Updated: Sep 12, 2020
I hear it almost daily from owners. "My dog is aggressive to XYZ". When I ask more questions about the situation, more often than not, it is not a true aggression issue. It is mostly insecurities or uncertainty. Here's the thing; true, honest aggression is rare. It's also quite a terrifying thing to witness. These dogs are bold, they don't cower and bark. They advance towards you, almost daring you to test them. They can be unpredictable, one minute they are sitting quietly and the next someone is bleeding. These dogs *generally* can not be rehabbed, they either need life long management or to be humanely euthanized for public safety. So now that you know more about what real aggression can be like, how can you tell the difference? What should you use to describe your dogs behavior?
Does your dog lunge at other people or dogs when out on leash? Understandable from a behavior standpoint. A leash is a tactical disadvantage, and our dogs know it. It is for this reason we almost never let our dogs greet other dogs on leash. So much about dog language relies on body communication, which they can't effectively do on leash. This is more a "reactivity" issue than leash aggression. In true leash aggression your dog would be snarling and pulling you towards the other dog or person as hard as they possible could. In both instances we worry about "redirected aggression", meaning they're focused on something in front of them then their handler catches their attention and they redirect and bite their handler.
Is your dog noisy and shows their teeth during play? This could just be their play style. For example my 10 year old female is always making noises when she plays with other dogs, but she has never (knock on wood) been in a fight with anyone. Why? Because dogs are better at reading each other than we are. They take in the whole picture in a way we have to work hard to notice. Where is their tail positioned? What are the corners of their mouth doing? What do their eyes look like? Are their hackles up or down? Is their body curved and soft, or ridged? All of these things tell a dog another's intent. You also need to look at the situation. I had a boarder recently whose owners worried she was aggressive with other dogs. After bringing her into my pack I quickly saw what they thought was aggression was simply her asking other dogs to give her space. She is a herding dog so it is her natural instinct to have this conversation with her face. As soon as she showed her teeth and gave a bark, and the other dog backed off, she went right back to playing and all was well. She did not continue to go after the other dog once they backed off, and she did not do it until another dog was on top of her or getting too energetic for her. Ever heard the term "Don't Punish the Growl?", well I believe that to be true. If you suppress a dog's natural instincts to warn others they're unhappy they can turn to true quiet aggression. 8 times out of 10 there were signals, that were missed, when something happens. The other 2 there was no warning, for various reasons (Maybe the dog was asleep, you stepped on it and it lunged out. Or it is true aggression)
Reactive dogs need help in some way. They need to learn what ever bad thing they are thinking is going to happen is not actually going to happen. They need support and guidance. They *generally* come around quite nicely to training and it is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Keep in mind, if you are unsure, please seek professional guidance sooner rather than later. If your dog bites someone, and they report it, this will cause you a real head ache. You might get your dog taken away, or have to pay high fines, or have other restrictions placed on you. I had a case once where a mans dogs got out of his house and ran down the road and attacked another dog that was in their yard. They not only had to pay vet bills and fines, they now are required to muzzle their dogs any time they are out of the yard for the rest of their lives that they live in that town. Reactivity is not something to take lightly or deal with on your own, even if it is not true aggression. As always, good luck out there. We're here to help!
For the Dogs,