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Myths about dog aggression: Part III

If you are just joining us for our discussion of myths about dog aggression this week, make sure you check out our previous entries on...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Feb 2nd 2011


If you are just joining us for our discussion of myths about dog aggression this week, make sure you check out our previous entries on the topic. Monday we discussed myths 1 and 2, “aggressive dogs are born and not made” and “aggression is breed-specific”. Yesterday, we discussed myths 3 and 4, “small dog aggression is cute” and “a bite is a bite is a bite.”

Without further hesitation, let’s examine myths 5 and 6.

MYTH #5: PEOPLE AGGRESSIVE = DOG AGGRESSIVE

I think that many of the popular myths in dog training would go away if we’d just give our dogs a bit more credit. Even the slowest-learning of dogs is smart enough to do that people aren’t dogs and dogs aren’t people. We don’t smell like dogs. We don’t look like dogs. We don’t play like dogs. We don’t eat like dogs. We don’t sniff crotches (thank heavens). We generally are not leg humpers, with the exception of a few frat boys I served back in my career as a bartender.

There are plenty of dogs who are reactive to people or dogs but not both. Just because your dog does not like other dogs does not mean he is going to injure or maim your grandmother or toddler when no other dogs are in the environment. Redirected aggression, where a dog cannot physically reach the object of his aggression and so vents his frustration on the nearest available person or familiar dog is not uncommon, so these dogs will need to be carefully managed in the presence of their triggers (although all dogs should always be carefully managed in the presence of their triggers, so this shouldn’t be a shock or huge inconvenience).

Some dogs may be reactive to both dogs and people, but generally, people and dog reactivity are not related and are separate issues needing to be addressed in separate treatment situations for dogs that exhibit both.

MYTH #6: “AGGRESSION” IS “ABNORMAL” DOG BEHAVIOR.

People freak out when they see a dog resource guard. While I agree that resource guarding toward humans requires prompt and appropriate intervention, dog-dog resource guarding is normal dog behavior. If all the people on the planet died tomorrow, the dogs that resource-guarded would be the most likely to pass on their genes – this is evolutionarily advantageous behavior. We’re resource guarders too. Have you ever been really hungry and had a friend try to steal the last few fries from your plate? Did you smack her hand away? You’re a resource guarder. What if you had ten million dollars and I tried to take it away from you? Unless you’d give it to me, you’re a resource guarder.

Resource guarding is one of many normal dog behaviors that humans find socially unacceptable. For more on normal dog behaviors that humans hate, check out the most popular entry ever on the dogster B & T Guide, The “myth” of normal dogs. There is, believe it or not, a “bright side” to dog aggression. What is it, might you ask? Aggression is normal behavior, but uncontrolled aggression is not normal dog behavior. Most resource guarding, for example, is highly ritualized. Normal dog behavior does not automatically involve escalating into a full blown fight, it generally involves the successive stacking of myriad small signals which are actually meant to preclude and diffuse the need for further aggression. For more on ritualization of aggression in dogs, check out one of my old Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training blogs, If all your friends’ dogs jumped off a bridge. If the aggression in a resource guarding situation is ritualized and both dogs are savvy in interdog communication skills, fights don’t break out. In these situations, I don’t intervene much, although sometimes I help the dogs along in learning to respect each others’ boundaries.

Stay tuned for more dog aggression myths! I’m aiming to cover two myths per day this week, and realized it may take more than five days to share them all with you. Be prepared, this series may well carry over into next week; I just feel as though it’s very important to share both for people living with reactive and aggressive dogs and for others who do not understand them.