Myths about dog aggression: Part I
Myths about aggression abound. These myths put dogs, the people who love them, and the general populace at risk. I thought we'd spend a bit of time together on the Dogster Guide to Behavior & Training this week examining a few of the many popular myths surrounding dog aggression and reactivity. Because there are (unfortunately) too many myths to cover in a single blog entry, count on more entries this week on dog aggression myths.
MYTH #1: AGGRESSIVE DOGS ARE BORN, NOT MADE
A sweet puppy could not possibly grow up to be an aggressive, biting dog, right? Wrong. Nurture and nature are generally equally important in the creation of both dog and human behavior and personality. It is relatively easy to create a reactive or aggressive dog, even in a puppy who has wonderful genetics - even in a puppy for whom grandparents and parents on both sides have been service dogs for generations.
How would you take such a wonderful puppy and create an aggression problem?
- Don't socialize the puppy - keep him inside your house or in your yard until his critical socialization windows are closed. Wait until he is at least six months old before you introduce him to new dogs or people, then wonder why he is "freaking out." Wait until he has been rehearsing the behavior for a few years and then contact a trainer, saying "we need to fix this in two days, I'm having a baby this weekend!" Get frustrated with the trainer when she can't wave a magic wand and fix it.
- Avoid teaching him how to use his mouth politely. When he continues biting without improvement, simply throw him in a crate or relegate him to the back yard, hoping he'll "grow out of it." Do not get help for the situation or reward him for soft-mouth interactions. Do not hand feed to improve your bond and your dog's bite inhibition.
- Use flooding a lot. If your dog is scared of other dogs, throw him in a room with 50 other large, bouncy, obnoxious dogs. Keep hoping that "he'll get over it."
- Make sure that the puppy has lots of unpleasant experiences around new people and other dogs. Yell and jerk him around by his collar a lot. Avoid setting him up for success, always work with him in environments where you know he will be unable to succeed (over threshold).
- Ignore the puppy's stress signals, keep pushing him past the limit of what he can confidently tolerate, thereby teaching him he cannot trust you to keep him safe.
- Forget that your puppy has the mental functioning capacity of a 9 month old child, treat him like he's a Guantanamo detainee! Do lots of things to scare the crap out of the puppy - yell at him, punish him for resource guarding, spank him, shock him, alpha roll him, bite his ears, knee him in the chest if he jumps, etc. This will teach him early on that the world is a scary place and since his people won't protect him, defending himself with his teeth is a useful strategy for self-preservation.
- Stop socializing the puppy the instant he turns four months old. Avoid introducing him to any new dogs or people until he has reached maturity at 18 months - 4 years of age.
- Ignore critical periods of development. Second fear periods would never happen to a "nice" dog, right?
- Avoid seeking professional assistance at the first sign of a problem. Hope that it will just "go away on its own." Wait until you're so frazzled by the dog's behavior that you're 48 hours away from having him euthanized to seek help, then give your trainer a two day deadline to "cure" him.
Congratulations! You've created an aggression and/or reactivity problem!
MYTH #2: AGGRESSION IS BREED-SPECIFIC
When adopted by government agencies in the form of breed specific legislation, this myth creates a virtual holocaust of canine victims. BSL advocates would like you to believe that only pit bulls, German Shepherd Dogs, Dobermans, Rottweilers, Chows, etc. are aggressive dogs and that Labs, Goldens, Beagles, and other "nice" dog breeds would never bite. This is inherently and patently false. Socialization history, the ability of the owner to manage the dog, how well the dog has been taught bite inhibition, and the dog's life experiences are far more likely to determine his bite risk than his breed. As the owner of a Chow mix, this myth really steams my beans. My dog is more well-trained than many "friendly" breed dogs who are unrestrained, out of control, and present a far greater risk.
There are pit bulls functioning as service dogs. German Shepherd Dogs are famous for their work with law enforcement, as are Rottweilers, Dobermans, Belgian Malinois, etc. There are also Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, and Basset Hounds who have sent folks to the hospital for bite treatment. Dogs of any breed can and will bite. Some dogs may do more damage than others, some dogs may be more tolerant of the precursors for aggression (see above), some dogs may be more genetically predisposed to having soft mouths, etc., but all dogs can and will bite in a "perfect storm" situation.
Stay tuned for more aggression myths tomorrow!