick fixes as an imperative. It addresses the complex web of factors influencing their behaviour. This requires a holistic approach, and dare I say, a systems-thinking approach, that considers the interconnectedness, and transactional nature of the dog's biological systems, individual traits, family dynamics, environment, services utilized, societal influences, ecological factors, and the broader context of their experiences. By recognizing the complexity of these interrelated systems and the quantifiable reasons behind a dog's behaviour, we can overcome the limitations of superficial solutions and provide more meaningful and lasting support. Crosby's work with aggression events serves as a testament to the necessity of a comprehensive approach that goes beyond face-value assessments, enabling us to address the underlying causes and facilitate genuine change in traumatised dogs.

Protection Motivation Theory and System Archetypes

In exploring the fascinating field of forensics of dog aggression and the quest for effective solutions, our practice find valuable insights in systems archetypes, a concept developed by Jay Forrester of MIT fame in the 1960s and 70s. These archetypes provide a lens through which we can better understand the interconnected dynamics at play in aggressive behaviours exhibited by dogs. By examining these archetypes in relation to Crosby's course on: “The Forensics of Aggression," one can gain a deeper appreciation for the complexities involved in addressing and mitigating aggression in our canine companions.

One theory that aligns well with the systems archetypes is Protection Motivation Theory (Rogers, 1975). This theory suggests that individuals assess risks based on factors like the severity of the threat, vulnerability to the threat, response efficacy (the effectiveness of protective measures), and self-efficacy (confidence in one's ability to execute protective actions). When we apply this theory to the context of dog aggression, we can see how highly perceived threats combined with the caregiver’s low perceived efficacy can lead one to employ maladaptive (poorly thought-out) coping strategies, such as avoidance or denial of educational messaging or compliance requirements regarding aggression.

Drawing upon the insights from systems archetypes and the Protection Motivation Theory, we can now delve into the specific system archetypes and their implications in understanding and resolving aggressive behaviours in dogs. Each archetype provides a unique perspective on the challenges faced by caregivers and the potential pitfalls that can hinder progress. By exploring these archetypes in depth, we can develop a comprehensive understanding of the intricacies involved in addressing aggression and pave the way for more effective interventions and strategies. These archetypes provide us with powerful insights into the interconnected nature of the systems at play and help us understand why certain solutions fail to effectively resolve aggression cases.

The first archetype, “Shifting the Burden”, highlights a common pattern where caregivers rely on temporary or symptomatic solutions to manage aggression, such as muzzles or physical restraints. While these measures may provide short-term safety, they do not address the root causes of aggression. As a result, the reliance on these quick fixes can exacerbate the problem, leading to recurring or escalating aggression episodes.

The second archetype, “Fixes that Fail”, sheds light on situations where interventions initially appear successful in managing aggression but ultimately fail to provide long-term resolution. This can occur when caregivers focus on surface-level solutions or quick fixes, like aversive, without addressing the underlying issues. Without addressing the root causes, the aggression persists or resurfaces in different forms, necessitating a more comprehensive and sustainable approach.

The “Balancing Feedback Loop”, the third archetype, is pivotal in addressing aggressive behaviours. It recognizes that the existing systems surrounding the dog are perpetuating the unwanted behaviours. Caregivers often encounter challenges when trying to eliminate problem behaviours, and the feedback loop reveals that their current approach is ineffective.

The fourth archetype is the ‘Reinforcing Feedback Loop”. This demonstrates how certain responses to the behaviour can unintentionally reinforce and even escalate aggressive behaviours. This feedback loop perpetuates a cycle of aggression, making it challenging to break free without addressing the underlying causes. Caregivers may unknowingly contribute to this loop by inadvertently reinforcing and inadvertently rewarding aggressive displays. For example, responding to aggression with punishment or aggression of their own may unintentionally reinforce the dog's aggressive tendencies.

The fifth archetype is called, “Limits to Growth”. This archetype manifests when caregivers encounter challenges or limitations in their attempts to address aggressive behaviours in dogs. It may involve reaching a point where the effectiveness of existing interventions diminishes, requiring a reassessment or exploration of alternative approaches to further progress.

The sixth archetype is called, “Tragedy of the Commons”. In the context of caregiver interventions for aggressive behaviours, this archetype reflects a situation where shared knowledge or resources are misused or ineffective due to individual caregiver actions or lack of collaboration. This is a major implication to the caregiver who does not take accountability to develop a team to support a dog with a persistent set of problematic behaviours. Or a trainer or behaviourist who takes on an aggression case that is too much for them. This is something Crosby mentions repeatedly in his course, “Aggressions cases do not make you a better trainer or behaviourist. If you are not comfortable, don’t do it”. This also applies to the Veterinarian who refuses to prescribe any and all psychoactive medication to support a dog’s behaviour modification strategy. Or, a dog walker who uses an aversive method to walk a dog without acknowledging, or lying to the caregiver. The sixth archetype emphasizes the importance of a collective effort among caregivers, trainers, and professionals to address aggression holistically and share effective strategies.

The seventh archetype is “Eroding Goals”. This archetype represents a scenario where caregivers' initial goals of resolving aggressive behaviours gradually diminish over time due to compromises, frustration, or a lack of consistent effort. It highlights the need for caregivers to maintain focus, persistence, and alignment with long-term goals despite challenges encountered along the way.

The eighth archetype is “Success to the Successful”. This archetype sheds light on a common scenario where one family member uses intimidation tactics towards a dog, resulting in the dog appearing ‘obedient’, or subdued and compliant in their presence. However, when this intimidating family member is not around, other family member experiences displacement behaviours, including aggression. This dynamic creates a perplexing situation where the aggressive behaviour of one family member seems to achieve immediate compliance from the dog, but it fails to address the underlying fear and anxiety, and lack of coping abilities that the dog experiences when that family member is absent. The success achieved by the intimidating family member in controlling the dog's behaviour masks the deeper emotional turmoil the dog faces, leading to a fragmented understanding of the dog's true state of well-being within the family unit. This archetype highlights the need for a comprehensive approach that considers the dog's emotional needs and fosters a sense of safety and trust within the entire family, rather than relying on dysfunctional relationship of intimidation as a means of control.

By recognizing and understanding these system archetypes, we gain a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependencies within the systems involved in aggression cases. This knowledge allows us to move beyond superficial solutions and embrace a more holistic and comprehensive approach. It encourages us to delve into the underlying causes of aggression, address the reinforcing feedback loops, and seek sustainable interventions that promote lasting behaviour change. Only through a systems-oriented perspective can we unravel the complexities of aggression and forge a path towards successful resolution.


In conclusion, the study of dog behaviour and aggression necessitates a multi-dimensional approach that considers various systems and their interplay. Crosby's course on "The Forensics of Aggression" provides invaluable insights into this complex field, urging professionals and caregivers alike to look beyond simplistic explanations. By examining the individual dog, the complex dynamics, the owner's role, and the influence of the environment and society, a holistic understanding of aggressive behaviour emerges.

Crosby's course emphasizes the significance of delving into a dog's history, early experiences, and trauma and more to unravel the root causes of aggression. This approach encourages empathy and compassion towards dogs with behavioural issues, recognizing that their aggression may often stem from their own perception of safety. By addressing the underlying causes, professionals can develop more effective treatment plans and behaviour modification strategies that are tailored to the individual dog's needs.

Please visit our website and sign-up for email notifications on our upcoming blogs and events, and receive a free downloadable infographic tool with questions to ask for each System Archetype.

About Author: Sparky Smith is a certified Strategy & Systems Thinker, with decades of experience in understanding complex problems and solutions to the world's toughest problems. She is a Canine Psychologist (MCMA), a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant (IAABC - CDBC), a Dog Behaviour Practitioner (ISCP.Dip.Canine.Prac.), a human change expert and thought-leader with hundreds of thousand successful behaviour changes over her career.

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