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Aggressive Dogs and Society

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Each year, dogs bite more than 4.7 million people, a number the Center for Disease Control considers to represent an "epidemic." Of that total, more than half a million people require medical attention.

The killing of the woman in San Francisco by a Presa Canario recently thrust the issue into the limelight. It is clearly time to do something about the epidemic of dog bites. Below are guidelines that could help to extinguish this problem.

Bad Breeding Should Be Discouraged

A few years ago Time magazine ran a cover story titled "To the Dogs – the shame of over breeding." They were, as usual, right on the money. Some - but not all - the blame rests on the breeders' shoulders. Indiscriminate breeding practices, with no consideration for temperament, have tarnished the nature of some breeds. Breeds that were "pussycats" 25 years ago are now known for aggressive tendencies.

Commercial, rather than private, breeders shoulder much of the blame. For example, puppy mill breeders have nothing to lose by purveying pups that look like a desirable breed but are temperamentally flawed. Good breeders usually insist on taking back pups that develop unlivable problem behaviors or other defects. The puppy mill breeders are not so scrupulous.

To illustrate what can be done if a breed group puts their mind to it, take Doberman pinchers. The Doberman club became aware that the breed had developed a reputation for aggression and decided to breed out these aggressive tendencies. The result is that today, American Dobermans have a much more stable temperament and have fallen in the ranking of aggressive dogs.

Selection of Breed

Unfortunately, most would-be dog owners know very little about the breed they want to acquire. Amazingly, they'll choose a new dog – a living creature that will share their home for some 10-14 years – in a heartbeat. Would-be owners should fully educate themselves about the breed, including temperament.

Some dogs are specialist breeds that need dedicated and knowledgeable owners, not novice dog owners. You should think twice about dogs bred for jobs that include fighting, intense predatory skills, guarding, and protection. While okay with the right person, dogs with such a heritage may be time bombs in inexperienced hands.

The size of the dog is important. If you don't know how to train a dog and don't have the inclination to learn, don't pick a huge dog of a potentially aggressive breed. While Yorkshire terriers can give a nasty nip, an Alaskan malamute can maim or kill.

Training

Once the right breed is selected, the next critical factor is to train bite inhibition. When pups are young, they will reach an age when they start to mouth and bite moving things around them.

That's normal, but you need to draw a line. The way to do this is to yell "ouch" loudly and withdraw if the puppy's nipping becomes too intense for comfort. This teaches the pup that people are soft and "ouchy" and that the dog doesn't need to bite hard to leave a lasting impression! In addition, socialization to all dogs is vital, right from the get-go. This fact can't be emphasized too strongly.

Socialization is an active process. Arrange pleasant experiences for the pup in the presence of children, strangers, and other pets as soon as his eyes first open. Training shouldn't end after puppyhood, either. It should be an ongoing process throughout the dog's life. And remember, always shield your dog from unpleasant experiences, like being tied up outside next to a school route or getting jerked around by a physical (metal collar) trainer.

Where to Buy

Now you understand the importance of socialization, you should know what to look for in a breeder of psychologically sound pups. If you see wire enclosures outside with pups being raised like battery chickens, or if you choose a dog from a pet store, you will be a getting socially deficient pup. A cellar or bedroom in the house is no better because it offers few, if any, opportunities for the pup to gain confidence around people. The critical age for socialization is between 3 and 12 weeks of age. Even at 8 or 9 weeks a lot of opportunities to produce a confidant, well-rounded individual will have been missed.

Unscrupulous Persons

Sadly, there are some sick individuals who set about to a) purchase and b) train "hounds from hell." A number of such individuals contacted Presa Canario breeders after the San Francisco attack to ask where they could purchase these pit-bull-on-steroids facsimiles. Some of the people who crave dangerous dogs just want to impress their friends, others want to attack-train the dogs for protection or intimidation, and yet others want the dogs for pit fighting (still). Techniques used to make dogs mean include isolation, starvation, torture, and aggravation. I think the punishment for these individuals should be the maximum that can be metered out under the law. If you select and train a vicious dog that kills or injures someone you should pay a high price. In the case of the San Francisco attack, one of the people involved is being charged with murder. A high price indeed.

Owners in Denial

Some people just don't know what's going on until it's too late. Just because their dog appears sweet and curls up happily on the rug in front of them they think he can do no harm. This is not necessarily true. As mentioned, all dogs can bite if so inclined, particularly if they are set up for it by earlier experiences or the lack thereof. Warning signs from the dog include:

  • An obsession with squirrels or other small varmints – indicates high predatory drive. Predatory drive can become displaced on to rapidly moving prey facsimiles, e.g. children, joggers, skate boarders, bicyclists.

  • Growling, lifting a lip, snapping, or biting family members for any reasons – implies some dominance. Dominance aggression is enhanced if the challenger is of low social standing with respect to the dog, such as a child.

  • Growling (or worse) at strangers on or off the owners property – indicates fear. Fear aggression is usually worst on the owners' property or on the streets surrounding the property (areas that the dog marks with urine during walks). It is also more marked from the safety of the owner's car or from behind a fence or barrier.

  • Apprehension around children or strangers without overt displays of aggression.


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