A two-year-old dog is adopted from a rescue. The dog has not had any socialization. He does not seem to know how to play with other dogs, and annoys the adopter’s resident dog with his lack of manners. He also has an unfortunate habit of jumping up and playfully grabbing sleeves with his teeth, which may be fun to him but can be painful to the owner of the arm. The owner declares the dog aggressive, and surrenders him to the city shelter, telling them that the dog bites.
Another dog, a breed known for territorial behavior, goes to his new home. He bonds with the owners, and all goes well. Then one day, a person who is a stranger to the dog wanders into the house unannounced. The dog bites him. A trainer tells the family that the dog needs to be put down.
What do these two scenarios have in common? Are these dogs actually aggressive? In the first case, it’s understandable that a dog who is new to being around other dogs wouldn’t know how to act around them. An adult female dog who could teach him manners would be a great help. As for grabbing body parts with his teeth, the dog has not been taught otherwise. He’s barely out of adolescence, and it is easy enough to teach the dog that the obnoxious behavior is unacceptable. Is the dog aggressive? Based on this information alone, I think not.
Is the dog who bit the person entering the home aggressive? Assuming the dog has not threatened anyone else, a guardian breed that is bonded with his family defending his people and territory from what he perceives as in intruder is understandable. Does the dog need to be euthanized? Of course not, although management and training should absolutely be implemented.
I hear stories like these all the time. Of course, there are dogs out there who are truly aggressive. There are many more who appear to be aggressive when in reality the behavior is coming from a place of fear (this is fear-based reactivity, not aggression), but there are those who actually want to hurt other dogs or people. Do aggressive dogs belong in homes? No. But it is far easier to simply deem a dog’s behaviors “aggression” than to do the work required, with the help of a trainer if necessary, to work on the issues.
When we first brought Bodhi home, he was a mess. Truly. He had major insecurity and fear issues paired with excess energy, and zero socialization. I could not take three steps across the floor without him jumping up on me and putting his teeth all over my arms and legs. I’m not exaggerating. My book Hit by a Flying Wolf describes the whole ordeal, along with how we solved his issues. Had I not been a canine behavior specialist, it would have been easy to see his behavior as aggressive. As it was, I understood that Bodhi simply did not know what to do with all of that fear and nervous energy, and he was “acting out;” all that energy had to go somewhere, after all. That wasn’t his only issue, either. He was reactive with other dogs, destructive…I could go on and on. I won’t lie; it took months before I felt he was a dog I could enjoy living with. And it took longer than that to fully change his behaviors. It’s now 8 years later, and he’s lying here patiently, watching me type this blog and wondering when I’m going to stop working and feed him.
I don’t expect the average person to understand dog behavior to the point that they can determine without a doubt whether a particular dog’s issues are resolvable, or, barring a serious incident, if the dog is truly aggressive. If there are children involved, or someone in the home is being hurt (including another dog), giving a dog up would be understandable. But sometimes having a dog is simply hard work. Sometimes we have to admit that there is a serious problem, and if needed, hire a trainer to help resolve it. Once a dog is labeled as aggressive there are not many happy possible outcomes. Rescues understandably do not want aggressive dogs, as they cannot adopt them out. Owners are not looking to adopt a dog with serious behavior issues. And a shelter will simply euthanize an owner turn-in they are told has bitten. Simply dismissing a dog as aggressive if it’s not warranted can be a tragedy, and can even be a death sentence for the dog who does not deserve to die.
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