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 gasps of shock coming from 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 a mad overzealous rush, we desperately 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 still have no idea where the bread came from.
Not one of us had a dog at home. The sudden appearance of a Doberman on a quiet summer afternoon on a Queens, New York street was a happy surprise that jolted us out of our everyday boredom.
We were young and drunk with joy. A dog to play with and do as we pleased. And to top it off, no adult supervision.
The adults were all inside while me and my rowdy group of friends lured the skittish Doberman through the front door of the building. That was our plan and we executed it masterfully.
Once inside we boxed 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. Our intentions were good. The last thing on our minds was that we could be perceived as a threat.
We could have benefited greatly from the intervention of an experienced adult or dog trainer. She might 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.
The trainer would have told us that the dog’s body language conveyed insecurity, confusion, stress, 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 fears. That by surrounding him we were placing him into fight or flight mode. That we were pushing precariously towards his threshold.
And that by closing in on him, without allowing him a means of escape, we were giving him only one option. A violent option.
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.
Now, here’s the key takeaway from this story…
I did this. It was my fault. The Doberman wasn’t a demon dog who mysteriously appeared to innocent children looking to inflict harm upon them. No. He was likely a lost, confused, hungry, stressed dog who had the misfortune to come across a group of unruly kids who added to his mounting stress and tension.
Even in my limited capacity to fully understand how I was making matters worse it was still I who pushed the dog to the breaking point. I entered his personal space. I repeatedly extended my hands into his face. I laughed loudly. I cornered him in a dark space.
That was long ago and my understanding has clearly evolved, but that isn’t the same for everyone.
I’m still amazed about the level of ignorance we display when it comes to our dogs behaviors and psychology. We bring them into our homes and lives but choose to remain uneducated and uninformed with regards to their needs and behaviors. There are reportedly over 75 million dogs in the country yet many of us hold on to highly outdated ideas about them. And an uneducated mind can be a dangerous thing.
What we do know is generally gleaned from reality television shows or overused rules of thumbs based on hearsay and second hand information. Like the nosy neighbor who can barely control her kids but quickly dispenses advice on how you can best raise yours. You know the type.
Not many of us truly understand what dog aggression is, let alone how we contribute in its formation.
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 and misinterpret their intentions. Our lives are filled with miscommunication. Perceived slights often offend us and compel us to aggress towards others. In this light, it makes sense that we’re stymied by our dogs body language.
Here’s an important piece to keep in mind:
Aggression in dogs is almost always brought on by feelings of insecurity and/or fear. Dogs don’t act defensively simply because they don’t like you personally. Nor is it malicious in nature. Aggression is a reaction to an overwhelming amount of stress generally brought on by a perceived threat which invokes fear and compels the dog to behave defensively. Read that again.
There is always a trigger for these actions, thus making the behavior specific and not generalized. In other words, the dog is responding to a certain stimuli within the environment and is not displaying aggressive behavior randomly. There is no such thing as random aggression or aggression happening “out of the blue”. There is always a reason and a cause. It’s only a question of whether or not the handlers are able to identify these triggers.
This is how we create an aggressive dog:
1. We don’t adequately or properly socialize the dog.
Socialization is the single most significant thing you can do for your dog early on in life. It’s true that it’s always a good time to socialize your dog but the first 8 to 14 weeks are considered the most impactful.
A lack of socialization can ensure that your dog progressively begins to feel troubled and stressed by unfamiliar sights, sounds, environments, 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 uncomfortable in its presence.
Aggressive behavior is often rooted in fear, distrust, and insecurity of the unfamiliar. Fall short in your socialization efforts and you could be paying for it for the rest of your dog’s life.
2. We isolate or confine the dog for long periods.
Of course this is counterproductive, but many resort to isolation in the face of growing aggressive behaviors.
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 considered dangerous to some. So they provide the dog with a sheltered life of sorts. Like a permanent quarantine. This often worsens the dogs condition since the issue is never worked on, the humans put an end to any socialization efforts, and they therefore never develop the skills and confidence necessary to help the dog cope.
3. We don’t make the dog feel safe about the world
Dogs, like humans, are always craving safety and security. The more anxious and fearful a dog is, the more they yearn to feel safe. The onus is on us to provide them with that safe world with routine, structure, safe environments, safe humans, and consistency in how they’re dealt with and handled. In other words, you want to make life extremely predictable for dogs. Predictability equals a sense of safety because it’s stable.
The opposite is how you can create defensive behavior. Make life unpredictable, stressful, and continually filled with tension and you’ll eventually see a dog who reaches his threshold. Create instability in your dogs life and you’ll begin to witness negative consequences to your dogs overall mental state. Imagine yourself in similar circumstances and you’ll understand why and how it can easily shape a dogs way of thinking about the world around her.
4. We don’t provide safe spots for our dogs.
This is a follow up to number 3. 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 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 bad 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 environments. Remove that option and your dog can very well reactive defensively. You know, it’s that fight or flight thing.
5. Turn a blind eye to the warning signs
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 a time 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.
Equally as important as socializing your dog, and perhaps of greater importance, is the ability to read your dogs body. The return on investment for your efforts can be life changing for both yourself and the dog.
What I’ve discussed here is not how one intentionally works to make a dog aggressive, but the unintentional aggression that is brought on by human error and ignorance. These are some of the things we do which in one manner or another enable the origination of aggression. Millions of dogs die due to this label of “aggression” which we throw around so easily without little thought as to how we contribute to it. It’s time we wised up.
Listen to my Podcast episode on how aggression takes form in dogs