Is This Dog Truly Aggressive?

aggressive dog HP blogA 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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11 Responses to Is This Dog Truly Aggressive?

  1. Jenny H says:

    This is one thing that worries me about ‘adoptions’. Many people who believe they are rescuing a dog have no idea about normal dog behaviour. It seems totally unfair on the dogs and every unsuccessful ‘adoption makes it harder for the dog.
    Maybe rescue organisations should offer as part of the adoption cost, regular classes and instruction?

    • wildewmn says:

      Some rescue organizations do actually do this as a requirement. For example, the new owner must take a certain number of private lessons or attend group class. Hopefully at the least, if a dog has known behavior issues, rescues are very careful about who adopts and how they plan to address the behaviors.

  2. k9muttblog says:

    I used to run a medium size shelter and a truly aggressive dog will make the hair go up on your neck. We had to make decisions on dogs and let’s face it a shelter just raises the stress even more. In my training classes or when I am consulting I do not allow the word “aggression” to be used. As I explain to people if we use the word “aggressive” everyone thinks Cujo . I tell them that if THEY use that word then no matter what the dog does that little bit is in the back of their mind and that trust you and your dog need to have will be there. Trust needs to be earned on both sides. Thanks again for a great blog.

  3. Pat says:

    Our current 10 year old Siberian Husky in residence “failed her temperament test” at our local shelter. Fortunately a member of a rescue group, who volunteered at the shelter, saw her, walked her, fed her and determined that her taking people’s hands gently in her mouth was not biting or agression. The rescue asked to take her and foster her while further assessing her behavior.
    We had just lost our female Husky after a long fight with cancer and, although not actively searching for another dog, saw this sweet girl’s picture on the rescue’s website. Long story, but we adopted her and started fitting her into our home with 2 other Huskies. She has been with us for 6 years with no agression of any kind. She gave up the mouthing as soon as she settled into our home and apparently (to us) gained the confidence that we were not going away, nor dropping her off at a shelter again. Sometimes one person’s or group’s diagnosis of agressive activity is just plain wrong and assessing a dog in a shelter doesn’t take into account the trauma of just being in a shelter and losing their only home and people.

  4. juliabarrett says:

    Perfect blog post. Thank you so much. Thanksgiving with the family left me feeling paranoid and pretty frustrated.
    My daughter insists that our well-trained GSD, who has never shown any aggression to visitors or their dogs, (although he barks from the window at the UPS guy), be kept behind a gate or in his kennel when she’s here because of what she thinks she knows about GSDs. My dog thinks it’s no big deal when people and dogs visit- they can be in his house and in his yard and he’s like– whatever dude. He’s hyper, but by hyper I mean he has lots of energy. He’s not possessive. For example, anyone can pick up his food dish and other dogs can eat out of his dish. He doesn’t react.
    At the same time, my daughter’s St. Bernard dog has bitten several of their friends, my husband, my other daughter, and attacked my dog- tried to rip his throat out, in addition to viciously attacking any other dog who comes on their property. She’s bonded with me- but it took months. My daughter and son-in-law do their best to keep the dog under control but they can’t pay attention every single moment.
    Guess I’m venting but we really had an issue over Thanksgiving. A dog assumed to be aggressive because of his breed vs a dog who is actually aggressive. After some loud arguing, we worked it out by keeping our dog behind a gate or outdoors for 4 days, completely separate from everyone while the other dog had the run of the house. It was not ideal. Our dog handled it reasonably well for a couple days. By day three he was going stir crazy, standing at the gate, barking- something he never does.
    Suggestions? I would welcome any suggestion. My husband and I keep saying that GSDs get a very bad rap.

    • wildewmn says:

      I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this. It sounds like a “people problem” rather than a dog problem, since your dog isn’t doing anything wrong. I can’t really help with modifying the human’s behavior…I’ll have to leave that one with you. Sorry! 😉

    • Jenny H says:

      One thing we own our dogs, it to protect them from silly people. But I would tell my daughter to simply not bring her dog when she visits.

    • ccrow says:

      Your poor pup… maybe the Saint should be boarded for holiday visits, instead of incarcerating the resident dog. We and all our kids have multiple dogs who don’t necessarily all get along; I feel your pain.

  5. Al G Magaw says:

    good post – we frequently get dogs sent or brought to us with the wrong labels assigned to them – from breed misidentification by an experienced trainer, to behavior problems not described with any resemblance to what the problem is or what is causing the problem – that’s why prior to accepting a dog for therapy, I ask for name, phone # etc, and a BRIEF description of what the dog has been doing – dogs are honest and I rely on the dog to tell me what is wrong and often what they need to feel better about life – I’m not talking about some mind bending, fuzzy light flickering, out of this world communication, just simple observation and a bit of intuition does just fine, and once I know what is bothering a dog, it’s usually just a step by step process until the dog is acting like a normal happy dog, even making good decisions in situations where once it would have lost it’s cool

  6. Dave S says:

    Your description of Bodhi as being insecure, fearful, with excess energy, and zero socialization is spot on for one of our dogs.

    Things a rescue doesn’t tell an adopter. We met Buster at an adoption day. We walked him and spent some time with this apparently normal dog and decided to adopt him. A week later his foster parents came to do the home check. Things were fine and the first surprise was that they had brought Buster with them. As we finalized the adoption his foster Mom told us that Buster had picked us and he had been different with us than he had been with anyone else and in fact he was the first dog she had ever been afraid of. Between his shelter paperwork and later contact with other volunteers with the rescue we were able to piece together Buster’s history. He had been dumped into a high kill shelter twice for ‘behavior issues’, was an eleventh hour save off of the kill list, and by day four with the rescue had been thrown out of three foster homes because all of his foster parents were afraid of him and all of the resident dogs hated him. He was not aggressive but had zero social skills. After three days with us the real Buster emerged – jumpy, nippy, bitey, with explosions of uncontrolled energy.

    A dog mislabeled by a shelter. Sunshine was one of 28 dogs removed from a home and brought to the shelter where we volunteered. The dogs came in on Thursday and we went to the shelter on Friday. I happened to be the one to walk Sunshine who seemed completely normal. During the walk an issue arose that I had to take care of so I handed Sunshine off to nearby cat volunteer who handed him off to my wife to finish his walk. When we arrived at the shelter Monday morning we found Sunshine in an isolation kennel with three signs – DO NOT TOUCH, Do NOT WALK, AGGRESSIVE. What I saw was a scared dog huddled in the back of the kennel who wanted nothing more than to get as far away from me as he could. Two weeks later he was waiting at the front of his kennel when he heard me approaching. A week after that my wife and I resumed taking him for walks. Sunshine’s prospects for adoption were slim at best. He was a Pit Bull that had been born into a rescue that evolved into a hoarding situation and had lived in a crate for ten years. Because he had bonded with me we took a leap of faith and brought him home. Even though Buster seemed to like him immediately we did slow introductions. For the next six and a half years Buster and Sunshine were the best of friends. Many shelters and rescues would have labeled Buster as a ‘must be an only dog’. One hospice dog, two adoptions, and seven fosters later Buster would have proved them wrong.

    A dog mislabeled by an owner and things the shelter doesn’t tell the volunteers. Jasmine was an owner surrender that was extremely fearful in the alien shelter environment. Eventually I was able to walk her. After a few weeks I was curious about how she would react to hanging out with me in a quiet place. I took her into our adoption room and sat down to watch her. In a few minutes she decided to lie down across my lap. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door and the head of the shelter indicated that she wanted to see me. When I caught up to her she said that she probably should have let the volunteers know that according to Jasmine’s surrender notes she was highly aggressive to men.

    • wildewmn says:

      These are such sad stories, Dave. And having worked for many years in shelter and rescue, I have seen many of the same types of things myself. I’m so glad those dogs ended up with you, because as you said, their chances would have been slim otherwise.

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