Myths about aggression abound. These myths put dogs, the people who love them, and the general populace at risk. I thought we’d spend a bit of time together on the Dogster Guide to Behavior & Training this week examining a few of the many popular myths surrounding dog aggression and reactivity. Because there are (unfortunately) too many myths to cover in a single blog entry, count on more entries this week on dog aggression myths.
MYTH #1: AGGRESSIVE DOGS ARE BORN, NOT MADE
A sweet puppy could not possibly grow up to be an aggressive, biting dog, right? Wrong. Nurture and nature are generally equally important in the creation of both dog and human behavior and personality. It is relatively easy to create a reactive or aggressive dog, even in a puppy who has wonderful genetics – even in a puppy for whom grandparents and parents on both sides have been service dogs for generations.
How would you take such a wonderful puppy and create an aggression problem?
- Don’t socialize the puppy – keep him inside your house or in your yard until his critical socialization windows are closed. Wait until he is at least six months old before you introduce him to new dogs or people, then wonder why he is “freaking out.” Wait until he has been rehearsing the behavior for a few years and then contact a trainer, saying “we need to fix this in two days, I’m having a baby this weekend!” Get frustrated with the trainer when she can’t wave a magic wand and fix it.
- Avoid teaching him how to use his mouth politely. When he continues biting without improvement, simply throw him in a crate or relegate him to the back yard, hoping he’ll “grow out of it.” Do not get help for the situation or reward him for soft-mouth interactions. Do not hand feed to improve your bond and your dog’s bite inhibition.
- Use flooding a lot. If your dog is scared of other dogs, throw him in a room with 50 other large, bouncy, obnoxious dogs. Keep hoping that “he’ll get over it.”
- Make sure that the puppy has lots of unpleasant experiences around new people and other dogs. Yell and jerk him around by his collar a lot. Avoid setting him up for success, always work with him in environments where you know he will be unable to succeed (over threshold).
- Ignore the puppy’s stress signals, keep pushing him past the limit of what he can confidently tolerate, thereby teaching him he cannot trust you to keep him safe.
- Forget that your puppy has the mental functioning capacity of a 9 month old child, treat him like he’s a Guantanamo detainee! Do lots of things to scare the crap out of the puppy – yell at him, punish him for resource guarding, spank him, shock him, alpha roll him, bite his ears, knee him in the chest if he jumps, etc. This will teach him early on that the world is a scary place and since his people won’t protect him, defending himself with his teeth is a useful strategy for self-preservation.
- Stop socializing the puppy the instant he turns four months old. Avoid introducing him to any new dogs or people until he has reached maturity at 18 months – 4 years of age.
- Ignore critical periods of development. Second fear periods would never happen to a “nice” dog, right?
- Avoid seeking professional assistance at the first sign of a problem. Hope that it will just “go away on its own.” Wait until you’re so frazzled by the dog’s behavior that you’re 48 hours away from having him euthanized to seek help, then give your trainer a two day deadline to “cure” him.
Congratulations! You’ve created an aggression and/or reactivity problem!
MYTH #2: AGGRESSION IS BREED-SPECIFIC
When adopted by government agencies in the form of breed specific legislation, this myth creates a virtual holocaust of canine victims. BSL advocates would like you to believe that only pit bulls, German Shepherd Dogs, Dobermans, Rottweilers, Chows, etc. are aggressive dogs and that Labs, Goldens, Beagles, and other “nice” dog breeds would never bite. This is inherently and patently false. Socialization history, the ability of the owner to manage the dog, how well the dog has been taught bite inhibition, and the dog’s life experiences are far more likely to determine his bite risk than his breed. As the owner of a Chow mix, this myth really steams my beans. My dog is more well-trained than many “friendly” breed dogs who are unrestrained, out of control, and present a far greater risk.
There are pit bulls functioning as service dogs. German Shepherd Dogs are famous for their work with law enforcement, as are Rottweilers, Dobermans, Belgian Malinois, etc. There are also Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, and Basset Hounds who have sent folks to the hospital for bite treatment. Dogs of any breed can and will bite. Some dogs may do more damage than others, some dogs may be more tolerant of the precursors for aggression (see above), some dogs may be more genetically predisposed to having soft mouths, etc., but all dogs can and will bite in a “perfect storm” situation.
This week, we’re discussing a few of the many popular myths surrounding dog aggression and reactivity on the dogster blog. Yesterday, we talked about two common myths, that aggressive dogs are “born and not made,” and that “only certain breeds are aggressive.” In case you missed it (hey, I get it – Mondays are hectic), you can click here to read more about these first two myths, including tips on how you can take a very sweet puppy and easily create a monster of a biter. Without further ado, let’s move along in our quest to bust myths on canine aggression.
MYTH #3: BUT IT’S SO CUTE WHEN SMALL DOGS BITE AND GROWL!
People laugh when small dogs bite and growl. Oh, a Chihuahua? Biting? Bwahahahahaha! What’s that, a severed finger sticking out of his mouth? Wait. That’s not funny, is it?
Aggression is never cute or funny. I am a raw feeder and many of my raw feeding friends feed toy breed dogs. I have seen dogs weigh less than ten pounds easily crunch through bone that is far more of a challenge than a pinky finger, a toddler’s ear or nose, or an eye socket. I have a friend who is now a behavior consultant who rescued a Schipperke/Pomeranian mix with an extensive, serious bite history (level five bites, more on that later) that placed herself, her family and friends, and her toddler grandson at great risk – it’s taken her A LOT of training and management to be able to save this dog’s life.
Small dogs, especially biters and growlers, get picked up and carried around a lot. Owners do this to for a number of reasons – they may want to make the dog feel safe or see it as a way of protecting their guests from those tiny but razor-sharp teeth. If the dog still feels insecure, he may redirect his bite and bite the handler, often in the face. Or at someone else’s face who happens to be close to the handler. Regardless – not safe, not funny, not cool, not a situation to be ignored. Get help ASAP from an experienced, qualified trainer, be picky, ask for references from clients whose dogs have had the same types of issues as your favorite pooch. Remember, the more dogs get to practice biting, the better they get at it – early and prompt intervention is your friend!
MYTH #4: A BITE IS A BITE IS A BITE
There is a big difference between a dog that nips at the air and a dog that routinely breaks skin or sends someone to the hospital. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar has created a helpful and simple to understand bite scale which ranks the severity of bite incidents on a scale from 1 – 6. Remember my friend’s Schipperke/Pommie mix mentioned above? He has an extensive history of level 5s and weighs less than 20 lbs. What’s a level 5 bite, you ask? Read on:
Level 1- Dog growls, lunges, snarls-no teeth touch skin. Mostly intimidation behavior.
Level 2- Teeth touch skin but no puncture. May have red mark/minor bruise from dog’s head or snout, may have minor scratches from paws/nails. Minor surface abrasions acceptable.
Level 3- Punctures ½ the length of a canine tooth, one to four holes, single bite. No tearing or slashes. Victim not shaken side to side. Bruising.
Level 4- One to four holes from a single bite, one hole deeper than ½ the length of a canine tooth, typically contact/punctures from more than canines only. Black bruising, tears and/or slashing wounds. Dog clamped down and shook or slashed victim.
Level 5- Multiple bites at Level 4 or above. A concerted, repeated attack.
Level 6- Any bite resulting in death of a human.
Yeah, little dog bites CAN be scary, right?
Bite inhibition training should begin early in puppyhood and should be cemented both through social interactions with appropriate dogs and direct intervention from the handler. Since we learned yesterday that all dogs can and will bite, it’s very important to teach them to use their mouths as gently as possible in case such a situation arises. Dogs that bite low on the scale can move up levels on the scale if prompt intervention protocols are not implemented – biting, like any mechanical skill, improves with practice. The more dogs practice biting, the better they get at it.
If you are just joining us for our discussion of myths about dog aggression this week, make sure you check out our previous entries on the topic. Monday we discussed myths 1 and 2, “aggressive dogs are born and not made” and “aggression is breed-specific”. Yesterday, we discussed myths 3 and 4, “small dog aggression is cute” and “a bite is a bite is a bite.”
Without further hesitation, let’s examine myths 5 and 6.
MYTH #5: PEOPLE AGGRESSIVE = DOG AGGRESSIVE
I think that many of the popular myths in dog training would go away if we’d just give our dogs a bit more credit. Even the slowest-learning of dogs is smart enough to do that people aren’t dogs and dogs aren’t people. We don’t smell like dogs. We don’t look like dogs. We don’t play like dogs. We don’t eat like dogs. We don’t sniff crotches (thank heavens). We generally are not leg humpers, with the exception of a few frat boys I served back in my career as a bartender.
There are plenty of dogs who are reactive to people or dogs but not both. Just because your dog does not like other dogs does not mean he is going to injure or maim your grandmother or toddler when no other dogs are in the environment. Redirected aggression, where a dog cannot physically reach the object of his aggression and so vents his frustration on the nearest available person or familiar dog is not uncommon, so these dogs will need to be carefully managed in the presence of their triggers (although all dogs should always be carefully managed in the presence of their triggers, so this shouldn’t be a shock or huge inconvenience).
Some dogs may be reactive to both dogs and people, but generally, people and dog reactivity are not related and are separate issues needing to be addressed in separate treatment situations for dogs that exhibit both.
MYTH #6: “AGGRESSION” IS “ABNORMAL” DOG BEHAVIOR.
People freak out when they see a dog resource guard. While I agree that resource guarding toward humans requires prompt and appropriate intervention, dog-dog resource guarding is normal dog behavior. If all the people on the planet died tomorrow, the dogs that resource-guarded would be the most likely to pass on their genes – this is evolutionarily advantageous behavior. We’re resource guarders too. Have you ever been really hungry and had a friend try to steal the last few fries from your plate? Did you smack her hand away? You’re a resource guarder. What if you had ten million dollars and I tried to take it away from you? Unless you’d give it to me, you’re a resource guarder.
Resource guarding is one of many normal dog behaviors that humans find socially unacceptable. For more on normal dog behaviors that humans hate, check out the most popular entry ever on the dogster B & T Guide, The “myth” of normal dogs. There is, believe it or not, a “bright side” to dog aggression. What is it, might you ask? Aggression is normal behavior, but uncontrolled aggression is not normal dog behavior. Most resource guarding, for example, is highly ritualized. Normal dog behavior does not automatically involve escalating into a full blown fight, it generally involves the successive stacking of myriad small signals which are actually meant to preclude and diffuse the need for further aggression. For more on ritualization of aggression in dogs, check out one of my old Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training blogs, If all your friends’ dogs jumped off a bridge. If the aggression in a resource guarding situation is ritualized and both dogs are savvy in interdog communication skills, fights don’t break out. In these situations, I don’t intervene much, although sometimes I help the dogs along in learning to respect each others’ boundaries.
Stay tuned for more dog aggression myths! I’m aiming to cover two myths per day this week, and realized it may take more than five days to share them all with you. Be prepared, this series may well carry over into next week; I just feel as though it’s very important to share both for people living with reactive and aggressive dogs and for others who do not understand them.
This week we’ve been discussing myths about dog aggression. Without further ado, let’s get into myths 7 and 8!
MYTH #7: AGGRESSION = DOMINANCE
Wow, this is a big one. Not helping the situation is the fact that one of the most famous public faces of “dog training” perpetuates this myth in the techniques he recommends to his television audience (under the umbrella of a disclaimer, of course). Whether or not dogs are pack animals merits (and will receive, in the next few weeks on the Dogster Guide to Behavior and Training) is a topic worthy of its own blog entry, so I’ll try not to delve too deeply into those murky waters right now.
At best, painting every aggressive dog with the “dominance” paint brush oversimplifies aggression. At worst, the techniques used traditionally to deal with dogs who have been perceived as “dominant” may actually exacerbate the problem and put the dogs and their people at an increased risk for injury.
Reactivity and aggression may have myriad causes, including territoriality, barrier frustration, resource guarding, fear, pain, anger, etc. Identifying the cause is the key to identifying the solution. There are a lot of great articles online about the “dominance myth,” here are a few you may enjoy written by veterinary behaviorists:
The Dominance Controversy by Dr. Sophia Yin
Don’t worry, we’ll come back to this later in the series.
MYTH #8: LEASH WALKS CURE AGGRESSION
OK, really? Anyone worth their salt as a trainer or behaviorist know that the laws of learning transcend the boundaries of species. Dogs, chickens, horses, whales, even hermit crabs are all susceptible to the laws of learning as defined by operant and classical conditioning. So, if leash walks cure aggression, why aren’t they implementing “walk all day long” programs to violent criminals, lions, or parrots that bite?
Because leash walking does not “cure” aggression. In fact, it is possible for dogs to get a) too much or b) the wrong kind of exercise which will actually increase the dog’s stress level. I know plenty of dogs that don’t get nearly as much physical and mental stimulation as they need and are not aggressive or reactive. Sure, lack of these things can cause an increase in stress which may lead to an increase in reactive dog behavior. HOWEVER, I’ve yet to meet a single dog “cured” of aggression by leash walking him, even if you’re walking fifteen miles a day until your legs nearly fall out from under you you’re so tired.
Any good trainer or behaviorist addressing a reactivity or aggression problem will advise that the owners implement a stress reduction protocol which may include the incorporation of more physical and mental stimulation/exercise. Dogs that are highly stressed are, by their very nature, more likely to bite. Stress reduction does not cure aggression, but it is an establishing operation which may even the playing field and set the dog/handler team up for rehabilitative success.
Behavior modification treats aggression and reactivity. Leash walking does not.
While I’d like to say that there are only 8 popular myths about dog behavior, the fact is that many remain. We’ll talk about some more of these tomorrow and follow into next week on this series. Until then, happy training!
Surely there cannot possibly be more myths about dog aggression, you say. If only that were true, friends. Myths about aggression abound, and today we’ll discuss two more of them. I had hoped to write this series all week and move on to new topics next week, but realized that this is one of the most important behavioral topics to address and that it is unwise and perhaps unethical to gloss over any of these, so we will be continuing on into next week with more aggression myths.
For today, let’s examine myths 9 and 10.
MYTH #9: ONE DOG FIGHT = AGGRESSIVE DOG
OK, before we tackle this myth, let’s admit that dog fights can be scary, especially when they involve a dog that you absolutely adore. There are a few things to keep in mind if your dog gets into a fight:
- Not all fights are created equally. Earlier this week we discussed Ian Dunbar’s bite scale. Often, fights between dogs are highly ritualized and do not even cause injury. Additionally, not all dogs are equally susceptible to injury. It takes a lot less bite pressure to puncture through a Greyhound’s coat than it would if the fight involved a dog with a thick, double coat. A bite that tears into the skin on a Greyhound and leaves a mark would likely not even leave a mark on a Chow, Husky, or Olde English Sheepdog.
- What’s the fight/bite ratio? If your dog has been in multiple fights, how many have caused serious injury? If a dog has had 500 interactions with other dogs, been in 10 fights, and never injured another dog, the prognosis may be much better than if a dog has had five interactions with other dogs, fought with all of them, and sent three of them to the vet’s office for stitches or worse.
- Have you ever been in a fight or argument with someone you cared about? Your child, husband, or best friend? Squabbles can happen without permanently ruining relationships. If fights are recurring and damaging, it certainly is cause to seek professional assistance. If your dogs get in the occasional squabble, nobody is hurt, and you do not note that the incidents are increasing in frequency, you may not have much to worry about.
- Variations in play styles can create squabbling – we’ll talk much more about play styles in upcoming blog entries. Stay tuned!
MYTH #10: ALL BITING = AGGRESSION
Wow, this one really drives me bonkers. Puppies nip because they are teething, exploring the world with their mouths much like human children. Puppy teething is not aggression, although if unaddressed it can produce a dog that learns people are easy to train and can be controlled through judicious (in the dog’s perspective) use of their teeth. Can aggression or worrisome biting behavior be exhibited in puppies? Absolutely. Are most puppies biting because they are out-of-control aggressive? Certainly not.
I see this when dogs play with each other as well. In play at the classroom, dogs frequently bite each others’ necks and faces. Cuba’s “bestie Westie” McKenzie absolutely loves to jump up, grab his ear in her teeth, and hang on for all she’s worth. He generally responds by dramatically throwing himself to the ground and showing her his belly. (Incidentally, she loves this. She usually looks at me as if to say, “Hey, teacher! Did you see what a big, tough terrier I am? I’m only 16 lbs but can take down giants!) Yes, she is biting Cuba. No, it is not aggressive. Yes, they growl when they play. No, it is not aggressive.
Dogs don’t generally get together to play with Barbies, engage in a game of croquet or spades. They chase each other. Wrestle. Bite each other. Sometimes they vocalize. If you know the signs of healthy play (which, as I mentioned, we’ll be talking about soon on this blog), you’ll be able to differentiate between problem biting, growling, and barking and versions of these behaviors which are truly playful. I know many of my clients never want dogs to growl or bite each other in play. While I understand why they might feel like this, it’s often an unrealistic expectation.
Don’t believe me? I have a challenge for you.
- Invite toddlers to your house. The more, the merrier. Invite at least six of them, for good measure.
- Place them in an area with no toys.
- Allow them to interact together for an hour or two.
- Do not permit them to make a single sound. No talking, laughing, nothing.
- Let me know how that works out for you. Video response would be superb.
I jest because such an event would be nigh impossible to coordinate and is about as likely as viewing true “dog play” that does not involve the use of teeth or vocalization.
Nipping and chewing are normal aspects of teething. Biting in play is a normal component of healthy play. Each of these biting behaviors has the potential to go over the top in some individuals and in some poorly managed dogs, but neither is, intrinsically, an indicator of an aggression problem.
Like I said, I still have a few important myths about aggression I’d really like to share with my dogster friends. They’re on deck for next week. Until then, happy training and give your dogs a treat and a belly scratch from me!