I have three stories to share with you for this blog. I am presenting each story as factually as possible. I don’t want to focus on blame; I want to focus on solutions.
A dog was rescued from a reservation in South Dakota. Many of the dogs from the reservation have lived tough lives with little to no human interaction; it’s survival of the fittest for them. The members of the rescue who worked with her knew that she needed slow introductions to other dogs, but she was able to live in a foster home with other dogs without issues.
She was adopted to a family that had been vetted to the best of the rescue’s ability. The adoptive family knew her history as a reservation dog and that she needed slow introductions to other dogs. One of the family members walked out the front door. This door didn’t latch properly, and the dog got out. She went up to another dog and there was a fight. The reservation dog came out of it just fine physically. The other dog had to go to the vet for stitches. We don’t know who started the fight or why. But the loose dog shouldn’t have been loose, and the dog on a leash was hurt the worst. This reservation girl now has a “potentially dangerous dog” label that may follow her for the rest of her life.
Mentally, this girl doesn’t trust anyone or anything easily. She loves people and loves to play with cats, but she is afraid of most dogs now and thinks that no one should play or be rowdy. She is in training to try to show her that the world of dogs is not as scary as she thinks. But her current feelings toward other dogs and her “potentially dangerous dog” label will make it harder to adopt her again.
This case made national headlines. A woman was attacked and killed by her dogs while walking in the woods. The dogs had lived with her, but she had taken them to her dad’s house while she worked out some personal issues. It was reported that her dad didn’t feel like the dogs were his responsibility. The dogs were kenneled outside and interaction with people became sporadic. They may not have even been fed daily. Their owner was walking alone in the woods with them when they attacked her so no one really knows what precipitated the attack. The dogs were euthanized shortly after they killed their owner.
A Rottweiler and a Boxer were on leashes on a walk with their owners. They were pulling the owners down the street. My business partner asked if she could pet the dogs. The owners said yes and that they were friendly with people. Both owners expressed some frustration with trying to walk their dogs. The Rottweiler’s owner said that his dog didn’t like other dogs. Some people were walking their own dogs down the street toward these dogs. My business partner realized that the Rottweiler was becoming agitated and started to move away from the Rottweiler, but not quickly enough. The dog lunged at her and grabbed her arm with his mouth. There was only minor bruising—this time.
All of these dogs have behavioral issues. All of these dogs are showing signs of aggression. Why are they showing aggression? Can aggressive attacks be prevented? If they can be prevented, how?
In Story 1, the dog ran loose during her younger years with little or no human interaction. Dogs that run loose develop their own social systems without humans, must hunt for food in order to survive, and must defend their young and themselves against outside threats. This is very different from the environment provided for dogs by people.
When people care for animals, people determine the social structure and provide food and safety. Human intervention dampens dogs’ prey drives and their fight or flight mechanisms. (We encourage dogs not to develop fully.) That does not mean that those drives are erased. As naturally social creatures, dogs naturally desire a social structure, so they adapt easily to our environment, but they remain carnivores.
In a situation like the one in Story 1, this dog was able to defend herself and puppies and survive on her own. When she was rescued, she had to learn to coexist in closer proximity with humans and other dogs. She had to learn that she would be safe. When she escaped and encountered another dog and things didn’t go well, she easily reverted to her wilder instincts and protected herself. This encounter also set back her progress on trusting humans and dogs. She has only recently been allowed to interact freely with two of my dogs after months of being able to see and smell them.
In Story 2, the dogs were abruptly uprooted from their known social structure that included humans and regular meals. This change could result rather quickly in the dogs tapping into a survival of the fittest mentality, especially if food was truly provided inconsistently. They would have developed their own social structure without humans. Their behavior wouldn’t be the behavior of a loving pet; they would be more like wild/feral dogs. People who knew her and her dogs expressed shock that her dogs killed her; they didn’t understand the changes that can happen when dogs are no longer regularly cared for and protected by humans.
The Rottweiler in Story 3 displayed what’s known as redirected aggression. Redirected aggression is the term used to describe a dog who becomes frustrated but cannot reach the object of their frustration; they turn their frustration toward a closer target, whether it’s another animal or another human. She wasn’t agitated by my business partner, but she was unable to get to the approaching dog, became frustrated, and turned to bite my business partner.
That covers the “why” in each case—low socialization, a sudden change in environment from being a family pet to being more isolated, and frustration. The why becomes very important when dealing with dogs with a history of any sort of aggressive behavior; the root of the problem shows a trainer or an animal behaviorist how to address the aggression. If there is a “why” other than aggression for aggression’s sake, there is also a solution, and in my opinion, very few dogs are aggressive just to be aggressive.
I would argue that all of these cases began with socialization issues. First, we need a definition of socialization? Dictionary.com defines socialization as “a continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position.” I love how this definition starts—a continuous process. Socialization needs to start young and keep going! Puppies need to have positive experiences with a variety of environments, people, and animals very early in life and must continue the process for their lifetime. The formative years are the most important, from the time that they are born through two years of age.
How can you socialize your pet? Take your pup on walks and/or hikes; go to the dog park; provide lots of toys that require interaction and have different textures; go to pet-friendly stores and restaurants; join a dog club; take your pup on playdates with other dog parents. Most dogs develop very well when they are exposed to new objects, people, and situations early and often.
What if you have an adult dog that already has behavioral issues like growling, lunging, and/or snapping? What if you have a dog that has already found trouble? Can poorly socialized dogs be helped and be safe members of society? There’s no way to get those formative years back, but, yes, in most cases, dogs can be rehabilitated. It takes dedication to the dog’s training and a lot of time. The goal isn’t to “make the dog like (fill in whatever results in aggressive behavior).” The goal is to redirect the dog’s attention back to the handler, instill in the dog that, whenever he is unsure of what to do, he looks to his handler, and to develop an iron clad “come” cue. Giving the dog a safe way to be near other dogs and people generally also results in calmer behavior and may eventually result in a dog that tolerates or even likes other dogs and/or people. This all takes time and should be done with professional guidance.
If you’ve read other blogs that I’ve written, you already know that I don’t vilify any particular breed, but I will say that size (and strength) definitely matter! Any animal that is bigger and stronger than a human has the potential to be deadly. (People have died while interacting with horses, for example.) Chihuahuas and Dachshunds are far more likely to bite than bully breeds, but they are not likely to cause fatalities in humans. Anyone who chooses to have a large pet, especially a large carnivore, is taking on a responsibility to socialize and train that pet. Not all attacks can be prevented, but most of them can. Please remember that, if you have a large pet, he needs to know the rules and needs to be socialized throughout his life with other pets and people. The bigger and more powerful your dog, the more you owe it to his safety, your safety, and the public’s safety to have a well-trained and well-adjusted dog.