I love what I do. I educate humans in order to help those that cannot speak up for themselves. Being an intermediary, I serve in part as translator between one species and another. You’d think most of my job involves the actual mechanics of training a dog, it doesn’t. The most repetitive part of the job is correcting misinformation and hardened biases that calcify in the minds of humans. It’s human training. Dog Aggression is a tricky subject for many to wrap their heads around.
Clients tell me what challenge they need help with regarding their dog. How they identify the problem greatly informs me, not only about what the issue is but their perception of it. The owner who ends their story with, “but he’s not aggressive” is often attempting to soothe her already insecure feelings about the true nature of the trouble before her.
There’s something about the topic that triggers our fear response. As if a foreign borne virus had threatened to permeate our pristinely delicate society and morph dogs into uncontrollable killing machines.
The words “dog aggression” alone beget a primal need to run for safe grounds and cover our asses. If you’ve managed to salvage your munitions from the devious Obama and his army of gun grabbing fascists then you’ll luckily have a rifle or handgun lying about that you’re fixing to wrap your cold clammy hand around. We Americans are prone to knee-jerk reactions without fully grasping the meaning of a thing.
How freaked out were some during the AIDS crisis of the 80’s? It was as if every gay man had the ability to corrupt your immune system through the act of gazing upon you and infecting you with his gayness. When fear is the trigger most rational thinking goes down the toilet. Funny enough this is typically the scenario that plays out in dog aggression cases.
How much like a human to find fault with others afflictions when his innards are swarming with the same decaying infestation. As the J-man himself put it, “don’t be chucking stones at others if your own shit is out of whack”, or something to that effect.
Here’s another laughable irony. We fear aggression in dogs when ours is a highly violent and aggressive society.
Hell, if we didn’t invent violence we certainly innovated on it and made it our own. It’s in our history and it’s how we’ve lived and progressed and become what we all know and love. Killing and meeting dissidence with aggression is as much part of our culture as is ingesting a quadrillion grams of sodium at the Micky D’s and calling it a night.
We love violence. Can’t get enough of it. Our video games are violent. Our sports are violent. Violence is normalized in our society. Occasionally, too occasionally for my taste, someone goes off the deep-end and plummets into a murderous spree. Yet tolerance barometer barely moves and so it happens again. But dogs being aggressive, now that’s a problem that needs to be addressed immediately lest it leads to a cataclysmic disaster for all humans.
Interpreting truth from myths is necessary when dealing with a topic as disquieting as dog aggression.
When you buy into any idea or interpretation lock, stock, and barrel without examination into its validity you essentially accept it as blind truth and live that truth; no matter how ill informed it may be.
What is Dog Aggression?
Let’s focus on aggression as being expressed through barking, growling, lunging, snarling, air snapping, showing teeth (along with a growl), or a combination of all of these. Some trainers and behaviorist will say that a dog is not aggressive until he or she actually makes contact with skin and bites. I disagree.
A dog doesn’t need to progress to a full blown bite or attack for clear displays of aggressive intent and warnings to be present. When would you consider the point at which a person is aggressing towards you? When they’re hurling threats and waving their fists, or when they’ve punched you in the face? I’d say the fist waving and threats are aggressive actions.
Putting it all in Perspective
Dogs have trouble thinking contextually. They form an association and hold firmly to it.
Lacking that ability to consider the variances between one thing versus another means a dog can have a negative experience with one dog and superimpose that association to every dog he continues to see.
We have no such excuse. Humans possess the ability to place people, environments, and situations into their proper contexts.
Context is everything. Without appropriate consideration to the context in which a dog displays aggressive-like behavior we’re not able to accurately diagnose and analyze what’s going on. Without contextual thinking we generalize behaviors we observe in a dog. This only blurs and confuses our understanding. Taking in the whole picture is vital. A panoramic view of the situation is needed.
What’s the takeaway? Think critically, not reactively. Place the behavior in its proper context.
P.S. I considered adding links to online articles and statistics as a means of providing references and backing up an opinion. What I discovered is an amazing amount of discrepancies and inconsistencies. Lists of breeds that have behaved the most aggressively vary greatly. And I mean GREATLY. Statistics are skewed and often spun to represent and validate the author’s individual biases. For every article I found in support of an argument I would find another against it.
I concluded that these statistics should not be taken at face value. Therefore the real benefits to the numbers only come when you place those findings under a critical microscope. For those reasons I leave it up to the reader to conduct his or her own research. I don’t care that you do or do not believe what I write on the topic.
What’s most important is that you arrive at a deeper understanding through your own process of research, experience, and critical thinking on the subject and not some hard and fast impression you cling to despite all the evidence to the contrary. That would be plain ignorant.
Having said that, I have provided links to a few articles that I think you’ll benefit from.
Here are 10 BS Dog Aggression Facts many people buy into
1. Dominance creates aggression
Dominance isn’t a thing so let’s get over this. At least it’s not a thing in the way you think it is.
The theory is that, with machiavellian ambitions, a dog’s primary intent is establishing a foothold in your life so that he or she can climb a hierarchical ladder and prove him or herself top dog, literally. It’s meant to sound as ridiculous as that.
Those who buy into this idea have convinced themselves that a dog’s deep-seated aspirations will drive it to make numerous attempts at usurping your power and authority. Hide your wife, hide your kids.
People who assume dominance are distressingly misguided. It doesn’t lead to dog aggression because it just isn’t a thing. At least not in the way you think it is.
Hear what Alexandra Horowitz has to say about this. Yeah, I agree with her.
2. Aggression is random
Strong emotions are never random. They’re not accidental and nor are they arbitrary actions. They always stem from somewhere and the expression of these emotions are based on specific triggers. When we fail to understand this concept we embody the dog with sinister intent.
A human can deviously plot your demise while simultaneously telling you how much he loves you. This doesn’t happen with dogs. Dogs are incapable of lying.
Humans can also hold on to anger for an extended period of time, years even. That anger festers and manifest in an aggressive and violent display weeks or decades down the road. Dogs largely react in the moment. Dog aggression at its core is a conditioned response based on a negative association. There are no conspiratorial machinations in the dogs head and no premeditated thoughts. There’s always a specific reason for the behavior.
In fact, if you know your dog and can read his body language his behavior, including aggression, is anything but random – it becomes highly predictable.
One common phrase I hear from owners who call me when a bite occurs is the now ubiquitous, “It came out of nowhere”. That’s some BS right there. It never comes out of nowhere.
Dog aggression is never random. In fact, if you know what you’re looking for you’ll see a noticeable progression.
3. Once aggressive, always aggressive
Aggressive behaviors generally stop when the trigger is removed. That’s because the dog’s emotional and mental frame of mind shifts once the fear stimulus is no longer within proximity. Context is everything. A dog that reacts aggressively in one context will often be highly social, friendly, and approachable in another.
While it’s possible that a dog may redirect his aggression from one source to another this is almost always a result of overwhelming stress and an enormous surge of adrenaline and not one that is looking to take out his frustration on someone else. Unlike humans, dogs aren’t vindictive in their aggression.
The point is that if aggression rears it’s head in one situation it doesn’t mean that it will do so in another. Because dogs link their behavior to specific triggers, in many cases, it’s possible to manipulate access to those triggers in such a way as to minimize the aggressive outburst or even end it entirely.
One aggressive, always aggressive is more likely true of your pissy gaseous uncle than it is of dogs.
4. Obedience training will solve dog aggression issues
Humans dealing with a dog’s aggressive behavior can in many instances feel they are lacking the ability to control the dog. In this case, achieving a higher level of obedience can provide the handler much needed manageability and a boost in confidence. From the dogs perspective, a stronger insistence on obedience can impress him of your authority and the need to look at you for directions.
Think of military bootcamp for humans and you’ll see that it’s not much different. Establishment of rules, repetitive drills of those rules, consequences if said rules are not followed, an adherence to the rules as a standard of living, all add up to a dog (and human) that lives a highly structured life with specified guidelines.
Obedience training can certainly help establish a clear leader and give that leader a much needed boost of confidence over an otherwise unruly or out-of-control dog. However, it will not be a cure for aggression. While it may help minimize the effect of the original trigger on the dog’s mind, and thus his choices, this is not always the case.
A dog whose initial fear/stress reaction is so deeply ingrained isn’t going to automatically and willfully give up on that fearful Pavlovian response simply because of obedience training. It can certainly help, but it’s not a guaranteed cure.
5. Neutering your dog will stop the aggression
This one can vary depending on which veterinarian you ask but there is no correlation between neutering and decreased aggressive tendencies in dogs. The consensus appears to be that neutering will not necessarily prevent dog aggression since dogs chose to aggress for a variety of reasons. There’s also no valid argument which clearly show that these incidents are related to a surge of testosterone. A dog’s environment, human handlers, training level, unique behaviors, emotional patterns, and temperment all largely determine if aggression will present itself at some point.
6. It’s best to punish a growling dog in order to prevent aggression
A growl is a warning. A heads up that says, “I’m about to bite your ass”. Why would you want to turn off the the warning sirens when it may be the only notice you’re potentially going to get?
Punishing the growling is only going to make the dog turn the alarm off. It won’t hold back the tidal wave of fear, frustration, anxiety, and stress that forecast a bite.
I like warnings. Growls tell me when I’m making the dog uncomfortable. Growls prevent mad rushes to the emergency room. Don’t punish the growl. Besides, there are other stupid ways we create dog aggression.
This video explains this point clearly.
7. Once a dog bites he will continue to do so
This is the same argument as “once aggressive, always aggressive”, but since humans like to rephrase and milk a controversy when they don’t find satisfaction in an answer, I’ll respond to this in the same way.
A dog displays aggressive behavior towards a specific trigger. They don’t generalize and take out their pissy attitude on everyone and everything around them. People do that. With many dogs it’s as simple as removing the trigger and you get rid of the aggression. With other dogs the fear/stress/anxiety/insecurity that brings forth the aggression may be such an integral part of their being that ridding the dog of aggression is not so simple.
8. Aggressive dogs are born that way
It is true that a dog can be born with a predisposition towards assertive and aggressive behaviors, the vast majority are not. These extremely rare dogs begin displaying this predilection often in early puppyhood. Dogs that are born with this temperament may suffer from a mentally defect. Aggression, in their case, isn’t brought on by a specific trigger or stress level. It’s just that the dog feels that the best way to navigate through life is with aggression. In layman’s terms, they have a screw loose.
A young pup showing signs of dog aggression is typically weaned out of the system early. A healthy dog, and most all are, do not feel the need to express themselves in an aggressive or overly assertive manner.
The average dog, regardless of his or her current baggage, isn’t born aggressive. On the contrary, aggression is something that we humans can teach as is evident by many of the bad habits we teach our dogs.
9. Only certain breeds are aggressive
Those buying into this BS idea are victims of the mass hysteria brought on by negative stereotyping of specific breeds. These days it’s Pitbulls, or any dog that resembles a Pitbull. In truth, most people (trainers included) don’t have a f*#$ing clue as to what a Pitbull really is. There’s a danger in believing what you hear and read without critical analysis.
This is possibly the most prevailing of all BS fallacies. Every dog, regardless of breed, has the potential for aggression. The dog you think is the most likely to “turn” aggressive, may not. The opposite is also true. The dog considered to be the ideal family friendly kind might be the most prone to bite.
Again, there are so many ways to twist the statistics on this. The variables play a major role in understanding the reasons behind the numbers. But it’s clear that dog aggression is not a product of breed design.
This video speaks on this myth.
10. Puppy nipping is a sign of aggression
Nipping is a natural behavior in young dogs. Teeth on skin as a result of playfulness, high energy, or over-excitement is a far cry from a dog whose intent is to harm you. A hardcore playing puppy needs to be taught differently. Teeth on skin shouldn’t be acceptable. Try playing tug. And no, it won’t make create dog aggression.