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Healthy Personalities and Aggression
Life Skills to Prevent Dog Aggression
Aggression. No word sends more chills down the back of dog lovers. While physical diseases may be tragic, and heart breaking, nothing like this behavioral issue can leave a dog more misunderstood and forgotten.

Dogs who step across the social boundaries and embark on this usually fatal path may do so for a number of reasons. But first, we need to understand what aggression is and where it comes from.

After watching the first wildlife documentary of your life, it's easy to understand the place that aggression holds in the wild. In honesty, aggression is likely not a fair term. Wild dogs will seek to harvest food and protect themselves and their pack through attack and fighting, aggression isn't really either of these. Aggression implies a conscious behavioral response, a first strike mentality toward something akin to gaining control or empire building. The motivation of any canid is rarely in this arena, with the possible exception of dominance struggles (but even then are a delicate balance based on the best interest of the pack). So the first step is in understanding that aggression as we see it and understand it (or not) in domesticated dogs is a combination of these factors along with whatever information the dog has garnered from its life and experience.

Creating an aggressive dog seems simple. Be mean to it. Ironically, the faster and more thorough way of doing it would be to be inconsistent or chaotic. Leave the dog neurotic with the fear that this time, when they see you, you will be loving, or will you be vicious? The dog in this environment will eventually be so consumed by its fear, anxiety and confusion that attack will seem the only safe approach. In this scenario, the inability to trust, feel secure and confident, all develop the behavior that we say we would never want to see.

Clearly, dogs develop unacceptable behaviors from alot of paths. The dog that growls at people when they try to take a toy or ask the dog to get off the couch, and the dog that will chase and nip people when they are running or riding a bike are responding to different drives and beliefs in regards to what their "aggression" communicates. As such, getting these dogs to understand that their behavior cannot continue requires a different approach.

Aggression does not have to be a terminal disease. Many dogs have been given an opportunity to view their world differently and given the skills to respond differently. Not all trainers are equipped to successfully deal with such dogs and very few owners are in the position to commit the effort required. For those dogs who's aggressive behavior has landed them in a shelter, the responsible choice is obvious. While the death sentence may not seem entirely fair, there is much about society's current approach to pet overpopulation that is far from fair and the euthanasia of a dog with good temperament in favor of one with even a questionable temperament seems a poor bargain regardless of breed, age or other factors.

So, the question then, as with many unpleasant facts of life, is to prevent aggression rather than attempt to address it once it has occurred. This involves several aspects for most dogs, including socialization, and training for confidence, manners and social structure.

Most aggression arises from some sense of fear (with the exception of the best Schutzhund dogs, but that is an entirely different subject as their "attack feature" is under the control of their handler and not aggression per se) and vulnerability. A confident dog who has his trust in his handler and a good sense of the world, will have little cause to fear or feel vulnerable in most situations. Socialization, or exposing your dog to a wide variety of people, places, experiences and things, until they are comfortable with them all, is an exceptional (and perhaps only) way to develop a dog's sense of security and confidence in judging new experiences. It is a program that deserves special attention and detail since the ideal time for socializing is within the first 18 months of a dog's life.

Training for confidence is essentially training fairly with an eye to communication. It is not simply a question of saying "sit" and having the dog assume the position. What does your dog tell you back? Are they looking at you expectantly with tail wagging, excited about the impending reward and enthusiastic for the next component or are they looking away, crouching with their tail beneath them or tucked beside them nervously licking their lips? The first dog has a healthy sense of the process and is enjoying it, this dog will inherently trust the person, their teammate, they are working with and will be able to return to this state and respond in situations where they are not sure, so that saying sit in an environment that is new to the dog will give the dog a sense of, "oh, this is odd and I am not sure, but they said to sit so it must be ok... I'll sit here with them and watch". The second dog is so overwhelmed and fearful already that any hope of using this as a bridge for confidence is shaky at best! The second dog can certainly become much more like the first with reliable handling (nothing like consistency to build trust) and more experience. A good trainer and experienced dog owner can certainly help you with reading your dog's attitude and confidence. In case you've not come to the conclusion, now would be a GREAT time to start working with a good trainer/behaviorist if you've not already started.

Manners and social structure may seem an off-shoot of training, essentially they are an inherent part of the dog's behavior (what he does when you aren't around as well as when you are). Good manners and social structure will help your dog in navigating new experiences with people and other dogs as well as understanding the boundaries of his/her responsibilities in contrast to yours. Your job includes recognizing impending crises (like the big snarling dog that is heading toward your little white fluffpot) and avoiding whenever possible. To assist you in controlling such potentials, having a dog that is rewarded consistently for good behavior (basic obedience and general responsiveness) gives you alot more options when the unforeseeable starts to unfold. The ideal dog will have exceptional doggy manners because they were with their littermates until 10 weeks of age or so. In this environment, most puppies will learn many play skills as well as strong bite inhibition. From there, and once it is assured that the dog's immune system is up to the challenge of the big wide world (usually around 12 weeks ASK YOUR VET), giving your dog the opportunity to meet many dogs is beneficial. Until puppies are about 16 weeks of age, virtually all adult dogs will allow some leeway. This is a huge boon for the puppy and you since you can generally feel comfortable about the puppy interacting with even the occasional curmudgeon. Yes, there will likely be the occasional growl and snap, but these experiences are critical as well for the pup to understand acceptable and desirable behavior and when they are being a pest. If you think it is hard to tolerate now, imagine how you would feel if your bumbling, bullheaded oaf of a dog went plowing into another similar dog looking for a game of tag and the response was not welcoming. As to structure, again, at least during the initial periods (first few months) of a new dog in your home (whether an adult or pup) a solid routine with consistent reinforcement of rules can go a long way in creating a well balanced companion for life.

Even as adults, dogs can learn manners. It is rather challenging for them and a bit harrowing for the owner. Recently a juvenile Akita was introduced to the concept of dog manners. Prior to this, his 100 pound presence would come bounding into any canine gathering demanding a game. Many, if not most dogs were intimidated. The more confident would challenge him, and depending on his mood, the desired game moved from tag to assasin. Clearly an unhealthy situation for this Akita as his true manner was genial, he just didn't understand protocol. After finding a few others that were comparable in his bulk, of good confidence and manners that were very responsive and very closely supervising their interaction (starting with just letting them observe each other in the house and gradually moving to highly supervised short play sessions), the Akita won Miss Congeniality at a recent Dog Park gathering (despite the fact that he is a neutered male, he displays the award with pride). This was all gained without the loss of any blood, limbs or other desirable body parts on anyone's account. This is not intended as instruction for anyone facing such a task! Instead, work with a trainer. Not only will they be able to guide you and help assess what progress you are making but they will also, likely, know of dogs suitable for the tutoring.

So, finally, give your dog all the advantages of socializing. Get him/her out and meeting people and seeing things and playing with other dogs. If issues develop, back up! Don't allow it to occur again as you work through the problem with close supervision and the guidance of a trainer. Develop good training habits that will develop your dog's confidence in him/herself and trust in you. Build on training in those new environments to help instill that even when things are odd and distracting that they can look to you for guidance. Finally, encourage good manners and social structure in your home environment and routine. Develop patterns (daily walks, play sessions, training and feeding) that allow your dog a sense of security while learning of all the diversity in the world. Once these elements are in place, your dog will be welcome wherever you might go and you can be confident in his/her response to the world and the privilege that comes with it.

Visit the DigitalDog Forums to discuss your dog or to find out more about what our other visitors and training staff has to say about this and all things dog.

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