Myths About Aggression: Part VIII
Without further ado, let's continue our exploration of some of the many various popular myths about dog aggression.
AGGRESSION MYTH #14: AGGRESSION AND REACTIVITY CANNOT BE "FIXED"
You've already learned in this series that a traditional response to dog aggression has been, and continues to be in many cultures, to "shoot the dog." "Once aggressive, always aggressive," is a commonly held perception of aggression and reactivity in dogs. Is this true, or is there actually hope for many dogs characterized as reactive or aggressive?
For many reactive and aggressive dogs there is hope IF the family is up to the challenge and able to follow through with it. For the record, this is a very, very big "if."
The work of rehabilitating a reactive or aggressive dog is not easy; it's hard work. It can be frustrating, and progress may be slow-going. Rehabilitation may require exceptional patience and almost always involves sacrificing your ego and what you feel your dog "should be able to do" in favor of putting her in situations where you know she can be successful.
It may involve making many special accommodations for your dog, and this is often inconvenient. It may mean walking your dog very early at night or very early in the morning for some time to avoid situations which put him over threshold - it may even involve driving to a less populated neighborhood for your walks temporarily. It will involve very strict management protocols, including crating, gating, manipulation of distance, putting your dog in another room when you are unable to work with him in the home environment, temporarily not competing in agility while you work through your dog's reactivity. It will likely involve scheduling a number of sessions with a qualified behavior professional - you may have to travel to find someone who is qualified to help you. Also, this sort of training may not be cheap - working with aggression and reactivity is a liability for trainers and developing training customized training protocols can be a lot of work. Rehabilitation may involve a number of medical tests. It may mean your dog needs more physical and mental exercise, or perhaps a diet change. It can involve the use of a variety of calmative aids, which are not always cheap and are never a sure bet. It may involve the use of pharmaceutical intervention in collaboration with your veterinarian or through a referral to a veterinary behaviorist; if it does, you may expect to try a number of different medications before you find the right one. If, on the way to the right one, you try a number of very "wrong" medications, you will see either a) no effect from the "wrong" meds or b) exacerbation of existing problems.
Also, the prognosis varies according to a number of factors: commitment, consistency, genetics, ability to manage the environment, the dog's age, time constraints - does the family have time to work through the protocol and what are the potential consequences of failure, predictability of behavior, owner's ability to learn to read canine body language, owner's ability to regulate his/her own stress levels throughout the training process, insurance coverage, extensiveness of bite history, amount of damage done with each bite (bite level), access to/ability to create controlled training "set ups" or exposures, etc.
This type of work, risk, and commitment is not for every dog owning family. It can be overwhelming for some families and more responsibility than they are willing to take on. Some families are looking more for a "pet" dog than a "project" dog (in fact, I'd say this describes most families) and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Often, families who are unable to work through these problems for any reason are ridiculed or made to feel ashamed for their decision by fellow pet-devotees and sadly, by behavior professionals as well.
The fact is that many of the best dog owners I know would not want to live with an aggressive or reactive dog. In owning one of these dogs, you may not get to do many of the things people like to do with their dogs - go to trials or dog parks. Some aggressive and reactive dogs will never be able to live with children, other dogs, small animals including cats. Don't get me wrong, this does not mean that those who choose to live with aggressive or reactive dogs will have a less enjoyable dog parenting experience than those raising dogs who are behaviorally sound - it's not a lesser experience, it's just different. Monte was the dog of a lifetime, and I wouldn't have traded a second with him for anything. We celebrated a great many victories together, but they were different victories. We didn't earn ribbons, but I remember seeing him play off leash the first time with carefully selected other dogs and thinking I was every bit as proud as I would be if we'd earned a performance title or championship together.
If you are a person that has the time, resources, and desire to rehabilitate a dog with a reactivity or aggression issue, your behavior consultant will become your new best friend. Many dogs can and do see significant progress. While your dog-aggressive dog may never be a dog park socialite, many dog aggressive dogs can be taught to function normally despite the presence of other dogs in the environment. I know more than one recovered biter who has accomplished titles in rally obedience, agility, or other sports. Your rehabilitated biter may never be a therapy dog, but he may very well be trained to be a wonderful companion. If you choose to stick through the rehabilitation program, you will be rewarded for your efforts with a lifetime of better dog handler skills and understanding of canine fear, body language, and aggression and this will make you a better dog owner.
More aggression myth busting is on tap for tomorrow - stay tuned!
EDIT: In the first printing of this article, I made a statement comparing the experience of raising a behaviorally or physically unwell canine to raising a child who is differently abled. Thanks to a thoughtful comment from Kali, author of the blog Brilliant Mind, Broken Body, I realize that this statement may unintentionally have hurt, isolated, or offended some of our readers. In an effort to make this blog a space where all feel welcomed and none feel unfairly judged, I have edited the original text of this blog to remove any language which may offend or isolate any readers and offer my sincerest apology to those readers who did feel offended. To learn more about disability rights, visit Kali's blog,RaggedMagazine.com, this Wikipedia entry, and also check out The National Disability Rights Network.