Myths about dog aggression: Part V

 |  Feb 4th 2011  |   0 Contributions


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Surely there cannot possibly be more myths about dog aggression, you say. If only that were true, friends. Myths about aggression abound, and today we'll discuss two more of them. I had hoped to write this series all week and move on to new topics next week, but realized that this is one of the most important behavioral topics to address and that it is unwise and perhaps unethical to gloss over any of these, so we will be continuing on into next week with more aggression myths.

For today, let's examine myths 9 and 10.

MYTH #9: ONE DOG FIGHT = AGGRESSIVE DOG

OK, before we tackle this myth, let's admit that dog fights can be scary, especially when they involve a dog that you absolutely adore. There are a few things to keep in mind if your dog gets into a fight:

  1. Not all fights are created equally. Earlier this week we discussed Ian Dunbar's bite scale. Often, fights between dogs are highly ritualized and do not even cause injury. Additionally, not all dogs are equally susceptible to injury. It takes a lot less bite pressure to puncture through a Greyhound's coat than it would if the fight involved a dog with a thick, double coat. A bite that tears into the skin on a Greyhound and leaves a mark would likely not even leave a mark on a Chow, Husky, or Olde English Sheepdog.
  2. What's the fight/bite ratio? If your dog has been in multiple fights, how many have caused serious injury? If a dog has had 500 interactions with other dogs, been in 10 fights, and never injured another dog, the prognosis may be much better than if a dog has had five interactions with other dogs, fought with all of them, and sent three of them to the vet's office for stitches or worse.
  3. Have you ever been in a fight or argument with someone you cared about? Your child, husband, or best friend? Squabbles can happen without permanently ruining relationships. If fights are recurring and damaging, it certainly is cause to seek professional assistance. If your dogs get in the occasional squabble, nobody is hurt, and you do not note that the incidents are increasing in frequency, you may not have much to worry about.
  4. Variations in play styles can create squabbling - we'll talk much more about play styles in upcoming blog entries. Stay tuned!

MYTH #10: ALL BITING = AGGRESSION

Wow, this one really drives me bonkers. Puppies nip because they are teething, exploring the world with their mouths much like human children. Puppy teething is not aggression, although if unaddressed it can produce a dog that learns people are easy to train and can be controlled through judicious (in the dog's perspective) use of their teeth. Can aggression or worrisome biting behavior be exhibited in puppies? Absolutely. Are most puppies biting because they are out-of-control aggressive? Certainly not.

I see this when dogs play with each other as well. In play at the classroom, dogs frequently bite each others' necks and faces. Cuba's "bestie Westie" McKenzie absolutely loves to jump up, grab his ear in her teeth, and hang on for all she's worth. He generally responds by dramatically throwing himself to the ground and showing her his belly. (Incidentally, she loves this. She usually looks at me as if to say, "Hey, teacher! Did you see what a big, tough terrier I am? I'm only 16 lbs but can take down giants!) Yes, she is biting Cuba. No, it is not aggressive. Yes, they growl when they play. No, it is not aggressive.

Dogs don't generally get together to play with Barbies, engage in a game of croquet or spades. They chase each other. Wrestle. Bite each other. Sometimes they vocalize. If you know the signs of healthy play (which, as I mentioned, we'll be talking about soon on this blog), you'll be able to differentiate between problem biting, growling, and barking and versions of these behaviors which are truly playful. I know many of my clients never want dogs to growl or bite each other in play. While I understand why they might feel like this, it's often an unrealistic expectation.

Don't believe me? I have a challenge for you.

  1. Invite toddlers to your house. The more, the merrier. Invite at least six of them, for good measure.
  2. Place them in an area with no toys.
  3. Allow them to interact together for an hour or two.
  4. Do not permit them to make a single sound. No talking, laughing, nothing.
  5. Let me know how that works out for you. Video response would be superb.

I jest because such an event would be nigh impossible to coordinate and is about as likely as viewing true "dog play" that does not involve the use of teeth or vocalization.

Nipping and chewing are normal aspects of teething. Biting in play is a normal component of healthy play. Each of these biting behaviors has the potential to go over the top in some individuals and in some poorly managed dogs, but neither is, intrinsically, an indicator of an aggression problem.

Like I said, I still have a few important myths about aggression I'd really like to share with my dogster friends. They're on deck for next week. Until then, happy training and give your dogs a treat and a belly scratch from me!

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