People think they know what an aggressive dog looks like. He’s big, totally or mostly black, he pulls and lunges on the lead, he barks, snarls, and growls.
But, wait – what’s a big dog? Most people say Labradors, or Border Collies are big dogs, but in reality they’re medium-sized dogs. To me, an example of a big dog would be a Mastiff, Rhodesian Ridgeback, or a Great Dane.
As for the “aggressive” behaviours I listed – I’ve heard or read all of them used as an example of how a bystander or neighbour “knew” that a dog was aggressive – yes, even pulling on the lead. Let’s look at the behaviours individually, from a more sensible perspective: –
* pulls on the lead. A dog who pulls on the lead is basically a dog that hasn’t been trained to walk nicely on a loose leash, or perhaps is being walked in an environment that is much too distracting and stimulating for that dog’s level of training. Alternatively, the dog may have been trained using leash pops or jerks, or perhaps a “training” collar i.e. a choke, prong, or shock collar – all of these are things will make most dogs not want to be near to the person they associate with the pain i.e. their owner.
* lunges, barks, snarls, and/or growls. I was going to separate these out, but then thought that would be a waste of space. When in the ‘outside world’ (i.e. not in the home) any dog that is performing any one or combination of these behaviours is doing all he or she knows to get something they find scary to leave them alone.
Often, people find it offensive when a dog is barking at them, others find it funny; what many people don’t realise is that continuing to look at a dog who is barking at them is completely counter-productive. Even worse are the people who stay at the distance which the dog clearly finds problematic; worse still are those who attempt to approach, talk to, and/or touch or pet the dog who very clearly finds the close proximity of that person an issue.
Many people have been bitten by dogs, occasionally people are attacked, or sometimes even killed by dogs. Yes, aggression and bits are so often emotion-filled topics, but people who make statements about a dog or dogs without any thought or understanding put into them are very dangerous…
When a dog bite is reported, people will often say that the dog “bit without warning”, or that it “wasn’t a mean dog”, or that the owners “didn’t think he was vicious”. However, all dogs are perfectly capable of biting another being, and moreover it’s usually the case that the dog did give plenty of notice about how he felt in the situation that resulted in a bite, but these communications were – knowingly or unknowingly – not heeded.
Worse still, perhaps these communications were “punished out” of the dog. A dog who’s told off, shouted at, hit, kicked, or smacked for growling will learn not to growl; but the absence of the growl doesn’t mean she feels any differently about that situation – she’s simply learnt that growling causes a human to do something to her that is antagonistic, possibly hurts her, and definitely scares her further.
Big or small, young or old, pedigree or mongrel, all dogs have not only the potential to bite, but also the ability. Of course, the likelihood of a dog biting will vary throughout time – just like people, some dogs will tolerate endless irritations with grace and aplomb, and others will be less tolerant; of course, sometimes how tolerant a dog can be may be reduced due to anxiety, illness, pain, fear, tiredness, and so on.
Often, play biting and mouthing is mistaken for a puppy or dog biting. Although it is often mistaken for biting, puppies – like human babies – like to explore the world using their mouth. Yes, puppies have sharp, needle-like teeth, but mouthing and exploring the world is not biting. Those teeth are sharp to make up for the weakness of their jaws; because the teeth are sharp they hurt when the puppy bites another in play. The “bitten” puppy will yelp in protest and stop playing with the puppy that “bit” them. This teaches the puppy that using that amount of force is unacceptable and ends the fun. Thus the puppy learns to moderate their jaw pressure, meaning that when he grows up and has forty-two carpetknife-like teeth in her mouth, he knows the difference between holding and biting down, and he also knows not to bite down on a playmate.
As for what a bite is, Dr Ian Dunbar has a “bite level scale“, which gives an idea of how “bad” an inflicted bite was. This is really good, and should be used in every bite incident, rather than simply euthanising (and demonising) the dog, and as often is the case the breed(s) of the now deceased dog. Additionally, what I believe is needed alongside objective bite assessment, is objective assessment of not only the living situation of the dog(s) involved in a bite, but also the situation surrounding a bite.
All dogs will, at some time in their lives, bark – basenjis perhaps being the exception; and unless taught otherwise all dogs will pull on the lead. Using those as markers of an aggressive dog immediately condemns the majority of dogs as being “aggressive”. If people who are not dog owners are going to label dogs – as aggressive, or as anything else – based on normal, natural canine behaviours, where does that leave the dogs and their owners?
Often, I’ve had a difficult enough time with other dog owners, for instance I if I’m walking Inka on leash, and there’s an off-leash dog in the vicinity I will call to the owners and them to put the dog on leash so as to stop it rushing Inka and worrying him. I’ve not yet met an owner who didn’t do as I asked, but it’s fair to say that the majority first asked “Why, is yours a bad ‘un?”; even when I replied to say that Inka doesn’t like being rushed at, least of all when he was on leash, I could tell many thought it was a way of skirting the question.
It’s sad that many people see aggressive dogs, or dogs who bite as inherently “bad”, it’s also sad that many think that dogs who are displaying aggressive behaviours are being mean, or spiteful or have something “wrong” with them, but rather than looking to medicate any pain the dog may be in, or desensitise and counter-condition the dog to the scary thing, they have it eutanised.
Once again, normal dogs are failed for their human’s lack of understanding.