Myths About Dog Aggression: Part IX

 |  Feb 10th 2011  |   10 Contributions

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Working pit bull - detection dog for law enforcement

Wow, are we really up to myth number sixteen? Yowza! I can think of many, many more and don't know if I should extend the series that far out, I would hate for people to get bored. For the record, covering all the myths on canine aggression would be a more appropriate topic for an entire book than a series of blog entries, so if I forget any, please forgive me. Onward, dog-loving soldiers, to myths number 16 and 17!


Many aggression and reactivity problems do have a learned component, which means that they are partially (occasionally fully) developed and maintained by environmental reinforcement or reinforcement from the handler. But it is also entirely possible that aggression and reactivity problems can crop up even if you are the best pet parent in the world and have done everything right. Yes, you can see aggressive and reactive behaviors in your dog even if you:

  • enroll your dog in a puppy socialization class
  • do all your research and support a breeder who considers carefully form, genetic health, working ability, and temperament in her breeding decisions
  • use "dog-friendly" training methods
  • buy a "friendly" breed
  • continue socialization throughout your dog's life
  • feed your dog the best quality food you can afford
  • provide your dog with plenty of physical exercise and mental stimulation
  • provide proper veterinary care

What might be some reasons aggression would develop in such well-raised individuals? While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are a few potential contributing factors.

  • genetics - please note that I am not speaking of a particular breed here. Faulty genetic wiring happens to every pure breed and among mixed breeds as well. While genetic does not necessarily mean "un-modifiable," genetics certainly may play a role in limiting both the speed of rehabilitation and the ultimate prognosis for recovery. Asking whether behavior is "nature" or "nurture" grossly oversimplifies the issue at hand - it is not nature vs. nurture but nature x nurture. Both are instrumental in the lifetime development and evolution of temperament and behavior. Dogs may be genetically shy, outgoing, barky, bitey, high energy, and yes, aggressive or reactive. (Judging from my experience meeting three generations of Cuba's family, I have determined "silliness" is also a heritable trait.)
  • single event learning - this is a big one. Often, all it takes is one extremely traumatic experience (and the definition of "extremely traumatic" varies widely amongst dogs and people!) to create a long-lasting and significant change in behavior. If you think about it, it's a survival mechanism - nature doesn't often give second chances and when it does, it very rarely gives third chances. Single event learning is why you'll never eat again at the restaurant where you got food poisoning, why even the thought of the meal which made you ill can create a physiological response which may include nausea, a head ache, or stomach pains. It's why the child that burns her hand once on the stove rarely reaches for the hot burner a second time. Dogs are particularly vulnerable to these negative experiences during certain stages of development known as "fear periods" which occur during puppyhood and adolescence, but single event learning may effect dogs of any age, breed, or socialization level. Frequently, a client says, "my dog was always good about having her nails clipped until one time at the vet's they held her down and quicked her really bad. Now she bites when you try to touch her nails." Or, a client will say, "My dog always did wonderfully on walks until she was attacked by off leash dogs and severely injured. Now she trembles, growls, and urinates when she sees another dog approaching."
  • medical - medical factors can contribute to the development and continuance of aggression and reactivity problems as well. I know of a very well-socialized, friendly, playful dog who became significantly less friendly with new dogs after her diagnosis of luxating patella - certain types of play became painful for her, and she would growl and snap at dogs who approached her in an "over the top" fashion (like Boxers. Yeah, you Boxer people know exactly what I'm talking about, LOL!). A dog who has severe arthritis may growl, snap, or bite at young puppies who insist on climbing on him, or biting at him. A dog who is losing his vision may have trouble reading the body language of approaching humans or canines. Any dog in pain is more likely to bite, whether the pain is chronic (like arthritis) or acute (like a broken leg or a cut paw pad). Hormonal imbalances, epilepsy, brain tumors or other cancer, diabetes, loss of vision or hearing, parasitic infestation, infection, all may in one way or another contribute to aggression and reactivity, either directly (as in the case of a hormonal imbalance) or indirectly (the dog is in pain and is trying to "protect himself" from that which may cause him discomfort). A good behavior consultant will insist on working closely with your vet to rule out and address medical contributing factors.
  • breed - ok, I expect to lose some fans here. As the owner of a Chow mix and trainer to many, many dogs who represent commonly maligned breeds with a reputation for being "dangerous" I think that breed is overrated when it comes to predicting aggression risk in MOST cases. (Stay tuned - we'll be discussing whether BSL is a good solution to society's concerns about dog aggression in a subsequent blog entry!) "Pit bulls" or American Pit Bull Terriers are currently in the spotlight, the latest breed to be discriminated against by society. For the record, I love pibbles. Love 'em. But as someone who loves the breed, I think it's important to love pit bulls for what they are, not for what we want people to think they are. Are all pibbles inherently dog aggressive? No. The majority are fantastic, loyal dogs who make great training partners and family companions. Some are service dogs and therapy dogs, many others compete in a variety of canine athletic fields and events. Above, you'll see a picture of one pit bull who works for the Washington State Police Department as a drug detection dog.

However, to deny that dog aggression has been rigorously selected for in this breed historically indicates that one does not understand or is unwilling to accept the history of this breed and, unfortunately, is much like saying, "I don't think a Border Collie would be more likely to herd than any other purebred or mixed breed dog." When I see a pibble in a private consultation, it is usually for dog-dog aggression or reactivity. On the flip side, aggression toward humans was also heavily culled out of this breed - someone needs to reach in the pit and split those dogs up safely.

Unfortunately, pibbles may be the single most victimized breed in modern human history - they are viciously exploited by unscrupulous individuals who are more concerned with the thickness of their wallet than the animal's well-being (this is true of many breeds, including those not traditionally bred for fighting). We want to protect them, a task best attained through understanding them.

While I know even mentioning breed is politically incorrect, it's an important consideration nonetheless. I've seen a few dogs (not just pit bulls) that are absolutely lovely puppies and social as young adolescents. When they reach physical/sexual maturity, often it's like a "switch goes off" and suddenly, the dog is fighting, even with a littermate he has loved playing with for his entire life. This trend tends to be particularly common in various terriers and livestock guardian breeds, but is also seen in breeds which are typically thought to be "friendly."

I intentionally listed "breed" as the last factor on the list because often, it's not a huge issue. Aggression is not specific to breeds and can occur in "friendly" breeds, mixed breeds, and all dogs. But it would be foolhardy to assume that breed specific behaviors and tendencies are fairy tales. Training can mitigate many, but not necessarily all, of these issues.


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