Monday, November 21, 2011

Is Your Dog Aggressive? Change Your Behavior.

"He is a really sweet dog."  "In fact he's is the best dog I have ever had."  "He is actually perfect in every way except for one problem."  "I love him with all my heart."  "He is not aggressive, except just during certain times."  "Otherwise there is nothing wrong with him."

This is the refrain of the loving dog owner calling Fast Pup Dog Training out of concern that their dog bit someone or has acted like he might.  The dog is a perfect angel--except for when he is not.  For just a brief period.

Many times the dog owner is sure that there is a quick and easy fix--a proverbial silver bullet--that I can provide them over the phone.  Other times, (more rarely,) the owner acknowledges that she or he might be the problem and realizes that it is they that need education and training, even more than their dog.

Aggression problems in dogs do not happen overnight.  The owners miss or misinterpret signs of aggression, even though there were many over time, until the dog is out of control.  And any dog breed can become aggressive if the owners and handlers miss early signs.  I have been amazed lately by how many retrievers, AKC registered and highly trained for retrieving tasks are displaying horribly aggressive behavior--to the point where the dog is kicked out of AKC events for life.  Retrievers are soft-mouthed hunting dogs genetically selected for their eagerness to please and their lack of aggression.  When a retriever becomes aggressive, it can usually be traced to the owners missing or making excuses for a lot of little signs of aggressive behavior developing over time.  

The biggest problems I see with dogs showing most types of aggression toward people or other dogs is not that they are naturally dominant, or that they were poorly bred, or that they missed something in the socialization process, but rather the uneducated and misguided doling out of affection and "concern" over a dog's behavior on the part of the handler.  Reacting to signs of aggression in a dog as if it were a human child who is frightened can create aggression problems in dogs.  

It is natural to "go with what we know" and read our dog's aggressive reactions to another dog or human as fear.  We have a tendency to "reason" with the dog and try to "explain away the fear" the same way we would treat a child or infant who was frightened by someone.  If the dog seems alarmed or concerned over the presence in our front yard of the mail man, we naturally want to reassure him that the mail man is a good guy, so we kneel down next to him and tell him that "its OK, that is a good person," as we stroke him in reassurance.  Why do we naturally do this?  Because that is the way we relate to people.  It is what we have learned since childhood to do.  

Unfortunately, what the dog reads in all this, is that we are hiding behind him for protection when we kneel down, and that we appreciate his posturing and protective stance against the stranger. We think we are reassuring the dog that all is well, and the dog reads it that we are encouraging that behavior and expecting him to act this way.

Learning to become a leader to a dog is learning to think outside the box of relating to dogs as human beings.  Leading is not a  matter of being "dominant" and exerting physical control over a dog.  Alpha rolls over aggressive behavior are extremely dangerous to a human handler (and the dog) and completely unnecessary.  Rather, leading a dog, like leading or riding a horse, is learning to read a dog's body language, and being proactive with subtle cues and suggestions before the dog has committed to a certain behavior.  I tell people that dogs will almost always "tell" us what they are going to do, before they do it, and we need to be "ahead of the curve" (proactive) and have a conversation with them with our body language about what we want them to do or where we want their attention.  

Waiting until the dog has lunged or attacked another dog or person and then "punishing" him for the behavior is an exercise in futility.  Dogs do not understand the concept of punishment.  It doesn't exist in their world.  And from our standpoint, after the dog has attacked or bitten someone, the wheels are in motion for a police report or a law suit.  

If we do not want the dog to attack another dog or the mail man, then we need to confidently and assertively interrupt their thoughts about doing so and redirect them to do something else.  Learning to read the dogs, and learning new ways of reacting (or not reacting) to their behaviors is the key to avoiding having a dog act aggressively toward others.   

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