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Are aggressive dogs the fault of the owner?

They say dogs are a reflection of their owners. But when unwanted aggression becomes a big issue, can we place the entirety of blame on the dogs owners?

“Is it all the owners fault their dog is aggressive?”

First, let’s define “aggressive dog” as a dog who displays aggressive behavior with intent to bite or do harm to a person or animal.

I would not say it’s “always” the humans who have created the issue. Sometimes it is true, sometimes it’s not. There are many cases where a dog begins to show unwanted behavior, and it is not handled properly by the dog owners. They may not know what to do, or fail to get help. Or they may inadvertently be encouraging the unwanted behavior. There are some people who could virtually make a Pug into an aggressive monster (through permissiveness, mixed signals, and being a poor handler themselves), but not always. Most dog owners we work with do acknowledge that they have made some failure or some mistake in handling of their dog, which has led to worsening problems. I appreciate that they do not want to blame the dog, but recognize they are part of the problem, too. Because if they are part of the problem, they will be part of the solution.
There are cases where you could take the biting dog out of the equation and replace it with a number of other more “average” dogs, and the owners would’ve had no problems. Sometimes it is the dog. They got a dog who is a handful. I meet the dog, and I say “WOAH, that is a lot of dog.” Some dogs are just more challenging, and require more time and training than others. Maybe the dog has a lot of drive, power, or maybe has a lot of “edge” to it. Not everyone is equipped to own a more aggressive type of dog. Just like not every parent would be equipped to handle a child with a behavioral disorder. On the other hand, some dog owners choose a higher-intensity dog with more aggression to it, and they don’t mind. It’s when they are not equipped to own the dog they have issues. A strong dog often needs a strong owner who can be consistent and prepared to work out any issues. But some who are not equipped for it get a dog who is predisposed to have certain traits, and they raise it very typically, socialize it, and do their best with what they know. But it still turns out how it turns out. This is because a dogs personality is not “all how you raise it.” You wouldn’t be surprised if you got a terrier that lived to chase down critters, or a hunting dog who followed his nose, or a German Shepherd who was protective of his home. Dogs behavior is strongly influenced by genetics and instinct, as well as early rearing, training, and various experiences. So often a dog turns out with behaviors that are in accordance with its genetic programming. Especially if human owners don’t nip problematic behavior in the bud at once, the first time it rears its head. Many genetic behaviors can be tempered, re-directed, or controlled through training. That’s the work we do every day. But if not immediately addressed properly, aggression issues always get worse.
Sometimes people make uneducated decisions. A lot of times, actually. I had a client who wanted an easy-going family dog, and purchased a Cane Corso, a large powerful dog breed. They chose this breed because they had a friend with one, and that Corso was very social, chill, and almost lazy. But that was just one dog. They decided to search for a breeder, and they found an ad online for Cane Corso puppies for sale. They did not meet the dogs parents first, ask the breeder for references, or research the dogs breeding and lineage. As their new dog matured, he became suspicious of people, and was skittish and reactive, despite attempts to socialize him. He was also strong and difficult to control as he grew. One day when a stranger bent over to pet him, he reacted negatively and lashed out. He bit them in the face, sending them to the hospital for stitches. His owners decided not to give up on him and to seek guidance from a professional trainer. He was young enough to greatly improve with intensive training, and had owners who were committed and did all the follow-up lessons. So in this case, they were able to keep their dog and successfully modify his behavior. Every case is different. Sometimes a dog is genetically cut out to be nervy and sharp, or even unstable. Sometimes they’re normal stable dogs with an edge. Even good dogs do “dog things,” including protecting their territory, and this can often lead to a bite incident. A dog with little guidance can’t tell the difference between a “bad guy” he is supposed to bark at or bite, and Bob the neighbor who comes to the back door to say hi.  This is why dogs who have protective behavior have to be not only trained, but supervised and properly contained, such as a securely fenced yard. To sum it up, a dog who bites may be genetically unstable, or may be totally normal, it depends. Either way, the owners are going to have to change how they handle the dog. They will need to gain obedience control, respect, and learn to read their dog. To resolve behavior issues, they will need to change the way they live with the dog, and zero in on what behaviors they are reinforcing or allowing to continue.

The prognosis for long-term success depends on the dog and the owners. Every cause and type of aggression is different. Remember that you are your dogs leader. He depends on your guidance to navigate the human world he is a part of. Set your dogs up for success.

Most bite incidents could have been avoided, had the following been kept in mind:
1) Know your dog, and protect your dog. You may imagine you need to protect others from your dog, and this is true, but your dog needs to be protected from making poor decisions, too. For example: If you have a protective or nippy dog, and a cable installer is coming over, put your dog in another room. You know your dog might act sketchy, and you know you might be distracted. It is not worth risking your dog making a poor decision. There is no benefit to leaving your dog loose in this scenario, but there is risk. Similarly, if you know your dog can be testy with the vet, use a muzzle. Condition them to wearing it ahead of time. There is no reason to take risks that have no benefits.
2) Train early, train often, and train properly. Don’t wait until your dog has bitten 5 people, get training as soon as you obtain your dog. Even if you adopted an adult rescue dog, begin setting appropriate habits and establishing yourself as the pack leader immediately. It’s not just the obedience commands, it’s learning how to communicate with your dog, and how to handle problems as they pop up. Not all training is equal! Taking a treat-based class at  PetSmart is not equivalent to real-world obedience skills taught by a professional training facility. Dogs need a large amount of positive reinforcement, but they also need discipline. A dog who has no discipline will end up insecure and will often become out of control and unpleasant to deal with. Dogs who have only discipline and no praise will become depressed and sometimes fearful. Dogs must learn what to do (good stuff), and what not to do (unwanted stuff). There has to be a balance. Common sense tells us that ignoring a bad behavior is often not significant enough to make it stop. There are several effective ways to stop bad behaviors: Physical correction or averse response to stop the behavior, take away the benefit of doing the behavior, reinforce incompatible behaviors, or prevent the behavior from happening.
3) Feel free to get a second opinion. When you have a dog who bites, everyone you know seems to have an opinion. Some will say it’s not the dogs fault, some will say the dog has a screw loose and should be put down, and some will say “try this” or “try that.” Take the advice with a grain of salt. Speak to your vet to rule out medical causes and get a full check-up, but know that most vets are not dog trainers and may have limited knowledge of dog behavior training. Some vets may have never even owned a dog. Get opinions from qualified trainers, but feel free to get a second or third opinion. Make sure the trainer has references of similar case and uses fair and humane methods.

 

-Jennifer