I’m often asked the question, “Why are some dogs aggressive?” People make up all kinds of reasons and will give it so many different labels such as leash aggression, stranger aggression, territorial aggression, barrier aggression, etc. However, it generally boils down to either fearful aggression or dominant aggression. In the labels listed above the reason for the aggression is fear of the inability to avoid and escape in the case of leash aggression, fear of the unknown such as with strangers, fear of people entering their territory (think of the yard as being a large crate in which they cannot escape from a stranger entering), etc. Dominant behavior is the willingness to display aggressive behavior to obtain or retain a resource such as food, toys, petting from a owner to ensure another dog doesn’t receive same. Dominant behavior is not walking ahead of you, stepping on your feet, jumping up on you, going out the doorway first, etc. Â That’s simply the dog being a dog and wanting to be an opportunist. (Note, some aggression cases are due to physical pain or medical conditions which need to be evaluated by your veterinarian and/or have a discussion to determine if anti-anxiety medication would be beneficial to aid behavioral training).
Most aggression cases I work with are due to the dog being fearful. When we understand that, then it’s possible to come up with a management and treatment plan to desensitize the dog to fearful items, build their confidence and increase their reliability to obedience commands. If we simply, label a dog as being bad, then it’s a label and a character judgment without the willingness to see what is really troubling the dog and how to improve their situation.
So to answer the above question of “why”, one can look to whether the dog received proper socialization at a young age (generally before 16 weeks of age), are poor genetics part of the problem and/or was the dog exposed to bad experiences that taught him/her to be afraid of people, other dogs, etc. Even more important than – Why?, is the question of what do we do about it now? It would be nice if the dog could tell us why so we can understand why the dog feels the need to use aggression to keep itself safe or to obtain/retain resources. It would certainly make us feel better so we can understand and be empathic to the dog for our own personal needs. However, that question really isn’t too helpful to the dog nor does it answer the much more important question of how are we going to help the dog and everyone else remain safe?
Case in point is Radar, a Belgian Malinois who I am training and his owner via private lessons. He was adopted so the owner doesn’t know if Radar wasn’t socialized properly, has bad genetics and/or was exposed to frightening experiences when he was younger. He trusts her and her father but not strangers. In the first lesson, he continuously barked at me or avoided me. It was clear to see from his body posture and behavior that he was scared of being close to me. In the second lesson, he took treats from my hand hesitantly but discontinued the barking saying “stay away from me.” A caution note here, while I use food treats to desensitize Radar to me one has to be careful to watch for any change of body language. Sometimes people become over confident because they see the dog is willing to cease the aggressive display of behavior to obtain the food treats. So they think everything will be fine. However, if the person moves suddenly, leans toward or over the dog or even if the food runs out, the dog may remember that they were truly scared and react with aggressive behavior. So was the food desensitizing the dog to the person (the intended objective) or was it only acting as a temporary distraction?
In the third lesson, Radar continued to bark at me despite responding to my commands to sit or lay down. Since he was responding to my commands despite lots barking, I felt I would be able to walk with Radar and his owner. So we walked together for a bit with me gradually coming closer and closer to them as we walked in line with each other. Â He kept his eye on me but ceased his barking. Often times I would start with a muzzle first but I believed Radar would walk with me and wouldn’t bite but may return to his barking repertoire. As his owner handed me the leash and gradually faded out of our proximity, Radar started to walk with me and didn’t bark. He showed some avoidance behavior at first but quickly responded to my commands to heel and come that were well-taught by his mom. This obedience knowledge aided in his ability to come closer to me. After walking on a loose leash for awhile, I sat down at a pause table (agility table) holding Radar’s leash in my hand. I was pleasantly surprised and honored that Radar immediately came to me eliciting petting from me. As I petted him, he leaned into me for comfort and support. Â I had just made a new friend.
Another question I’m often asked is, “Why do you do what you do (train dogs)?” The answer is “to enhance the lives of dogs and humans so they can live in harmony together”, as is with my new friend Radar. Â : )
To learn how Michael Burkey and the MDT Staff can help you and your dog, call us at 734-634-4152 or check out our website at: Â Michigan Dog Training.