It happened so fast that my 9 year old brain didn’t register the bite. That is, until the blood oozing from my wrist dripped onto the wooden floor and the gasp of the other kids echoed off the walls.
The Doberman was fast and I was lucky. I was lucky that he didn’t have the desire to do serious harm. He only went for my wrist, although my face was but inches from his. Personal space wasn’t something I had much respect for at 9. He could have done much worse.
The dog was simply reacting, as anyone would, to having a gang full of screaming and overexcited kids corner him in a dark, and echoey hall of a tenement-like building. In our overzealousness we tried to get the dog to take bread from our hands. And by “tried” I mean we practically forced the bread into his mouth. I have no idea where the bread came from.
Not one of us had a dog at home so the Doberman was a happy surprise that pulled us out of our everyday boredom. Shit, we were drunk with joy. A dog to play with and do as we pleased.
And to top it all off, no adult supervision. The adults were all inside while me and my rowdy friends lured the skittish stray Doberman through the front door of the building. That was our plan. Once inside we box him in with our bodies thus preventing him from running back out and getting away. We thought we were slick.
We could have benefited greatly from the intervention of an experienced dog trainer. He could have warned us. Not that we would have listened. Adults had no credibility if you were a kid growing up in New York City in the 70’s.
But should we have listened we might have understood that we were treading on dangerous grounds. He would have told us that the dog’s body language conveyed insecurity, confusion, and fear. That he only took food because he was hungry, having possibly wandered the streets scavenging for a meal. That by cornering him in the hall we were intensifying his fear. That by surrounding him we were placing him into fight or flight mode. And that by closing in on him without allowing him a means of escape we were giving him only one option. A dangerous option.
It was a different place and time. The encounter didn’t scare me off of dogs. I grew up with a deeper level of respect and appreciation then I may have had otherwise. But I still bare the mark on my wrist. Like a talisman that has brought me good fortune with dogs yet forces me to never forget.
Now what if I told you that my experience wasn’t unique? That very similar scenarios like this play out every day in countless households throughout the country? Well, it’s true. Not in the same context but the ingredients are similar and they’re all placed into the same stewing pot. Rearrange the details and you have a template for the formation of aggression in dogs.
The recipe would look something like this (aggression time varies with each individual dog):
1. Take a fearful, nervous, insecure, anxious, strung-out, sensitive, tired dog.
2. Place in stressful surroundings or in an environment brimming with tension. Allow stress and pressure to increase.
3. Make sure to remove dogs abilities to safely get away from stressful surroundings. Ignore all visible warning signs. Turn a blind eye to pacing, growling, tucked ears, bulging eyes, etc. Ignoring helps with future deniability.
4. For added effect tease, annoy, provoke, and frustrate dog until aggression becomes nearly inevitable.
5. When dog finally reacts, be certain to act surprised. It helps to deem dog aggressive and use statements such as, “I don’t know how that happened”, or “The bite came out of nowhere!”
I often wonder about the extent of our ignorance can go when it comes to dog issues. We domesticate them but choose to remain uneducated and unenlightened about their needs and behaviors. We learn just enough to get by on.
What little the common dog owner knows goes only so far as information gleaned from reality television shows and simplistic rules of thumbs based on hearsay or second hand information. Like the nosy neighbor who can barely control her kids but easily dispenses advice on how you can best manage your dog. You know the type.
Not many of us truly understand what dog aggression is, let alone how we contribute in its creation. But why would we? As a species we struggle to find meaning with our own lives. We struggle to understand our fellow humans. Instead we incorrectly read others intentions. Our lives are filled with miscommunication. Perceived slights often offend us and compel us to aggress towards others. It makes sense that we misinterpret signals from dogs. Our default thinking leads us to label every reactive canine response as aggression.
Technically they’re correct. A dog behaving in a harmful and violent manner is displaying aggressive tendencies. But a dog can have a reactive moment without being aggressive.
It’s truly no different with humans. You feel provoked and suddenly are filled with the urge to smack someone upside the head. Whether you do it or not, and I hope you don’t, it’s a momentary episode and doesn’t define you as a person. It might if this pattern is a matter of routine for you, but more than likely it won’t. More than likely, you were having a bad day.
Yet, this isn’t a courtesy that we extend to dogs, not that dogs have bad days. We witness one unsavory moment of tension, oftentimes a behavior we may have instigated in some manner, and we then label the dog aggressive. Shelters are filled with these so-called aggressive dogs.
Our critical thinking processes are sometimes in the toilet. The truth is that often enough we are directly responsible for our dog’s acts of momentary aggression. We just refuse to take responsibility for it as individuals and as a society. It’s easier to place blame elsewhere. In truth, it isn’t fair to imply that we do it intentionally. We don’t. However, ignorance shouldn’t be an acceptable excuse.
As with humans, dogs react aggressively due to fear, stress, insecurities and a variety of other reasons. You would think that because of the parallels between our two species we would be better able to relate to dogs. But not really.
This is how to create dog aggression:
1. Don’t socialize.
I’m not going into the importance of socialization for your dog’s psychological help, but I’ll say that it’s the single most significant thing you can do for your dog. Nothing else comes close.
A lack of socialization ensures that your dog progressively begins to feel troubled and stressed by unfamiliar sights, sounds, environment, dogs, humans, and so on. If it’s new and your dog hasn’t run across it in the past then there’s a good chance that your undersocialized dog will freak out in some manner. Most aggressive type behavior is rooted in a fear of the unfamiliar, yet another parallel to humans. Fall short in your socialization efforts and you could be paying for it for the rest of your dog’s life.
2. Isolate your dog.
If you want the effects of poor socialization to really kick in then isolate your dog from the rest of the world. Don’t allow the dog much outdoor time. This is sadly enough what many owners with reactive dogs do. The social shame and embarrassment that many experience when walking their dogs is enough to keep them from doing it again. So they isolate their dogs from the rest of the world.
3. Confine your dog.
Your manner of isolating the dog makes a difference. Confinement in a closed off space such as a backyard or basement is preferred. Dogs are extremely social animals and they grow anxious and frustrated when they can’t interact in one manner of another with humans. Long term confinement can mess with a dog’s head in all sorts of nasty ways. Ever see a shelter dog that has been confined for an extended period of time? While some survive with their good temperament and disposition intact, others don’t fare so well and can be psychologically scarred for life.
But not just any backyard or basement. Preferably one with a secure fence or gate where the dog can see the world come and go but be unable to interact with it. This breeds frustration, hyperactivity, and even anxiousness. Tethering the dog in a high traffic area will work as well. If there is another dog on the other side of the fence or gate that your dog reacts to then this will help accelerate your dog’s arousal and frustration. This all gets your dog’s stress levels to a boiling point, and boiling points are good when you want to create aggression.
4. Don’t provide a safe spot for your dog.
Dogs tense up and stress out in certain situations. For example, during family visits when your obnoxious nieces and nephews drop by to wreck havoc on your house and annoy the piss out of your dog. Safe spots are areas where the dog will often feel more at ease and less anxious about his or her surroundings. These can be a crate, bedroom, or any other area of the house where they can typically be alone. It’s a good idea during these times to ignore your dog’s need for safety and security. Given the option, dog’s usually remove themselves from stressful or fear-evoking situations and environment. Remove that option and your dog can very well reactive defensively. You know, it’s that fight or flight thing again.
Here’s a great effort at rehabilitation of an aggressive dog.
What I’ve discussed here is not how one intentionally works to make a dog aggressive (there are entire illegal industries that survive on creating dog aggression), but the unintentional aggression that is brought on by human error and ignorance. These are some of the things we do that in a sense enable the origination of aggression. What adds to the confusion and ignorance is that we don’t typically see the consequences of our actions into some point in the future.
I’m going to live on the hope that this somehow helps. That I’ve contributed in some small manner to the broader understanding of the problem. I make light of it, actually it’s a mocking tone because that’s what I do when I’m pissed. However, it’s a serious issue and worthy of mocking. Millions of dogs die because of this label of “aggression” that we throw around so easily. It’s time we wised up about this.