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— June 26, 2012 —

Dog Aggression v/s Human Aggression
Are they the same?
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

I have a dog that is too dog-aggressive for the dog park. Does this mean he is dangerous? I’m about to have a baby. Should I get rid of my dog? Can he be fixed? These are all very common questions. Given only the information presented above, I would answer them as follows. While his dog aggression can be managed, he probably can’t be “cured” and no, you don’t have to get rid of him.

I say this knowing that some people will refuse to believe it. After all, a baby is so important and so fragile, even one slip up by a dog could be very dangerous, right?

Right, but dog-on-dog aggression is not as indication that the same animal will display dog-on-human aggression.

Dogs have been bred for generations to possess certain traits. Border Collies herd, Rottweilers guard and Beagles hunt. Another breed, Jack Russell Terriers, were specifically bred to kill rats and other pests. No one thinks immediately that a Jack Russell who kills rats is immediately dangerous to babies. A dog aggressive dog is no different. It’s an isolated trait that has little bearing on other traits like human aggression.

First, I would like to define what I mean by dog-aggressive. A dog that snaps at the other dogs when cornered at the park is not dog-aggressive. It’s scared. A dog that fights with another dog over food is not dog-aggressive. It’s a resource guarder. A dog that lunges while on a leash, but can socialize off leash with dogs is not dog-aggressive (This is one of the biggest training issue I run into). It’s frustrated and needs training. What I am calling a dog-aggressive is a dog that will bite or attack a dog simply because it is there without any other aggravating factors. The bite is usually silent, immediate and severe.

Sam, a rescue that we recently adopted out is a good example of this. He is bulldog mix of some sort. We aren’t sure exactly what his mix is. When we got him in, he was the absolutely sweetest dog we had ever met. He loved everyone and introduced himself with big tail wags and loose posture. We had him a few days before we decided to introduce him to a dog. Since he was so friendly, I broke my rule and allowed him to meet one of my dogs without a leash. I realized my mistake almost immediately, but by that time the fight was on. He had grabbed Jelly by the back of her neck. It was a for-real bite and I was forced to actually pick him up by his tail to get him to release her.

Because Sam had been so perfect with all the humans he had met, I allowed myself to trust that he would be fine with dogs. When Sam was adopted out, we were overjoyed that he found a home in the country with a couple who didn’t need to have a “doggie park” dog. Sam is a perfect pet for them, and he is a danger to no-one as long as he is not put in the wrong situation.

The separation of dog-dog and dog-human aggression is something like the separation between the prey drive of a dog and it’s desire to eat. I know of many dogs that will kill a rabbit or squirrel (or a lovely skunk…) in their yard, but then not eat it. The drive to hunt and kill comes from a different part of the brain than the drive to eat. Likewise, the drive to attack animals (dogs, cats, rabbits, rats, etc) is a different behavior than aggression to humans.

There are dogs that possess both traits, dog and human aggression. I have also seen dogs that were human aggressive, but got along well with other dogs. These dogs have tended to be fear biters, not outright aggressive to humans like Sam was to Jelly. If your dog has shown any aggression you should meet with a trainer who has experience with aggressive dogs to help get to the bottom of it.

So, what do you do with a dog-aggressive dog? Can dog aggression be cured? Training can be helpful, depending on the level of aggression. The more severe the aggression, the less likely it will be “fixable”. With the more severe cases, I basically train owners to manage the behavior. I tend to ere on the side of caution and help owners accept their dog’s limitations. I believe any dog should be able to walk down the street and pass other dogs. I do not push owners of very dog-aggressive dogs to try to “socialize” their dog. Generally, through training I have been able to teach owners to handle their dogs in such a manner as to reduce lunging, and teach the dog to focus on them rather than the other dog. Also, dog-aggressive dog owners in more populated areas will need to be more proactive with other dog owners. If you have one of these dogs, you will need to educate other owners so they don’t allow their dogs to approach your dog. A friend with a very dog-aggressive dog actually had another dog owner bring his small dog up and put it right in her dog’s face without asking. She was taken completely by surprise. Needless to say, this didn’t go well for the little dog. She has since become much more proactive when she encounters other dogs on her walks.

Whatever you do, please don’t judge your dog’s suitability as a pet based solely on whether it gets along with other dogs. Meet with a good trainer, work on finding the root of your dogs aggression. If your dog is actually motivated by fear, you may be able to do a great deal to help him get comfortable with other dogs. Ultimately, while you may not be able to take your dog to the dog park, there is no reason that a dog-aggressive dog can’t be a great companion for you and your child.