Training 911 – Know Your Dog

posted January 25th, 2014 by
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by Mary Green

As a professional dog trainer and dog behavioral counselor, every day I talk with folks who own dogs with aggressive behavior. They are at their wits’ end as to how to deal with the dogs. Questions like, “Is this normal?” or, “Will he grow out of it?” are followed by “If you can’t fix him, I have to get rid of him.”

When we opened K9 Manners & More in 2001, these calls came much less frequently. This leads me to wonder, is dog aggression reaching new heights, or are we following a “zero-tolerance” policy? According to Wikipedia, aggression is usually defined by canine behaviorists as “the intent to do harm.”

Dogs will use aggressive displays such as barking, growling, or air-snapping as distance-increasing signals, intended to get the person or dog to move away. Does this mean that the dog is showing intent to do harm (offense), or do we interpret this as his belief that he is going to be attacked (defense)? Should we be punishing dogs for acting in selfdefense?

When I was about 8 years old, I came home one day sporting a bite (barely a scratch) inflicted by a neighbor dog. I remember my mother’s words quite clearly. When I showed her my wound, mom asked what I had done to provoke the dog.

I’m sure that if this happened today, we would be having a serious conversation with the neighbors about their aggressive dog, and my behavior would not be called into question.

I’m not suggesting that pet owners should be cavalier about their dogs’ aggression. I am suggesting that they learn a bit more about dog behavior in general. For example: arousal and excitement are different from aggression; fight or flight is a biological response; and dogs that bite other dogs do not necessarily go on to bite people.

In a message I received recently, the owner believes her 23-week-old pup has fear aggression. “I can’t take her into public without her trying to bite someone if they try to touch her,” she says. “She is fine unless she is touched or walked toward but only with strangers.”

In our quest to “socialize” pet dogs, are we subjecting them to invasive handling or rude behavior (their perception) by children and adults, and not allowing them to communicate in their language? Or worse, are we punishing them for reacting in a normal dog way?

Good socialization means not overwhelming a pup and pushing her to the point of reacting by biting. At this point, a qualified trainer can help you implement a program of desensitization and counter-condi tioning before the behavior worsens.

When someone tells me that his or her dog is growling at children, my response is sometimes, “Yay! Good dog!” As I stated earlier, growling is a distance-increasing signal. The dog is telling you not to approach.

We don’t need to question their motives; we just need to believe the signal. Many times I have seen dogs that have been punished for growling simply stop growling and go directly to biting.

A recent email read, “My Husky/ German Shepherd mix is very aggressive toward children he doesn’t know. He is fine with adult strangers, but when my kids have friends over he growls and snaps at them, even if the kids aren’t doing anything to taunt him. He’s a sweet dog and I just wish I could break him of this habit.”

First of all, it’s not a habit that can be broken. It’s a clear signal of how he feels about stranger children being in his house. Age and history factor into the prognosis of behavior change. While he may learn to tolerate children being around, and not act aggressively, he likely will not ever be trustworthy with children.

People seem surprised when “out of the blue” their dog bites someone, even though he has given them his clearest communication to keep away.

A friend of mine was comparing her adolescent German Shepherd dog to the Golden Retriever she had in college. The Golden was the perfect dog, loved all people and all dogs. The Shepherd is reserved with strangers and somewhat aggressive toward other dogs.

“I have not raised them any differently,” she said. “I don’t understand it!” I reminded her that different breeds of dogs have different temperaments. We use these temperament traits to determine the dog best suited to the job: the herders, the guardians, the retrievers, etc.

In general terms, temperament refers to the aspects of personality that are innate rather than learned. Behavior, on the other hand, is an action or mannerism in response to the environment, or a result of input or stimuli.

Behavior is to temperament as weather is to climate. In other words, “You pick your vacation destination based on the climate but pack your suitcase based on the weather.”

If you have a dog with aggressive behavior, it’s not the end of the world. Listen to what the dog is saying. Open your eyes to the behavior. Enlist a qualified trainer to help you and be prepared to use a lot of management.

He may not behave like the dog you want, but he is the dog you have. Give him a chance. 

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