My dog and I …would like to talk about a tricky issue this month. When is aggression not aggression? I am often called out to handle so-called aggression problems with clients’ dogs. Sometimes they are dog-to-dog issues and sometimes dog-to-human. Of course, the incidents that involve humans are much more problematic with greater consequences but dog-aggression can be just as frightening and upsetting. Either problem can result in a greatly diminished life experience for dogs and humans. Dogs communicate with their bodies.
They do not have the capability of a sit-down discussion or verbal conflict resolution so they must communicate physical. This is something we humans are discouraged from doing from a young age…”Use your words!!” A quick lift of a lip will discourage another dog from encroaching on an older female’s personal space. A low growl may stop another dog from making off with Banksie’s chew-toy. Most dogs are able to read these signals and will accede to them without too much further “discussion” Resource guarding and territory disputes are commonplace in the canine world.
However, when the humans come into the picture things become vastly more complicated. Sometimes they become the resource that must be defended or the human owner misreads a fairly benign signal from one dog to another and becomes anxious, throwing unstable energy into the mix. A high, squeaky and excited voice from a child may be misread by the dog as an attack or an owners’ startled reaction may send his/her dog into protective mode. There is no one situation in which “aggression” may occur when dogs and humans communicate so differently.
I have witnessed my dogs having a wonderful playtime while knowing that to the outside eye this may look like world war 111!! Dogplay is a “contact sport” I am sure that Football would look aggressive to a visitor from Outer Space.!! That said, there are certainly aggressive behaviors that cannot be allowed. And the key to diverting them is to first and foremost be your dog’s leader in our complex human society. Start with your pup’s mouthing and jumping behavior and make sure you are the first person he looks to when he encounters a new situation.
If you are not only the most significant voice in his world but are physically usually in front of him, the idea will become fixed that you are his leader and he will take his cues from you. It is different of course, if you adopt an older dog when you may have to make that point a little clearer but can be done if you are consistent in your message…”Listen to ME” Take your dog’s breed into consideration, do not avoid conflict situations but teach your dog to manage them and if you are unsure how to do that, call a professional.
Life is too short to stay home. So be aware but try not to overreact. Keep moving if you see an uncomfortable situation looming and “DON’T FREEZE!!” Remember your dog will be reacting with that first look so pay attention without becoming over-defensive. A lot of heartache can be avoided with some understanding of how your animal communicates and what you are putting into the mix!!
– Janine Lazarus, LBSPY #58. (Sept 29-Nov 3, 2014)