Truly Dangerous Dogs

cartoon bulldog aggressive pixabayYears ago, I had a client who was afraid of her own dog. Technically, the dog belonged to her husband, and whenever he was away at work, the dog stayed out in the yard because of her apprehensions. I was there to assess the dog. Now, having handled aggression cases for many years, I knew that sometimes anything from jumping up on people to grabbing things out of someone’s hands is termed “aggression.” Startling or even frightening as those things can be, they are in reality issues of dogs needing training. Then there are other dogs who truly do have aggressive tendencies, and those range on a spectrum from mild to severe. I went in with an open mind. What I found there shocked me. The dog was locked out of the house by a sliding glass door. When he spied the woman and me, the 100-plus pound mixed breed started throwing himself against the glass while frothing at the mouth. He had a wild-eyed, glazed look that said if he could get in, he would cause severe harm to both of us. The woman told me that this is the way he would behave whenever he spotted her. Even after having worked with hundreds of dogs who were seriously aggressive toward people, this was above and beyond. Of course, we discussed getting the dog a full veterinary exam including a complete blood workup, and a whole lot more, but my point is that this was a truly dangerous dog. (In case you’re wondering, we never did let him inside, and it came down to a serious talk about lifelong management if they were to keep the dog.)

Another unusual case comes to mind. A woman in her seventies had adopted a dog from a German shepherd rescue. The woman had medical issues that made her weak and unsteady on her feet. The dog was young, large, and very strong, and should never have been adopted into this home. Since the time the dog had been adopted, he had displayed disturbing behaviors that included growling and snapping at the woman as well as at her male caregiver. The dog had not threatened me in any way during our session until, standing in front of me, apropos of nothing, he placed his teeth around my wrist, and very calmly and deliberately began to bite down with gradually increasing pressure while staring hard at me. To be honest, it was chilling. I managed to snap him out of it with a perky rendition of his name followed by “sit” (I knew he knew the behavior and might automatically respond to it), which, fortunately for me, worked. Still, this was one of the few dogs in my long career that simply made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Speaking of that piloerection response, it’s there for a reason. Though we’re living in modern times, that ancient, instinctive warning system still works just fine. Its function is to keep us out of danger. It might appear as though a dog isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, and yet something feels very wrong. When that happens, I listen. Years ago I was helping a trainer friend who had been tasked with doing temperament testing on shelter dogs. As we walked through the kennels deciding which dogs to test, we passed a pen housing a rottweiler. Now, I happen to like rotties, and certainly have no prejudice against them. But this one? He wasn’t hard staring, or growling, or showing a single sign of anything that would make anyone worry. And it wasn’t that he had the usual rottie expressionless look, either. There was just something–a feeling, a vibe—that made me extremely wary of him, and I told my friend there was no way we should take him out at that time. We finished walking down the row of pens and on our way back we passed the rottie once again. With absolutely no provocation from us, as we approached, he flung himself against the bars in a way that cleary suggested a serious intent to cause harm. As with the dog who was out in the yard, this was beyond the usual barrier frustration that can happen when a dog is behind a fence or other obstruction.

There are plenty of dogs who are, to varying degrees, aggressive toward people. I have certainly helped my share of people-aggressive dogs, including some who had multiply puncture-wounded multiple people. In other words, dogs who displayed severe aggression. In the vast majority of the cases, given good owner compliance, we were able to modify the behaviors. But dogs are living beings and, just like human psychopaths, there are some who are irredeemable. The truly  dangerous ones are few and far between, and yet, they exist. That is one reason it irks me to no end when a trainer boasts that he can “fix any dog” or “resolve any behavior issue.” It doesn’t do any good to tell an owner that if they were only a stronger pack leader or had been tougher on the dog, this wouldn’t be happening. Although owners can certainly contribute to or even cause behavior problems, in some cases it simply has nothing to do with them. Of course everything should be done to help a dog with aggression issues, including calling in a qualified professional trainer who can assess the behavior and explain the options. But again, it does a disservice to owners to blame them, and it also helps no one to make sweeping generalizations about aggressive behavior because unfortunately, there really are truly dangerous dogs out there.
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6 Responses to Truly Dangerous Dogs

  1. Great post.

    I’d just like to add one more thing, the people who are told “It’s all in how you raise them.”

    As Nicole points out, some dogs have a screw loose, and some, no matter what has happened to them are resilient.

    There are dogs who come from horrific circumstances who are affectionate, trainable, and end up being virtual canine saints.

    There are dogs who come from good breeding, great nutrition and medical care, careful socialization, positive training and, despite having the deck stacked so much in their favor some fluke of genetics or brain chemistry makes them dangerous.

    Telling someone ‘It’s all how you raise them” is unfair, unproductive and untrue.

    Good puppy practices will greatly improve your chances of having a well balanced adult dog, but there are no promises in this world.

  2. Al G Magaw says:

    all very true – we’ve been able to rehabilitate the vast majority of dogs brought or sent to us, including ones that were declared dangerous by animal control – unfortunately there are those ones that seem to go into some sort of trance, their eyes glaze over moments before they strike – they can go for days of being your best friend, then that look comes over them and they leap for your face – moments later, they might be your best friend again – I haven’t learned how to fix those few dogs yet

  3. Waggs says:

    We have had several rescue dogs over the years, as well as some lovely, well-bred show dogs. They have all (as many as 5 at one time) integrated into our household without any major behavior problems, so when a friend asked me over to see her new rescue, I looked forward to meeting him. My friend’s husband travels frequently for his job and thought that now, as his wife was retired and the kids had grown and left, he would feel more comfortable if his wife had a companion to “protect her” while he was away. I met my friend at her home for lunch to see her new protector. He was a large mixed breed with a vaguely pit-bullish appearance. Something just didn’t seem right about him. He never took his eyes off us all the time we were eating. He never begged, but laid down and stared from a distance. My friend saved some meat scraps from our sandwiches and put them in the dog’s dish. As she bent over to set the dish down, the dog lunged at her. He bit the side of her face several times before I could get him to back off and go out into the yard. My friend required many stitches and still faces plastic surgery to repair her cheek and mouth. While the dog had never been overly friendly, he had stayed close to people quietly for the short time he lived with her and her husband. As long as the husband was around, the dog stayed mainly with him. We never learned his history but, since the hospital had to report a dog bite injury, my friend had the dog taken to the local shelter until her husband came home. With input from the shelter and her husband’s outlook on the situation, the dog was euthanized. It turned out the husband had adopted the dog from a private rescue that “specialized in guard dogs”. A sad lesson for all concerned, since the dog had never been evaluated by a professional dog trainer for potential aggressive tendencies.

  4. juliabarrett says:

    Wow. Powerful post. There are some dogs I’ve encountered who give me the willies. I’ve seen that trance-like look. It’s rare but boy is it frightening. Both for my dog and for me.

  5. Gerry Ingram says:

    A client of mine owned a Pitbull and a Bullmastiff. They were both great dogs. They both would come to my dog daycare and play with as many as 25 dogs. So, there was no issue with either of these boys. I myself had wrestled with both of them.

    They get a new puppy; A few days later, they call me and ask me to come over and evaluate this puppy. They want me to evaluate an 8 week old puppy? What is going on? Apparently he is attacking anyone who touches him, including the mastiff, the pitbull, and the owners. The puppy will lay next to the mastiff and come to the people, but if you reach toward it, it attacks.

    Long story short, Vet visits, phone calls to much netter qualified behaviorist than I. The best course of action is decided to euthanize a 3 month old puppy. Insane!

    • Waggs says:

      I personally would lay the blame on the Breeder (if known). A breeder, whom I trust, told me that before he sends a puppy to a new home he puts the puppy through the “Tens”.
      He exposes the puppy to at least 10 different people of a mix of ages and sexes. The ten people are all wearing different clothing, including; some different hats, funny shoes and boots, shorts and long pants, skirts of several lengths, etc.

      He also exposes the puppy to 10 different surfaces; hard floors, covered with rug floors, scatter rugs, dirt, concrete, asphalt, grass, water puddles, etc.

      The puppy gets to experience 10 different noises (vacuum cleaners, phones, etc.) ,10 different smells (meat, cheese, fish, veggies, etc.).

      Of the 10 people he has some neighborhood children who look forward to “playing” with each new litter, picking them up gently, chasing them outdoors, hiding behind furniture, etc.all with accompanying squeals, yells, etc.

      You’re probably getting the picture by now.

      We have adopted 3 dogs as puppies from this breeder all with lovely, dependable personalities. They are fearless and calm. Energetic, but quick to settle down. These are not a breed known for their malleable training exercises, but our dogs were smart and biddable to our direction. We adored them.

      If a 3 month old puppy was felt to be unreliable enough to be euthanized, something was wrong with the first 8 weeks of his life. Blame the Breeder.

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