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Why Animals Do The Thing


Rachel Garner

At least once every week or two on the tumblr, I get some sort of ask where people want to know if I can give them suggestions about ‘helping dog-aggressive dogs’. Specifically, about how to help that dog be less dog-aggressive and better with other dogs. I generally end up looking at them, debating how and if I want to respond, and then putting it down and never saying anything. Here is why.

If you have a truly dog-aggressive dog, the first thing you must do to help your dog is accept that it may never like or be safe around other dogs and that you will have to adjust your life to accommodate that. There’s no ‘quick fix’ for dog aggression, and you have to think about what you’ll be putting your dog and your family through both in terms of emotional strain and in terms of risk and liability if you embark on a training program to ‘try to help them be better with other dogs’. 

It always breaks my heart a little when those asks come in because a dog-aggressive dog is not a bad dog. A dog-aggressive dog is a dog that feels so unsafe around other dogs, for whatever reason, that it automatically decides to defend itself. A dog-aggressive dog is a dog that simply does not like other dogs and will very forcefully keep them away through attacking. Those are valid reasons for your dog to be dog-aggressive. Are they safe? No. Are they hard to live with? Yes. But your dog is not broken, your dog is not bad, your dog is not wrong. Dog-aggressive dogs have preferences and needs like every other dog, and that might just involve accepting that they can never be around other dogs safely. It’s really a hard thing to come to terms with when you think you’ve gotten the dog you’ve always wanted and then they’re not able to romp in a flower-filled meadow with your friend’s dogs a la a Disney movie outtake. It’s really important to recognize that your dog may never be that friendly ideal dog and that you need to focus on creating the best quality of life for them that you can while avoiding problems, not trying to fix the dog so you can have the life you imagined when you got them. 

I always force people to re-define what they say when they mean ‘dog aggression.’ Dog aggression is not synonymous with re-activity. So it’s really important to say ‘my dog is dog reactive’ if your dog freaks out on walks when it sees other dogs and to say ‘my dog is dog-aggressive’ if it genuinely tries to attack other dogs it encounters. This is a very important legal difference, and you do not want to peg your dog as ‘aggressive’ and a risk factor if it’s really just reactive and will go nuts but not actually attempt to fight or injure another animal. So please, think carefully about your behavioral descriptions. 

The hardest thing to say to people when they ask me for help with dog aggression is that they should not be asking me for help. If you’ve got a truly dog-aggressive dog, you need a good in-situ trainer. Setting up management protocols and, if appropriate, behavioral modification plans is a job for a professional with a lot of experience, years of background, and specialized safety equipment. As a trainer in my own practice, I will not take true aggression cases - I understand the theory of how to help those dogs, but I do not have the experience or the skill set to work safely with them. I know most of the readers of this blog are of my same generation - we’re broke, we’re struggling, we’re trying to keep things together and it’s hard to imagine investing the money in a trainer when please, could this person on the internet who seems to know their shit please just give me advice. The sad thing is that no, I really can’t. It’s worth the money for a good trainer, if you have a truly dog-aggressive dog - because then you avoid accidents, and vet bills, and rabies quarantines, and maybe the heartbreak of having to put down your dog because the unthinkable happened. 

The one thing I will say is that if you think your dog is dog-aggressive - or if you even just worry they might hurt another dog because they’re reactive - train your dog to wear a muzzle. There is a stigma about muzzled dogs being ‘bad dogs’ but a muzzle is a safety net for you and your animal. If the worst happens - your dog gets loose, or you get approached by an off-leash and out of control pup, your dog is physically prevented from hurting anything. That can literally save your dog’s life. 

And then please, get a trainer. Dog-aggressive dogs are good dogs, but they need the right type of help. 

I’m no longer going to answer general dog-aggression asks, and instead link to this, because it’s everything I am willing to say on the topic.