Labels. We use them all of the time to help us understand our world in shorthand. I always cringe when I hear people say, “That is an aggressive dog!” It makes it sound like “aggression” is an unchanging part of who he is—like a “brown dog” or a “big dog” or a “good-looking dog.” I find it even more disturbing when I hear people then go on to talk about “taking the aggression out of that dog” or “teaching that dog not to bite.”
NEWS FLASH! Aggression is a normal part of canine behavior. All dogs have the capacity to be aggressive. All dogs will show aggressive behavior if sufficiently threatened. All dogs can and will bite if they are pushed beyond their ability to cope. It is a necessary part of survival.
So what is difference between the dogs we label as "aggressive" and those who don’t carry this distinction? It ends up being pretty simple. The dogs that are showing aggressive behavior feel threatened in a given situation while the other dogs are not threatened, and thus are not showing the behavior. Happy, relaxed dogs don’t growl, snarl, snap, or bite. And, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, it doesn't matter if WE think the dog should feel threatened in a given circumstance. It only matters how the dog perceives the situation.
CAVEAT: A dog's innate bite inhibition, sociability, and arousability will also come into play with regard to when and how aggression is displayed, but we will save that for another blog post.
Many of my clients who seek help for aggressive behavior exhibited by their dogs have had other dogs in the past. Dogs, by they way, who did NOT show aggression in their typical, daily lives. I am always happy for this, because often these poor people feel guilty—as if they have done something wrong that has caused their dog to “be aggressive.” So, when they ask what they need to do to teach their dogs not to bite, I ask them how they taught their previous dogs not to bite. The answer is, they didn’t! They had dogs that were not triggered to aggress in their normal, every day lives. Happy, relaxed dogs don't growl, snarl, snap, or bite.
Personal Example #1: My Doberman Pinscher, Max, God Bless his anxiety-ridden little soul, was terrified of new people AND territorially protective of his home. Thus, the very biggest threat in his entire world was our doorbell ringing. Surely, the Huns were on the other side of the door, ready to lay waste to our humble abode should we dare to let them cross our threshold. Because of this, Halloween was the very embodiment of his own personal Hell. We would put him upstairs in a bedroom with a few frozen, food-stuffed Kong Toys with the white noise machine on high while our neighborhood children stopped by to get their goodies.
Personal Example #2: Contrast this with our current dog, Ovie. He is a “West Virginia Special” mixed breed, most likely a curious brew of Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, and Beagle. He loves people. He especially loves new people. And he really, really, really loves new people who come to our door. Unlike our Doberman Max, the sound of the doorbell does not strike fear into his heart. Instead, it fills him with the happy excitement of meeting new friends. Because, for real, who could possibly resist him? Halloween is, hand’s down, the best night of the year for Ovie.
Contexts, contexts, contexts: But, if we switch up the situation, we would get vastly different results. Let’s imagine meeting an off-lead dog while walking in the wooded area behind our house. For the record, my dog would be on-lead and under my control because we are on public land. However, some of my neighbors consider leash laws more of a suggestion than an imperative, so we do occasionally encounter off-lead dogs. Max, the anxious Doberman, greeted these dogs happily and appropriately, and usually offered to play. However, found in the same situation, my over-the-top-people-friendly mixed Retriever, Ovie, will reliably snarl and snap at any dog who ventures into his personal space, no matter how friendly the dog.
Personal Example #3: A final example is my super-sweet Rhodesian Ridgeback named Katie. When she was 14 years old, on the last day of her life, as I tried to help her move into a comfortable position with her partially paralyzed hind legs, she whirled and snapped at me. The poor old thing was in terrible pain and to her, my manipulations were making it worse. Was she an “aggressive dog?”
At the end of the day, simply saying a dog is “aggressive” gives us little usable information. Aggression is part of the canine behavioral repertoire and it all comes down to the context in which the aggressive behavior is noted and the triggers. Once we know in what contexts the dog feels threatened and is likely to show aggressive behavior, THEN we design strategies to make the situation better. Then we cam employ our arsenal of techniques to keep our dogs calm and contained in high-risk situations to keep everyone safe.