The aggressive dog, the responsibility rests with YOU

Small dogs can be dangerous tooI got a call from a friend the other day. She had taken the opportunity to catch her breath from wrestling a 4 pound landshark of the Poodle variety. The dog had just laid her hand open when trying to extract it from a crate.

Needless to say, my friend was shocked and irritated, not because the aggressive dog bit her (trust me, in any profession that involves animals, it’s not a matter of if so much as when) but because the owner failed to tell her of the dogs’ proclivity to do so.

After the bite, my friend dutifully made the call to the owner to let her know there was an actual injury, to which the owner cavalierly responded “Oh, again? She does that all the time!

Additional conversation revealed that not only does the dog attack it’s care-givers, it attacks its owners and their guests as well. Pretty much on a daily basis in fact, and has for quite some time. This dog is 4 years old.

They find it cute that she can empty a room of it’s occupants and have never done anything to discourage her behavior. She has ‘left her mark’ on those who know her, in more ways than one.

Later that same evening, I was surfing a few social media sites I frequent and another friend of mine had made a comment about a mature adult Rottweiler attacking one of her employees and taking her to the ground. Thankfully, a second employee was close by to stop the dog from what could have likely been another sensationalized headline on the local news.

Auditing the posts of the shop owner revealed some interesting things; that the dog was a new client, that the owner did not disclose this information when they dropped the dog off for it’s appointment, and research revealed that there had been prior history at other grooming shops of similar acts.

I know for a fact that the Poodle had no previous training. I am unclear as to whether the Rottweiler had. I also know that the owner of the Poodle will not seek training for her aggressive dog, since they have permitted this dog her indiscretions and since “she’s only 4 pounds!

The Rottweiler wasn’t. By all accounts, the dog was close to 100 pounds, and by all accounts, he could have easily killed this groomer.

The responsibility for aggressive dog behavior isn’t with their groomers or vets or any other caregiver, it’s with their owners. The fact that neither owner was willing to disclose their dogs’ penchant for defensive biting is negligence at the least, criminal at its worst. If either of these dogs were being groomed for the very first time is no excuse either. Considering the age of the Poodle at least, that is unlikely.

News programs, social media and water-cooler conversation is fraught with discussions about dogs. How good they are, how bad they are, how cute they are. Narratives that are rich with anecdotal evidence of the behavior of dogs, their silly acts, their seemingly loving acts, their naughty acts, their violent acts.

Rarely do these conversations address the human component. People seem to find themselves somehow exempt from any liability relating to aggressive dog behavior. There is no hesitance to take credit for a dogs’ heroism, comedic attributes or gentle nature, but humans are reluctant to assume responsibility for the dog during it’s dogness. The chewing, the barking, the pulling on the leash, all emotional observations peppered with “He’s just a puppy, he’ll grow out of it!” or my favorite. “He knows better, but sometimes he can be so stubborn!”

When it becomes growling, snapping, outward displays of violence, owners are convinced it’s always some external force that caused it, “He was ‘protecting’ me!”, “He doesn’t like it when I [insert act here]” or some other misguided trope that alleviates their responsibility (and maybe placate their guilt) for their dogs’ behavior, however dangerous.

Cruising random  social media outlets find such narratives resplendent with excuses as to why a dog acts a certain way, without taking into account that the owner is largely responsible for the behavior of their dog. These things don’t just materialize like apparitions out of the mists. Literally ALL dog aggression is created in the absence of genetic influence by three primary factors; dogs find themselves in situations where they feel a need to defend themselves, they learn there are no consequences for defending themselves, and finally, they learn that aggressive behavior can influence the behavior of others.

The current trend towards blaming some external force for ones actions is by no means new, but it certainly does not exonerate one of their ultimate responsibility.

It assures it when Animal Control appears on your door with a writ to seize your aggressive dog while you go through the embarrassing and expensive process of a lawsuit for the damage your dog has wrought on another human being, another animal, or another human beings’ property.

A quick analysis of my 2011 client database show 70 residency board and train clients, of which 45 dogs presented with issues related to acts of aggression. The mean average age was over 2 years, predominantly male, predominantly neutered, and predominantly mixed bred dogs acquired from shelters or rescues. Most of these dogs had a protracted history of aggressive acts (number of times aggression was observed X the length of time since the first aggressive act was observed), earliest age of onset was pre-pubescent, and present for a minimum of 6 months or more before the owners came to the realization that the behavior needed addressed. Usually as the result of an aggressive act on a family member, guest, or in one case, a police officer.

Most startling was the revelation that in almost all of these cases, the aggression appeared either shortly after acquisition (of adult dogs) or within a few months of it. In the case of dogs acquired as puppies (under the age of 6 months), owner descriptions indicate the appearance of aggressive acts at the onset of puberty, which the owners were all led to believe, would be resolved by de-sexing their animals. Using no other medium with which to address this problem, the aggression either continued  or escalated shortly thereafter desexing.

Several of these training students were court ordered by a panel of people that adjudicate a Dangerous Dog hearing. Some of them were owners seeking alternatives after many other failed training attempts (either unsuccessfully on their own, or through seeking help of other professionals). Some because they finally decided it was time to address a problem that had simply diminished their dog-owning experience, permanently scarred themselves or a member of their family, or the behavior has become so bad, they were afraid that someone may be seriously injured and they would subsequently be sued.

But it all could have been resolved easier, less expensively, without risk of injury or liability, if they had come to the conclusion sooner.

Permissiveness leads to bad dog behavior. If you cannot foresee the ‘cute’ behavior of the puppy in the larger, more mature individual that pup will eventually become, perhaps a quick reflection of why you chose to add a dog to your household may be in order.

To relegate a dog to a crate, tether or kennel run, in the pervasive assumption that he will ‘outgrow’ what poor behavior he is engaging in will only lead to more heartbreak in the future.

It is never our intent to acquire a dog as an ornament, but as a companion to be enjoyed, not endured. The notion that ownership of a little dog alleviates one from their responsibility for the dogs’ behavior should be replaced with the fact that small dogs are absolutely capable of inflicting serious harm.

The responsibility for dangerous or at-risk dog behavior rests with the owners, not the dogs themselves. If you want to own a dog, any dog, regardless of size, or breed, it is imperative that you assume the mantle of that responsibility seriously.

After all, when an aggressive dog bites someone, destroys another persons’ property, attacks and/or kills other animals and so on, not only is it *not* representative of “all dogs”, it’s the responsible owner that ends up footing the bill. It’s the other insured homeowners, responsible dog owners, well cared-for and trained dogs that inevitably suffer.

I have written many times before that dog aggression is a symptom, it is not a disease. Dog training used to be the cure. These days, trying to alter the Disneyfied perception of a culture steeped in the subterfuge of misinformation and hypocracy, will require a lobotomy.

Owners need to be held accountable for their inability to control their dogs effectively, period.

It is a management issue if a dog is able to escape the confines of a house, yard, or other enclosure. 

It is a management issue if a dog is able to escape the control of its handler and mauls/kills/defiles property.

It is a management issue if a dog destroys the interior of an owners home.

ALL of these things are preventable with a little bit of planning, a serious comittment to correcting the issues, and the sense of responsibility to actually… you know… get it done. ALL of thesse things are well within the realm of human oversight and control.

Veterinarians are entirely within their scope to deny services to owners of dangerous dogs. Although sedation is certainly an option, I see it as a stopgap measure and it enables owners to continue allowing their dogs to act dangerously, instead of demanding that they seek professional help from a qualified* trainer. Veterinarians are not community hospitals that have to take emergency patients regardless of ability to pay. They are privately owned and are well within their rights to outline standards for service, and as private entities, a right to refuse service to any animal that threatens their safety.

Boarding facilities are under no obligation to accept or house dangerous dogs. If they have secure facilities and are willing to assume the liability, there is absolutely no reason that they should assume additional risk without considerable increases in compensation. They have employees and guests to protect. They are entitled.

The onus for a dogs’ behavior isn’t upon the groomer that bathes, trims and manicures, either. Every dog owner** has a moral and ethical obligation to inform their dogs’ caregivers of that animals’ willingness to bite, and if it poses a risk to any caregiver. Groomers are also entitled to charge exponentially for the rsiks they assume while handling potentially dangerous dogs. Disfigurement is a real concern. Groomers and vet med run the greatest risk of injury in the pet trades.

Dog trainers can not cure aggression*** primarily because aggression is a tactic. It is used as a means to accomplish an end. Having the skill to work with dogs that exhibit aggressive behavior is important, as is having the skills to relay effective strategies to the primary handler; the owner. Both require the trainer to possess skills that enable them to act and communicate effectively, but that doesn’t endow the trainer the ability to erase that tactic from a dogs’ behavior repotoire.

Trainers should have enough experience and skill to determine the type of aggression they observe. Owners who seek trainers to remediate aggressive behavior must also be aware of their role in their dogs actions, and in their own ability to recalibrate the dogs desire to behave aggressively. A trainer may very well be able to install enough new behavioral software as to render that dog safe for an experienced handler. If that handler fails to maintain the rigorous and demanding management necessary to successfully house and maintain a dog with a bite history, the dog is not safe from exhibiting that behavior in the future, nor is the public safe from that dog. 

What then?


* 1a : fitted (as by training or experience) for a given purpose : competent. b : having complied with the specific requirements or precedent conditions (as for an office or employment) : eligible. 2 : limited or modified in some way qualified approval.

** owner or person in charge of any dog- in layman’s terms

*** 1 : a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master. 2 : the practice of making attacks or encroachments especially : unprovoked violation by one country of the territorial integrity of another warned that any act of aggression could start a war.