aggressive behavior in dogs: 5 myths debunked

What picture comes to mind when you think of an aggressive dog? 

Don't think. Just close your eyes and picture that dog.

No, really. Do it now. I'll wait. 

I'm going to guess that the majority of you pictured a medium-to large dog, either a pit bull breed or a long-muzzled breed, and one with a dark coat. The teeth are bared, the ears are back and the brow is furled. It's stance is strong and imposing, and it is either growling or barking.

How close did I get? I'll bet I predicted several of the features you pictured.

We all have biases and judgements when it comes to aggressive dogs. They may be based on personal experiences, what we've heard, or even what we've seen in the movies. This past week, I've been attending the Prosperous Pet Business Online Conference hosted by Kristin Morrison, founder of Six Figure Pet Sitting Academy. Kristin has interviewed some incredibly knowledgeable and fascinating leaders from all aspects of the pet industry, and one of my favorites, world-renowed dog trainer and behaviorist Victoria Stilwell, spoke about dog behavior and communication. She provided quite a great deal of insight about aggressive behavior in dogs. Some of what she said reinforced what I've learned in the past or have experienced, myself, and some of it was new to me. I'm incredibly thankful to gain this knowledge that I'd like to share with you. Based on my training and Victoria Stilwell's insights, I've compiled a list of five myths about aggressive behavior in dogs.

Aggressive Behavior in Dogs: 5 Myths Debunked.

Aggressive Behavior in Dogs: 5 Myths Debunked.

This article is intended for informational purposes only. ALWAYS CONSULT A PROFESSIONAL TRAINER WHEN DEALING WITH AN AGGRESSIVE DOG.

5 myths about aggressive behavior in dogs

1. Dogs are aggressive because they want to be the alpha.

Victoria pointed out that being aggressive to become the alpha or boss is a very human way of thinking. Dogs think differently than we do, and it's sad that this is an accepted theory about why dogs become aggressive, as it promotes confrontational relationships between humans and dogs. Victoria said we should "throw the dominance myth into the trash can and leave it where it belongs." Dogs can show signs of dominance and assert them over each other and humans, but thinking these behaviors are aggressive is a flawed way of thinking. 

So if not to be "top dog," why are dogs aggressive?

Dogs can be aggressive for about as many reasons as there are dogs, but some common reasons are medical issues, being uncomfortable or in pain, lack of confidence, or past traumatic experience.

2. Physical signs of aggression in dogs are obvious.

Remember that snarling dog you pictured earlier? Well, you hit the nail on the head, but you barely scratched the surface. That Kujo-like pooch you saw in your mind definitely showed signs of aggression, but only the obvious ones. There are many subtle signs of aggression that the average person can't read. Unless you have experience or education with the trickier signs, you may not take them for what they mean, which can put you and the dog in danger. According to Victoria Stilwell, some subtle signs of aggression in dogs include:

• stillness

• a quick freeze 

• body tension

• head turn

• eye turn

• lip lick

All of these are signs that the dog is uncomfortable and may become aggressive.

I wish I had learned more of these subtle signs earlier in my career. I recall a time when I was making a pet sitting visit to a "guest dog" of a client of mine. This client's dogs had always been delights, and they knew me well. She told me that her friend was going away with her for the weekend and that his dog would be at the house, too. "He's really friendly and gets along great with my dogs, so I don't think you'll have a problem," she said. I trusted her (I know she meant no harm), and went along with it. When I arrived for my visit, I could see that the new pooch was a bit uncomfortable with me, so I kept my distance. After some time had passed, I noticed that he had been still in the corner of the room for quite some time, frozen, yet keeping his eyes on me. I stayed about twelve feet back, bent down, and extended my open palm, slightly, resting it on the floor.

The dog suddenly became the Tasmanian Devil, gnashing and barking, attacking my hand faster than I could pull it away. He did some serious damage, and I was in shock, both emotionally and physically. Had I known more about the subtle signs of aggression, perhaps I would have handled the situation differently.

Unfortunately, I didn't read the signals correctly, and this was the result. 

Unfortunately, I didn't read the signals correctly, and this was the result. 

3. Aggressive dogs are mean.

Victoria shared with us that "every dog has a degree of intelligence." Some have more intelligence than others (just like their human counterparts), but they all have some level of ability to process and reason, read intentions, or even imagine a solution to a problem. We often hear that dogs have the intelligence of a two-year-old. Victoria says that that is generally true, in terms of the human way of thinking, but that dogs have many abilities that take them beyond human abilities.

Aggressive dogs are rarely mean at heart, but are more likely suffering from a physical ailment or emotional trauma. If we can understand why they are bothered, we can work on the aggression issue. Victoria reminded us that dogs have the ability to love and the desire to love as humans do. They share those feelings and want to love and love back.

As a simple example, what happens to your behavior when you have a bad headache? 

I know that when I have a headache, I'm much more irritable. I have the wherewithal to let my children know "Mommy doesn't feel well right now. Could we please keep the noise down?" If they don't, and I have to ask repeatedly, giving them signs and signals, I eventually snap. "QUIET! I HAVE A HEADACHE!" Since a dog doesn't have the spoken language advantage, his way of lashing out might be physical. It's not about being mean, it's about communicating a feeling. We all lash out, right or wrong. We need to understand that an aggressive dog isn't mean, but it trying to communicate a feeling. 

4. We should punish aggressive behavior in dogs.

Since aggressive dogs often have dominance, fear, or insecurity issues, punishing the behavior can make it worse. It only reinforces that they should be fearful and plays upon their insecurities. We want to build these types of dogs up rather than beat them down. Victoria calls punishing aggressive behavior in dogs "unskilled handling." 

So how can we help?

Victoria recommends aggressive dogs go through a process of habituation. Habituation is "gradually exposing the dog to something that it fears at a distance it can cope with, pairing it with something truly wonderful." Gradually, the distance is decreased as the dog learns to cope with the situation better through positive reinforcement. 

This completely makes sense to me. Why punish aggressive behavior with aggressive or other negative behavior? Build the dog's confidence and watch him learn, change, and shine.

5. An aggressive dog can't be rehabilitated.

Though there are some very extreme cases where an aggressive dog can not be rehabilitated, Victoria says that it is extremely rare (she's seen it only about five times in twenty years of dog training). It depends on the history of the individual dog. Breed doesn't matter. It's always best to give a dog a chance with a professional trainer before deeming it unable to be rehabilitated.

looking beyond the snarl

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to expand my knowledge about aggressive behavior in dogs with Victoria Stilwell through the Prosperous Pet Business Online Conference. My horizons were broadened, and I feel like I have a better understanding of the intricacies that surround these often misunderstood behaviors. Dog behavior is not always as it seems. As Victoria put it, "In order to be a good trainer, you always need to be learning. Dogs are highly evolved. Let's evolve with them."

English-born Victoria Stilwell is one of the world's most well-known and respected dog trainers. She is the star of Animal Planet's hit TV Series It's Me or the Dog. She has co-founded several successful dog training companies, and has authored best-selling dog training books. Check out her official web site for more information. Her site is filled with valuable information and resources.


i believe in leashes: my story

At one time, I believed that off-leash freedom was a basic right of dogs and something an owner should provide on a regular basis. I don't mean just in his own backyard. I believed that well-behaved dogs should be allowed to roam free every now and then. I advocated heavily for a dog park in Maricopa, the growing city we originally established ourselves in when we moved to Arizona. In fact, I was a founding member and chairperson of a group that raised a considerable amount of money toward that cause.

Over the years, I have changed my mind about public off-leash places, and, especially, about people allowing their dogs to roam free in their open garages or driveways. My current opinion is based on a solid combination of education, experience, and fear.

In April of 2007, I was walking a client's dog when my life was altered forever. Ralphie, a big, sweet, mixed-breed pooch, had been in my care numerous times, and we'd been on countless walks together. I knew her well. She was a calm, well-behaved girl who knew how to walk on a leash.

I had my boys with me that evening. B was going on eleven years old, and Porter was an infant, not even three months old. B pushed Porter in his stroller while I walked Ralphie. We took a typical route around the neighborhood on the sidewalk on the right side of the road. As we neared the end of the street where the road turned only one way, I heard a sudden commotion at a bank of mailboxes across the street.

It's true when they say time slows down when your adrenaline kicks in, but, still, it all happened so fast.

Three large dogs charged us. Their owner, a graying man standing at his open mailbox with an armful of letters, was left in the dust. I came to learn later that he was only just across the street from his home. He didn't feel he needed to leash his dogs.

I had time only to scream "GET YOUR BROTHER ACROSS THE STREET" to B, which he did in an instant. The dogs were not after me or my boys. They were after Ralphie. And she was such a sweetheart (maybe without much brains), that she didn't fight back. My instincts took over, and they were to protect her. It was three against one, and I was her back-up. She was in my charge, and I was responsible. Don't question my thought process, because there was no thought process.

I screamed. I kicked the other dogs. I flailed. But one thing I didn't do was let go of Ralphie's leash. If I did, I would completely lose control of her, and, as a professional pet sitter, that was unacceptable to me. She was my responsibility, and I had to protect her. The noise of the three dogs was frightening. They were wolves in that moment. There were teeth and there was strength in this unfairly balanced fight that I can't describe. I held on to the leash.

As the battle migrated, I was pulled down and drug over the asphalt. My stomach had road rash. I got up, and then I was pulled down and drug a second time, this time on my knees. Still, somehow, only by instinct (certainly not using whatever brains had), I still held on to the leash. I held on as the owner of the dogs drug each one by the collar back to his house as the remaining dog(s) continued their attack. Once the final dog was off, I ran Ralphie back to my boys. All I had left in me was adrenaline. The man tried to talk to me, and I just wanted to get away. I just wanted my boys and Ralphie as far away from that as we could get. The man hollered after me, but I don't know what he said. I just walked fast. It didn't matter my condition or Ralphie's in that moment. We just had to get far, far away.

We rounded the next corner, and B started talking to me. I told him to just be quiet and walk fast. He insisted. "Kristen, you're bleeding. You're bleeding really bad." I didn't feel pain, but when I looked down, I saw that my knees no longer had skin. Just then, a bit of pain registered in my hand. When I looked, I had to look away. Yes, there was blood, but the worst of it was the fact that my pinkie finger was bent at a 90-degree angle, and not in the natural way.

With all of my mothering and pet-protecting instincts in overdrive, and, admittedly, a ridiculously idiotic low-level of self-protective drive running through my veins, I told B not to worry...I'd be just fine. Let's just get home.

Miraculously, and unbelievably, Ralphie didn't have a scratch on her. I checked every. single. inch. She was perfect.

I don't remember how I got Ralphie home, but I remember needing B's help to feed her, because I only had one hand to work with. Feed her? As if an animal couldn't miss one meal under the circumstances. I went into auto-pilot, and, with help, I got the job done. In my mind, there was no other way. I wiped the blood off of my client's floor and took the bloody paper towels with me, not wanting to leave something so alarming behind. Porter was awake, but kept quiet. B listened and followed my every direction, which was also miraculous.

We got into my stick-shift Jeep Wrangler. Before we left the driveway, I dialed Ralphie's mom. I told her voice mail first that Ralphie was fine, and then I apologized for having to cut the visit a bit short, but that I needed some medical attention.

"Where are we going?" B asked.

"I don't know, yet." I remember telling myself, for the first time, to think. Think. Think. How was I going to drive the Jeep with one hand?

Somehow, we arrived at the local urgent care, which was the largest medical facility our small town had. They looked at me and immediately told me they couldn't help and that I needed to go to the hospital.

I drove home (how they allowed me to do that with two children is still a mystery), and I called my husband at work. "Please, please come home and help me. There's been an accident with some dogs, and I'm pretty sure I have a broken finger." That's when I looked down at my hand for the second time, and realized I'd best not look again. My husband was on his way. Porter started to cry because he was hungry. I pulled him to my breast, but I couldn't hold him. I needed my hand to work. B held his baby brother while I heated a bottle of pumped breast milk and defrosted a few more, predicting that I might not be able to feed him for a while. My husband came home and went into action, letting me believe he wasn't any more concerned than I was. He drove us all to the hospital. X-rays were taken. The nurses cleaned me up and put my hand in large cast-like bandage. They instructed me not to remove it, gave me a prescription for painkillers, and made me an appointment with the valley's top orthopedist for first thing the next morning.

I don't remember much else from that night, but I do remember wondering what the big deal was. My dad had had countless football injuries and stories of his coaches popping his fingers back in to place. He went right back into the game, and that was all I could think of. Why couldn't the hospital staff do just that and send me on my way? Why wasn't I simply back in the game?

I learned from the orthopedist the next morning that three fingers on my left hand were broken clean through, but not cleanly. There were jagged edges and fun things like that. I dreaded being in a cast for who knew how long, and then the doctor casually told me that my surgery was scheduled. SURGERY? For silly little fingers? Yes, there would be permanent screws and lots of physical therapy. I was in denial and disbelief.

The reality of the situation came to be that I had two surgeries, six months of physical therapy, and I still have very limited mobility in those three fingers to this day. I'm fine. I mean, considering the recent events that have left so many without limbs at all, what am I complaining about?

Where am I now? I have pain or discomfort every day, but natural joint supplements help. I can't bend my fingers properly, which makes some tasks difficult. I have a hard time holding small items, and it's tough to tie a pretty bow on a birthday package. Braiding my daughter's hair is a challenge, but I manage to get it done. It's difficult for me to cut with a knife and fork, because holding the fork in my left hand isn't easy. There are a bunch of things I can't do properly, but, still, I can do everything in my way, and I am a whole, fine person. Even so, it still sucks.

My life was forever changed simply because that man thought in that particular moment that he didn't need to leash his dogs. He was just going across the street. He was just checking his mailbox. His dogs were nice. His dogs knew commands. His dogs were in his control. He didn't account for variables.

I'm very cautious, now, when it comes to off-leash dogs. If an untethered canine comes down a driveway at me while I'm walking a dog, I am not shy about letting the owner know that the situation is unacceptable. The owner might say "don't worry...he's friendly." But how does he know my dog is friendly? How does he know that their combination won't be volatile? Although any public off-leash situation now makes me leery, appropriate and allowable off-leash situations exist. Save it for the dog park, when everyone in attendance understands that it is an off-leash situation and is choosing to put themselves and their animals in that position. Invite some doggie pals over for a party, and let them run around, free, in your own backyard.

People and other animals should not be placed in jeopardy because someone feels their dog has a right to "freedom." Dog owners need to take every precaution.

I believe in leashes.