My dog’s not aggressive! (Though he is clearly reactive.)
Denial is pandemic when one first realizes that aggression might be an issue with one’s dog. And what is aggression, anyway? The definitions are pulled and twisted and analyzed by the experts. To me, as a past reactive-dog trainer, aggression is any behavior that is meant to threaten or intimidate another creature. It is also any defensive behavior that injures another dog intentionally. Well-socialized dogs will posture and correct as part of a canine interaction. They are controlled and bite-inhibited. They are not acting out of fear or intimidation.
When a dog acts in an aggressive manner out of fear (95% of aggression is due to fear), it is an uncontrolled response, thought processes are restricted, and they make bad decisions. It is up to the guardian to learn the dog’s limitations and not push him, to keep him feeling safe, and the world around him safe–and, with time, love, confidence building, and work to desensitize him to his triggers, he will improve.A
But time and time again I see just the opposite–blatant denial in the human partner of the team. I have been there too. The desperate hope that THIS time, my dog will be calm, listen to me, stay by my side, and leave the person, dog, deer, squirrel, bird alone. The stress kept me awake at night, and finally I decided to act. To take control.
Based on experience and hundreds of hours of study, I will say that dogs will not change without work. Not quickly, not spontaneously. Letting a reactive dog who has confrontations off leash, will not make the dog safe to others. Allowing a scared dog who expresses his fear through reactivity or aggression, or a dog who has a strong prey drive to the point of bite/kill to run free, will risk a lost dog, an injured opponent, or a dead deer, squirrel, rabbit, or smaller dog.
In the past few days I have seen a German shepherd with a known bite history running off leash with his human. I dealt with a loose dog who lunged, barked circled and snapped at my collie while she looked on in confusion while the owner muttered platitudes under his breath. In another incident, my husband intervened as a terrier, who lives down the street, charged our collie–a terrier who had almost lost his life doing the same to a Rottweiler a few years ago when the rottie retaliated.
Denial is a potent coping device, but it doesn’t save us. It just allows the situation to progress, to worsen in front of us while we sit back and hope.
Training Tips: If you have a reactive dog:
- You are not alone.
- Read about it: Books that might help you: The Midnight Dog Walkers by Annie Phenix, The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell.
- Find a trainer who specializes in aggression work.
- Medications may help. Talk to your vet.
- Finding Vera by Kerry Claire (me) is not instructional, but is filled with canine perspective and behavior and shows how one family coped with a reactive German shepherd in a novel format. It is both educational and supportive to those making their way through the maze of reactivity.