Updated: Jan 23
Years ago, I had a client who was afraid of her own dog. Technically, the dog belonged to her husband, and whenever he was away at work, the dog stayed out in the yard because of her apprehensions. I was there to assess the dog. Now, having handled aggression cases for many years, I knew that sometimes anything from jumping up on people to grabbing things out of someone’s hands is termed “aggression.” Startling or even frightening as those things can be, they are in reality issues of dogs needing training. Then there are other dogs who truly do have aggressive tendencies, and those range on a spectrum from mild to severe. I went in with an open mind. What I found there shocked me. The dog was locked out of the house by a sliding glass door. When he spied the woman and me, the 100-plus pound mixed breed started throwing himself against the glass while frothing at the mouth. He had a wild-eyed, glazed look that said if he could get in, he would cause severe harm to both of us. The woman told me that this is the way he would behave whenever he spotted her. Even after having worked with hundreds of dogs who were seriously aggressive toward people, this was above and beyond. Of course, we discussed getting the dog a full veterinary exam including a complete blood workup, and a whole lot more, but my point is that this was a truly dangerous dog. (In case you’re wondering, we never did let him inside, and it came down to a serious talk about lifelong management if they were to keep the dog.)
Another unusual case comes to mind. A woman in her seventies had adopted a dog from a German shepherd rescue. The woman had medical issues that made her weak and unsteady on her feet. The dog was young, large, and very strong, and should never have been adopted into this home. Since the time the dog had been adopted, he had displayed disturbing behaviors that included growling and snapping at the woman as well as at her male caregiver. The dog had not threatened me in any way during our session until, standing in front of me, apropos of nothing, he placed his teeth around my wrist, and very calmly and deliberately began to bite down with gradually increasing pressure while staring hard at me. To be honest, it was chilling. I managed to snap him out of it with a perky rendition of his name followed by “sit” (I knew he knew the behavior and might automatically respond to it), which, fortunately for me, worked. Still, this was one of the few dogs in my long career that simply made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Speaking of that piloerection response, it’s there for a reason. Though we’re living in modern times, that ancient, instinctive warning system still works just fine. Its function is to keep us out of danger. It might appear as though a dog isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, and yet something feels very wrong. When that happens, I listen. Years ago I was helping a trainer friend who had been tasked with doing temperament testing on shelter dogs. As we walked through the kennels deciding which dogs to test, we passed a pen housing a rottweiler. Now, I happen to like rotties, and certainly have no prejudice against them. But this one? He wasn’t hard staring, or growling, or showing a single sign of anything that would make anyone worry. And it wasn’t that he had the usual rottie expressionless look, either. There was just something–a feeling, a vibe—that made me extremely wary of him, and I told my friend there was no way we should take him out at that time. We finished walking down the row of pens and on our way back we passed the rottie once again. With absolutely no provocation from us, as we approached, he flung himself against the bars in a way that cleary suggested a serious intent to cause harm. As with the dog who was out in the yard, this was beyond the usual barrier frustration that can happen when a dog is behind a fence or other obstruction.
There are plenty of dogs who are, to varying degrees, aggressive toward people. I have certainly helped my share of people-aggressive dogs, including some who had multiply puncture-wounded multiple people. In other words, dogs who displayed severe aggression. In the vast majority of the cases, given good owner compliance, we were able to modify the behaviors. But dogs are living beings and, just like human psychopaths, there are some who are irredeemable. The truly dangerous ones are few and far between, and yet, they exist. That is one reason it irks me to no end when a trainer boasts that he can “fix any dog” or “resolve any behavior issue.” It doesn’t do any good to tell an owner that if they were only a stronger pack leader or had been tougher on the dog, this wouldn’t be happening. Although owners can certainly contribute to or even cause behavior problems, in some cases it simply has nothing to do with them. Of course everything should be done to help a dog with aggression issues, including calling in a qualified professional trainer who can assess the behavior and explain the options. But again, it does a disservice to owners to blame them, and it also helps no one to make sweeping generalizations about aggressive behavior because unfortunately, there really are truly dangerous dogs out there.
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