Aggression in dogs

Why is it that so many more dogs these days are being put down because of aggression issues? Is there a change in our domestic dogs’ behaviour or should we be looking at ourselves for clues?

A few generations ago most dogs were kept because they had a job to do. They would hunt, herd or perform some other useful task for their owner. Working like this makes a dog feel fulfilled and happy. Most were kept outside, maybe fed on scraps from the kitchen, and had to be patient to enjoy whatever affection came their way. Doubtless some were mistreated but on the whole dogs knew that man was their leader and as a result tended to act in a calm, submissive and respectful way towards their owners.

Today we frequently bring dogs into our homes as companions and expect them to forget what their breeding tells them to do and to be happy to sit around waiting for whatever time their owners feel they can offer them, which of course means that they become bored. In addition, many do not have enough exercise and, even if this isn’t the problem, exercise is often not an adequate substitute for herding, guarding or whatever a dog has been bred to do.

Some owners treat their dogs just as they would their children and dogs do not understand or respond to us in the same ways as children do. When your dog pushes his nose into your belly holding a mangled, beheaded teddy in his mouth which he won’t give up, he is not being cute – he is telling you that he is a good hunter and showing his power by hanging on to it. It is not a game to him. When destroying objects, he’s either teething or practising the kill.  All those chewed soft toys on your floor represent dead animals to Fido! If he growls when you approach him in his favourite spot, defends his food or flies at the postman, he thinks he has every right to do this and if he is not put firmly in his place in a way he understands, the situation will only get worse.

Demonstrating to your dog that you expect good manners and respect from him at all times is in fact the way to show kindness to your dog, although it may seem to be a contradiction. Dogs do not respond well to being given privileges and to being treated as if they were spoilt children. It makes them insecure and anxious as they do not understand what they are permitted to do. It results in them trying to take on the role of leader, or at the very least doing just as they fancy, which they are not comfortable with even if they have dominant characters. If a dog perceives a lack of leadership in the humans in his life he has no choice but to try to fill that role. Over the generations we have bred dogs to resemble puppies both psychologically and physically and they are not equipped to lead a pack, let alone one with human beings in it.

Dogs are learning from us and their environment all the time and if your dog has a strong character which is uncontrolled, it can easily lead to aggression.  If he perceives he has no boundaries and rules to live by, he is likely to become more and more anxious and unstable as time goes by. The recent news of a Jack Russell killing a newborn baby is a sad story which will give many of us pause for thought.

Dogs are remarkable in their ability to read human body language and appreciate our moods and we owe it to them to learn how to communicate with them in a language they understand and to offer them secure, stable homes. They have a deep need to be led and to have rules and routine in their lives, as well as love. They need to know that they are firmly at the bottom of our family packs in order for them to relax and enjoy the security of their home lives. Aggressive behaviour in dogs can be changed with patience, time and knowledge but clearly it is so much better if this behaviour is never allowed to take hold in the first place. The consequences of doing nothing to help a potentially aggressive dog are harrowing to contemplate.

Dogs are learning from us all the time from the way we behave as well as what we teach them. We need to keep this in mind when acquiring a pet and start training our puppies as soon as they arrive.

There was a recent article in the Daily Telegraph suggesting that in the light of the escalating aggression problems with domestic dogs, dog handling and psychology should be taught in schools. What a great idea! I spend my life helping people to understand the way dogs think, and in this way we could help our pets become the loving, gentle animals we all long to own.