As a trainer specializing in aggressive dogs (now often called “reactive”), I know that owners often contact me as a last resort: the dog has either bitten someone or come very close to it. I can tell you hundreds of stories about owners who have persisted with their dogs, doing everything right in regard to training. I can share hundreds of success stories about dogs who improved and went on to live peacefully without ever biting (or attempting to bite) again.
Iíve managed to lower dogs’ Ė- and owners’ -Ė anxiety as much as 80 percent of the time using behavioral modification techniques developed by the best and brightest behaviorists in the country. As part of training we also reteach new behaviors, all while keeping their emotions under threshold.
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I love my job and feel privileged to work with so many deeply caring humans and so many resilient, willing dogs. There is a huge downside, however. Itís coming to grips with the 10 percent to 20 percent of my clientís dogs who do end up being put down. Sometimes there are no good explanations or even a realistic cure for a tiny percentage of dogs who bite humans or other dogs. Some aggression is labeled ďidiopathic,Ē meaning we donít know the root cause and thus itís hard to find an adequate tool to use that lowers the aggression. And, sometimes, owners give up. I donít blame them when that happens. I know how incredibly difficult life becomes when your dog is a true liability.
Why are we seeing so much aggression in dogs? There are as many forms of canine aggression as there are reasons why so many dogs and their owners face this perplexing issue. It is the No. 1 problem facing dogs and owners today. Itís dangerous for dogs because we arenít a forgiving society when it comes to bites. One bite and the dog could very well be put down, as this recent story about a Beagle biting a young boy demonstrates: Biting is dangerous for humans, too, because dog bites not only hurt, they can turn deadly (itís rare but it happens).
Dogs do warn before they bite, even though we humans are often oblivious to the warning signals. Some signals include: a stiff body, a closed mouth, a hard stare. It may not look to most humans that a dog with its hair up and running at another dog or a person is actually afraid, but itís often the case. Many dogs are guilty of a false bravado and they are, in fact, engaging in a distance-increasing behavior. They feel anxiety caused by a situation and they react. They donít have many ways to express fear but charging and baring teeth at whatever scares them can be an effective way to do that because often the scary thing backs off or even runs away. We humans do not like this choice a canine makes.
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A famous dog trainer said recently that ďa growl is not a warning; itís a gift.Ē She said that because weíre lucky that most dogs do growl to warn us that they are uncomfortable. Humans should take any growl seriously and instead of a knee jerk reaction to punish it, they could take the time to figure out why the dog growled. Both common sense and science tells us that meeting canine aggression with human aggression only increases the aggression in the dog. Punishing a dog for being aggressive is like coming home to find your house on fire and you try to put the fire out with more fire.
There are concrete causes of aggression. Some include a physical complication (thyroid disease or a brain tumor, for example), inherited aggression, or territorial reasons. Based on my 20 years of working with dogs -Ė many of them in shelter settings -Ė I know of another real cause: The mother dog is too often in a highly stressed situation when she has the puppies. Just as human babies born to stressed mothers are often born with emotional or physical concerns, so are puppies. Puppy mills and unscrupulous breeders ensure problems in their puppies by not having calm, unstressed mother dogs. If a breeder wonít let you see the mother dog and how she is kept, run -Ė donít walk -Ė from any puppies from that dog. Buying a puppy from a pet store all but guarantees that your new best friend came from a breeding operation where the calmness of the mother dog is never a consideration.
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We humans also take puppies away too early from their mother and siblings. A six-week old puppy is too young. I donít even think an eight-week old puppy is ready to leave its mother; ten weeks is about perfect, however. Crucial learning from its siblings and the mother dog happen between eight and ten weeks of age, if the mother is healthy and happy. You plan on sharing the next decade or longer with this pet -Ė so isnít it worth your time to investigate how your puppy came into this world? I see so much heartbreak in owners who end up with a dog they canít go anywhere with because the dog is so fearful that it is constantly in defense mode and makes a scene where ever they go. People with this kind of dog usually either get rid of the dog or they start living limited lives. They stop having friends over, they quit walking the dog outside, or they cry all the way to the vet to have the dog euthanized.
The other leading reason I see so many aggressive dogs is lack of training. Only seven percent of dogs ever receive professional training. That means 93 percent of dogs donít get the quality early socialization they so badly need. Dogs need our guidance; they donít arrive in our homes knowing what we expect of them. Set your dog up for success and put a good, positive foundation on the dog when he or she is a puppy. If more owners took their responsibility as dog owners seriously, trainers such as myself would not be booked from sunup to sundown helping owners work through canine aggression. I can promise you that having an aggressive dog is no cakewalk to fix. I wish my services werenít needed and that trainers who do this work werenít required to witness the pain when an owner feels he has no choice but to put a loved dog down because of aggression.
Look closely at yourself first and foremost and decide to be as good of a friend to your dog as he is to you.
Do you have an agressive dog? Have you consulted trainers? Let me know.
Photo supplied by Annie Phenix