Aggression in Canines
As a dog trainer who has studied canine behavior for 20+ years, I have mostly specialized in aggression cases in my daily practice. Dog aggression manifests in many different situations: dogs that bite the deliveryman at the door; dogs that snap at the child who tried to move her from the couch; dogs that chase the children playing tag in the back yard and become aggressive trying to control the apparent chaos; and dogs that go up to another dog, stiffen up and out of nowhere attack. In almost every situation we can see two similar components. First (and it may not be easily recognizable), there is a dog that is a bit scared and fearful. He probably has not had enough socialization as a young dog and he may have had an unpleasant “imprint” situation. The other component is that his human companions have unknowingly voted the dog in as the leader. When a dog shows aggression, 7 out of 10 times it’s because the dog has been put into the position of being in charge and being the decision maker. Most dogs instinctively want to be followers, not leaders. A dog who feels he is in charge is one that does not follow behind the owner taking their lead but rather runs in front, greeting strangers at the door or people on the street. This dog feels in charge of the greetings (determines who is friendly or foe). This dog is also in charge of all the interactions in the territory ie, nudging and pawing to be pet, fed or to play ball. He may start barking or even become aggressive when you hug someone. This dog is allowed to claim all space in the territory and to control the access into and around the house. He will sleep by door entrances and in the middle of the rooms and gain the best elevated spots on the couch or top of the stairs.
Many times the dog is allowed and even encouraged to be on elevated positions (the most cherished spots in the house.) To a dog, the more elevated, the more dominant you are. So the child goes to hug the dog elevated on the couch and the child gets a correction bite in the face. These are some of the situations that can really put a damper on the pleasures of owning a dog and which can expose you to potentially serious liability claims.
It is important for you to understand that most of these aggression cases are very predictable and in many cases can be fixed. The first immediate step is to manage the dog so that bites and injuries no longer happen. Initially you may need to use a basket muzzle or keep the dog away from strangers.
The next step is to hire a professional who has a proven track record working with aggressive dogs. This professional will be your coach and help guide you through the process of how to take the dog from being Chairman of the Board down to being a clerk in the mailroom. In most cases, giving the dog to a trainer to fix the problem will rarely solve the problem. Your problem is within the structure of your pack or family. By learning how to follow your lead and take the pressure of interactions off the dog, the dog can start to desensitize to the “fearful situation” they felt in the past. The dog will no longer feel the self-imposed pressure to be “in-charge.” When this happens, a wonderful thing occurs—the dog lets you take over and becomes calmer. At first the dog will feel grumpy over his new role and will not like his demotion. However, once he accepts this new role it is now time to actually build his confidence through counter conditioning. By pairing the fearful situations with good things (treats, play and praise), the dog will start to lose the fear that was the initial cause of the aggressive behaviors. Be careful not to expose the dog too quickly to what he is fearful of (commonly called “flooding” techniques). Take your time and always make sure the dog feels you are in the decision-making process. It is extremely important to know that nothing you or your behaviorist does should scare or hurt your dog. If you are working with someone who instructs you to use fear and intimidation to try to fix the problem, you have the wrong coach. You also don’t need an obedience trainer because lack of obedience is not the cause. You have a relationship problem within your “family”. While obedience can certainly help you control your dog, it does not necessarily tell the dog you are in charge.
With the right kind of program of leadership exercises, desensitizing and counter conditioning, it will be remarkable how much more accepting your dog will become to everyone in your family and your guests. Your dog will be happier, calmer and more confident. He will be healthier and live a longer life. And the very best part is that you and your dog will develop a strong bond and trust with each other that will last a lifetime!