Dog aggression is a complicated thing.
It seems I spend a lot of time writing about it, thinking about it, learning about it and trying to help clients whose dogs are suffering from it.
I have spent most of my career working with dog aggression in some form or another.
From trying to put an end to it, and control it so that it doesn’t ruin lives.
To trying to build it for police and protection dogs that need aggression to work.
I think that being on both sides of aggression, suppression and building, has helped me to understand it and recognize it even more rapidly and deal with it swiftly. And for a great video series that shows you how to deal with aggressive behavior, click here.
I have rarely seen a dog bite that “came out of nowhere”.
The truth is that this phrase and the stories that develop from it are like scary urban legends that are whispered around the campfire at night.
They may have, at one time, been based on some minuscule fact or assumption of fact but the whole of the story is just embellished to make for a great tale.
Or to avoid culpability after something bad happens.
The only real time I have seen “the elusive bite that came out of nowhere” was when the dog had a seizure or brain disorder.
Rage Syndrome or Springer Rage
Rage Syndrome (or Springer Rage) is a condition where a dog goes from seemingly affectionate and normal, to extreme unprovoked aggression and biting.
Most data now shows that this is a seizure type of misfiring in the brain that causes sudden onset aggression.
However, this is pretty rare (thank goodness).
The Signs of Aggression Are Ignored
The majority of the time people choose to, or accidentally, ignore the signs.
Why? Why would anyone choose to ignore the signs of aggression, prior to a bite?
The answer is complicated, yet easy.
They don’t want to think that their dog, or a dog that they know or love would actually bite.
In some ways I understand, we are judged by our dog’s inherent temperament and behavior.
We are DRILLED as young children that if a dog is aggressive it is because the owners “just didn’t love it or treat it right”.
And, truthfully some people are just too lazy to want to exert the effort it would take to combat aggression.
The Columbine Syndrome
I often call this the “Columbine Syndrome”.
I lived in the Denver area when the first large school shooting “Columbine” shocked the nation.
But the truth was that there were all kinds of warning signs.
The teens were hoarding weapons.
They had threatened to commit crimes online.
They had told others they were going to commit the crime.
No one believed them.
In some ways I understand. I mean, before this incident who would have ever believed that such horrors could occur.
But ignoring horrific signs serves no one.
And, getting help will take work and commitment.
My First Cue
My first cue or indication is when a dog owner starts a statement with:
“He’s never been aggressive”
“He’s never actually bitten”
The only reason to try and convince me of these things, is because you know these things exist.
After all, I have had dogs that have “never been aggressive and have never bitten anyone” and I never had to tell anyone that. My dogs’ behaviors put people at ease.
I never even considered saying “he’s never bitten or been aggressive”.
People say that when they are trying to convince themselves and others.
Aggressive Behavior = Intent
I don’t know how many times I have to say it, but aggressive behavior often equals intent.
And, I, personally would rather you take an innocent behavior seriously (let’s say a play bow with a growl) than ignore a potentially dangerous behavior.
The Man Who Was Mauled to Death in Bed
Oddly, this isn’t a one-time incident.
You can google and find several stories on people who are killed, in bed, by their dogs.
And, it is my opinion that these dogs have showed signs of aggression, prior to the killing; that were ignored.
Many times, dogs that kill people in bed have possession aggression or resource guard the bed and other things that they deem are theirs.
They may, in fact, growl at their owners for years when they are accidentally touched by the owner in the bed while they sleep.
The dog owner may not even really pay attention, and certainly don’t take the behavior seriously.
Until the final night, where it can only be proposed that the owner irritated the dog by kicking, touching or rolling on him one final time.
The truth is that dogs warn us.
They don’t all hackle, growl or snap.
Some of them stiffen or freeze.
Some stare with pupils dilated.
Some lick their lips.
Sometimes their tails stand straight up while they wag.
Some uncurl or drop their tail.
Some pin their ears.
Some put their ears straight up.
But usually, in the beginning, the behavior makes our hair stand up on end.
I know that working at a vet hospital sometimes all I can say is, “he makes me uncomfortable” or “I don’t trust him”.
It may be a flash of many of those behaviors, or a blatant behavior but we are all (as adults and some children) given that gift of fear.
The problem is that some people ignore it.
I was once told that a certain breed was known for “staring” and freezing but it didn’t necessarily mean that the dog was a threat.
Personally, I don’t believe that.
I believe my gut.
I don’t ever want to discount my gut.
I may be wrong, on occasion, but I would rather be more cautious than to let my guard down and be tagged by a dog!
Don’t discount what you feel.
Don’t tell yourself that you are wrong for feeling what you are feeling.
Don’t just hope that it goes away.
Aggression doesn’t get better when we ignore it.
It is important to get on a behavior modification regimen and begin training.
If the aggression is severe consider seeing a boarded veterinary behaviorist who can prescribe medications that can help while on the behavior modification program!
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