K-9 Konundrum – Dog Aggression

A friend of mine is an avid animal lover and is pursuing a career as a dog trainer and rehabilitator. Naturally, dogs are the topic of most of our conversations. As a trainer at Petco (hey – we all gotta start somewhere!), she often times deals with dogs that have not been socialized due to behavioral issues they have – a doubly whammy. This can lead to aggression towards other dogs because they have an anxiety and feel the need to lash out.

If anyone knows me at all, they know I love watching Cesar Millan episodes. Most of the things he shows on-air are just basic behavioral issues that have spiraled out of control due to incompetence or a lack of education on the human’s part. But the common theme among all of his shows is that when rehabilitating a dog we have to go back to basics.

If we look at dogs as a species, we know that as a whole they are pack animals. They thrive best in groups and they work together to raise their young, hunt, herd other animals, etc. So if this is the way dogs live in the wild, and if this is the way they are socially and instinctually, wouldn’t it make sense that they naturally SHOULD get along with other dogs? Or, moreover, that they would WANT to?

The answer is, YES.

I am by no means an expert on dogs. I know what I know about my own, and what I’ve seen on TV or read about in articles and books. But what I’ve noticed the most about a lot of the issues I witness between humans and their dogs is that the humans are choosing their furry friend based on cuteness or looks. Little to no research is done by the humans on the breed of their choice and whether or not the dog will be compatible with their lifestyle and family.

I will use myself as an excellent example of this.

I came into possession of a Doberman by accident. My ex-boyfriend wanted a “guard dog” or a breed that is stereotyped as protective. His first choice was a Rottweiler. At the time, however, he couldn’t find anybody who had any pups available. Next on the list was a Doberman. Neither of us knew a single thing about the breed. I had grown up with Labradors – my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and my parents had all been Lab people. The area I’ve grown up in is mainly populated by Labradors. I actually don’t think I’d ever seen a Doberman in person before, as they are not a popular breed in Sacramento.

So when he found a pup and we went to pick her up, I instantly fell in love. Her gigantic floppy ears and golden eyes sold me on Dobermans the instant I saw her. And that was pretty much where the cuteness ended.

Little did we know that Dobermans are vocal – they protest anything they disagree with (aka crate training, leash training, basic training in general). They are ridiculously oral – I thought Labradors liked to chew. Dobermans might take the cake on oral fixations. Bella would gnaw on anything that was left lying out – shoes, clothes, money, literally anything she could sink her teeth into was annihilated. It also took us about six months to potty train her (this was mostly due to human laziness, however, she was a bull-headed pup and refused to conform to our rules). Dobermans are also extremely high energy. Bella needed consistent exercise and at least an hour or two of it a day. As new dog owners with little-to-no experience in raising such a high maintenance dog, we were completely unprepared for this rambunctious pup.

As with any breed, there are always exceptions to the “breed stereotype” rules. Obviously not every single Doberman will have these same puppy tendencies – that was just my personal experience. However, it brings me to my point of humans not doing their research on the breeds they choose. If you have an active lifestyle – if you run every day, if you leave near a beach, etc, then by all means adopt a high-energy dog. If you work a lot but like to have a companion there when you get home at the end of the day, then an energetic breed is definitely not the right choice for you.

Dogs need just a few basic things to be happy: exercise, rules, and reward (generally, food and affection). That’s it. That’s how easy it is. And providing them with these things will help to keep your home balanced. I’m not saying that it will 100% prevent naughty activities, but it will help to alleviate them.

Which brings me back to our main topic – dog aggression.

My dog that I mentioned above, Bella, was attacked by an Akita when she was only six months old, and then again about three months later when she was nine months old – by the same exact dog (the neighbors, needless to say, were also believers in “protection” dogs). This made her extremely gun-shy of other dogs, and, in fact, brought about an aggression towards unfamiliar dogs. She thought that they would all turn on her, and therefore felt that she had to be the one to make her feelings known.

I always told myself that I would NOT be one of those dog owners who had a dog with issues. I wouldn’t have a dog that was afraid of people or dogs, antisocial, or completely unbalanced and untrained. It broke my heart and upset me that my first dog was already turning out to be this way, and at not even a year old. And so I made a decision to help her. I refused to believe that she would be this way forever. I told myself I would do whatever I could to bring her back to what normalcy is for a dog.

The first step was getting her enrolled in dog classes. I knew that she would be around other dogs, but I also knew that there would be a professional there to guide me through the process. We signed up for basic training classes through PetSmart. The first day went as I anticipated. The minute we arrived, Bella wanted to attack everybody in the class. The trainer immediately took charge and set her straight. I know that initially my anticipation of Bella lashing out was what was causing her anxiety in the class. She could sense that I was not entirely comfortable with the socializing situation. But, as anything goes, the more classes we attended, the more comfortable we both became.

After the classes ended, the next step for both of us was reintroducing Bella to larger social environments, like dog parks. My parents loaned me their old dog’s shock collar (which they purchased from their trainer), which I used only as a preventative in case things got out of hand. They never did. Bella did wonderfully at the dog parks. I was so confident in her social abilities and refused to believe that she could revert back to her aggressive tendencies that she has actually ended up as the opposite dog. She LOVES going to the parks now, and has actually become one of the more stable dogs at the parks I take her to. A couple of months ago, I introduced her to my [now] roommate’s dog, who is extremely unfriendly and actually tried to bite her. She was so calm and relaxed – I was such a proud dog mom!

What I’m hoping you’ll take away from this post is that it IS possible to rehabilitate your dogs. You have to have faith in them, and faith in yourself. However, I wouldn’t recommend just going ahead and doing any training like this on your own. Please, please, PLEASE seek a professional’s help before you start taking the steps to help your fur baby. And if you don’t have a dog yet, do your research on breeds and figure out who is going to be the right fit for you. This can and will be a great way to avoid issues later down the road. A dog that suits your lifestyle will undoubtedly have all of its needs met. A dog that doesn’t will act out due to lack of exercise or lack of fulfillment.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Happy wife, happy life.” The same goes for our dogs. Fulfill their basic, everyday needs, and they will, without-a-doubt, fill your heart with the joy you sought in bringing a dog into your life.

**If you do NOT have a dog, and you ARE thinking about bringing one into your life, definitely do your research on potential breeds. Also, do your research on breeders – many of them breed according to temperament. Some breeders are known for calmer, some for more energetic. Like I mentioned above, there are loopholes and exceptions to the “typical” temperament of many breeds. Just do your research, and you will no doubt find the perfect dog for you. Something else to note – if you are thinking about adopting a shelter dog, make sure you visit numerous times and really interact with the dogs of your choice before you sign the documents. I know we all have a soft spot for dogs that live in shelters, but, more often than not, a dog will act submissive in that environment and then go ballistic the minute they leave. Ask if you can remove the dog from the environment to go for a walk or even play out in a yard where the energy level is different. At the end of the day, you want your dog to be compatible with you from the moment you say “I do.”