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 didn’t know what dog aggression was.
We could have benefited greatly from the intervention of an experienced adult or dog trainer. She 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 during the 70’s.
But should we have listened we might have understood that we were treading on dangerous grounds. She 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, obviously. 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.
Dog Aggression is normal and common.
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 steps and ingredients are similar. 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, stressed, 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 these signs helps you 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 when it comes to dog issues. We domesticate them but choose to remain uneducated and uninformed with regards their needs and behaviors. We learn just enough to get by on.
What little we do know is generally gleaned from reality television shows or simplistic rules of thumbs based on hearsay and 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 can display aggressive behavior without being considered dangerous. In fact, the vast majority of dog aggression cases I’m called on are simply dogs that are responding to an overload of stress or perceived threats, thus their defensive actions.
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 isn’t. Momentary outburst are almost always considered just that – momentary. And we typically can link a reason, or a catalyst, for our behavior.
Yet, this isn’t a level of understanding which we extend to dogs. 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 that were made so because of their human counterparts.
Our critical thinking processes are sometimes in the toilet. We humans are often 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 (read sarcastically):
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 the thing is novel and your dog has no experience with it then there’s a good chance that your under-socialized dog will feel stressed or uneasy.
Aggressive 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 reactive dog is enough to keep them from doing it again. The activity is no longer enjoyable and even dangerous to some. So they isolate their dogs from the rest of the world. This often exacerbates the effects of undersocialization.
Dog aggression is best formed when the human chooses to ignore the signs or quits on any future efforts to improve the situation.
3. Confine your dog.
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.
Confinement in backyards or basements are a great way to foment aggression. 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.
5. Ignore your dogs cries for help.
The beauty of dogs is that they’re always telling us how they feel. There’s no hiding their emotional state. Stress and joy are both equally displayed in a dogs body, as are a myriad of other emotional and mental states. Yet when humans don’t inform themselves enough to learn those body cues, or worse, they turn a blind eye to signs of distress, the dog quickly learns that no one is coming to their aid in times of perceived crisis. That’s when they take matters into their own hands (or paws). That’s when you begin to see defensive displays of dog aggression take form.
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 due to this label of “dog aggression” that we throw around so easily. It’s time we wised up.