At least five times per day, we have to escort canine patients and their owners through our rear employee entrance, because their dogs are so aggressive toward other dogs. The aggression is so bad in these individuals, that the situation in the waiting room where there are often many other dogs, could quickly become chaotic and downright dangerous.
The interesting thing about most of these dogs is that they do not have an aggressive nature toward people…just other dogs. Typically, I do not have to be very concerned or even muzzle these patients, as in most cases they are friendly and sweet toward even me, the mean guy in the scrubs that gives them injections. After our visit, the owner by necessity gets checked out right in the exam room, then exists the rear of the building and all is well.
But really, all is not well. These dogs cannot be walked and allowed to play in the company of other dogs. What would happen if these owners of dogs like this wanted to add a second dog to the home? That would not work very well.
Before beginning to deal with these dogs, we need to first understand what causes this problem. The first thing we should not do is necessarily blame it on breed. While it is true that there are certain breeds that are more prone to dog aggressive behavior than others, Chihuahuas, Pit Bulls, many little terrier breeds to name a few; breed is really not the whole story.
What these dogs lack and crave more than anything are two important things: (1) calm, assertive pack leadership, and (2) adequate exercise to vent off pent up energy. The reason breed plays a role is that some breeds have more energy and carry more of the pack instinct to either get leadership or be the one to provide it.
Addressing point 1, how does one provide calm, assertive leadership? This is not as easy as one may think, but there are some simple steps you can begin to take. For starters, basic obedience is a must. The dog must be made to work for anything pleasant. You want a treat? You must sit. You want your dinner? You must sit and maintain your sit even after I have put the bowl of food down and you approach the bowl, only after I have given the command to do so.
You want to go for a walk? You must sit calmly and still as I put on your leash. While you are walking, you must heel; stop when I stop, walk when I walk, sit when I command you to. As they listen and obey, you reward their obedience with verbal praise, petting, and treats. When they do not obey, you do not strike them, but use sharp, verbal, one word scolds, like “no!” while giving a gentle enough, but assertive tug on the leash to get their attention. Do not correct by striking, as that will make the problem worse, making some dogs neurotic, skittish, less secure, and therefore more prone to being aggressive.
For little dogs, do not treat them like priceless, breakable little pieces of porcelain. Do not litter box train them and carry them everywhere. Treat them like dogs….mandate that they do all aforementioned tasks, walk them on a leash and make them potty outside, even in the rain. The biggest cause of little dogs exhibiting aggression is not the fact that they are inherently born with a bad case of little man’s syndrome; it is their owner taking pains to shelter them, pamper them, and treat them more like expensive accessories than dogs. So when these dogs have to face real life situations, like getting groomed, being around other dogs, being examined by the veterinarian, or simply getting a nail trim, it can be a very unpleasant ordeal for owners, veterinarians, dogs, and innocent bystanders alike.
Regarding training, let’s face it; most of us are not dog trainers…even most veterinarians. Do not hesitate to get professional help. Some dogs are well adjusted enough that they require only basic obedience offered at large retail stores like Pet Smart. Others can be more difficult cases that require a higher level of expertise like Barkbusters or other dog behavior experts that are more dog therapists than they are trainers. The bottom line is, get help; how to books typically don’t cut it.
Regarding exercise, this is where frustration builds up. As dog that is not allowed to expel his energy more prone to acting out in negative ways. This part is easy – walk the dog, run the dog, swim the dog. Get him moving and exerting himself as often and as long as possible. Some dogs, like Australian Cattle dogs, for example, need far more than others, with some requiring as much as ninety minutes twice daily engaging in brisk walking and running to stave off orneriness.
So that is it in a nutshell to help reduce dog aggression: calm, assertive pack leadership and exercise. Do not hesitate to seek professional help to get there. Believe me when I tell you that it is worth the effort, as the more well-adjusted our dogs are, the happier they are, the happier we are.
Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM.