Ten myths in dealing with an aggressive dog; breeders need education, too


This column is courtesy of a former student who is now practicing in the Philadelphia suburbs and involves a 15-month old male, castrated Rhodesian Ridgeback who was returned to the breeder.

This column is courtesy of a former student who is now practicing inthe Philadelphia suburbs and involves a 15-month old male, castrated RhodesianRidgeback who was returned to the breeder.

Instead of discussing the case, per se, I'm going to change tack andtalk about what veterinarians often face when they have convinced the clientthat they need help, but when the breeder doesn't buy it.

This dog was returned to the breeder after he bit the owner's daughterin the face. As my former student writes, "There were warning signsprior to this: the dog had classic dominance and possessive aggression.Behavior modification was discussed with the owner and he was referred (tothe Behavior Clinic at the Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania)."

Unfortunately, the dog didn't make it. Not surprisingly, the breederwas not supportive and completely blamed the owners for what had happened.

The following is a partial list of the many things that the breeder saidthe owner did wrong. In reality, it is a list of 10 commonly held mythsthat have been perpetuated.

1. "There is no chemical imbalance in the dog. There is not an aggressivebone in his body. He is not an alpha." (Note: the breeder had not seenthe dog since 8 weeks of age.)

We must begin to expand our understanding of "chemical imbalance"to include the central circuit board of our bodies: the brain.

If people can understand what it means to "have a sugar rush"or become "hypoglycemic," they ought to be able to understandthat we are just bags of genes and chemicals that can go awry. This meansthat brain chemicals can be altered (anyone who has ever eaten to excess,smoked, taken recreational drugs, or even pain killers, had an alcoholicbeverage, run until they "hit the wall," knows this).

The most up-to-date evidence in both human psychiatry and animal behavioralmedicine suggests that aggressive disorders are inextricably linked withsome aspect of serotonin (5-HT) dysfunction.

The most common anti-anxiety agents prescribed, tricyclic antidepressants(TCAs) and selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), augment 5-HT.They do so through the same neurochemical pathways that we use to "learn"a behavior. Is anyone surprised that they can help ameliorate anxietiesand associated aggressions?

There may not be an aggressive bone in the dog's body, but the skeletonis not where we need to look.

The concept of "alpha" has no meaning here. Dominance aggressionis about control or access to control in social situations involving humans;the aggression is a response to the dog's underlying uncertainty or anxietyin these situations.

One way to self-medicate is to "control." Clients, breeders,trainers and veterinarians will have to let go of all notions involving"pack structures," "alpha," "alpha rolls"and "dominance downs."

These are four of the most injurious concepts that have been perpetratedon dogs, and there is absolutely no data that indicate that any of themare valid.

The scientific use of "alpha" is as a breeding animal or onewho controls access to resources (sex is a resource) in experimental situations.Dogs are not "alpha." They are not competing with us for our spouses'sexual favors (I hope).

These misrepresentations have not only put countless humans at risk becausethey have argued for punishment and force, rather than for treatment ofthe underlying anxiety, but they have caused dogs to be endlessly, needlesslyabused.

Finally, people shouldn't assume that the behavior of a puppy at 8 weeksis a predictor of the animal's behavior later on in life. There is, in fact,virtually no significant correlation between earlier and later behaviorsuntil age groups approaching or within social maturity (on average, 18-24months) are considered.

2. "The owner had too many regimented activities. They did not allowhim to be a puppy. He did not enjoy his puppyhood."

The veterinarian thought that the breeder was referring to my protocolfor deference, which she gives all new dog owners, that asks dogs to sitand attend to their people for food, love, the leash and toys.

This is not regimentation, rather it should be considered manners inboth dog and human language.

Dogs that defer to other dogs sit or lie down. By sitting down and lookingat the client, they have stopped what they were doing and now are poisedto pay attention to client guidance. This, in no way, takes away their spark,fire or joy...witness dogs in agility rings who have to sit before tearingaround the course. I also find this a strange comment from a mindset thatasks all dogs to "heel." My question is always, "why?" As long as the dog walks calmly on the leash, can be kept from danger,and is responsive when your desires conflict with his, why "heel?" Why not let him be a dog? This pup had a good puppyhood and was allowedto be a brat when appropriate.

3. "There was too much tension in the house: the whole family wastoo stressed."

Well, tension does make a difference, but it will not create problemsby itself. We see our patients backslide all the time when there is maritalstrife, illness or other stresses. In this case, sadly, the wife had justbeen diagnosed with breast cancer. I cannot imagine a more cruel way toapproach this dog's problems than to add breast cancer to a list of clientfaults.

Stress makes a person less tolerant, less patient and less open to creativeconflict resolution. Alone, this would not create a problem. If there alreadywas a behavioral problem, would stress make it worse or better? Worse.

4. "The owners were too strict and made the dog listen to too manycommands for a Ridgeback. Specifically, they should never have made himsit and look before he had his meals. A Ridgeback should never have to workfor food; he should get it when he wants it."

May the gods help us. We all have to work for everything in some way.It's part of the covenant shared by all social species. Work does not haveto be painful. Again, sitting and looking is a way to make sure you arenot bowled over by the dog on the way to his food dish.

More importantly, this is the human equivalent of how dogs behave witheach other. They don't tease; they share with a rule structure. You shouldbe rewarding a patient look and calm sit with the dinner dish. This is verydifferent than teasing or proofing.

It's a rule structure that looks like this: "I make your dinner.I hold it from the counter. When it's ready, you sit and look at me to letme know you are ready and calmly waiting. I put it down without gettinginadvertently mauled, and say okay, you eat."

If you are my dogs, you come over afterwards with wags and licks andwash your faces on my clothing.

The concept that a dog that was bred for hunting should be exempt fromthese rules scares me, and it's a myth that should be clarified with everyopportunity.

If there was one line that could convince me that these breeders shouldn'tbe, it was this.

The more danger a dog can do- even by accident - the better his mannersneed to be.

5. "What was the owner's relationship with the dog; did he 'ask'or 'demand' his commands?"

I don't know on which side the breeder came down with this question,but I hope the client asked clearly, firmly and reliably in a whisper. Ifyou have to scream or demand, there's a lot more information in there aboutthe human needs and almost none about the dog's.

6. "The dog did not receive proper training for a Ridgeback. Hewasn't socialized properly because he didn't play with other Ridgebacks."

It might be hard to believe, but dogs don't discriminate by breed, nordo breeds make up their own social structure. Dogs are more pliant and plasticin their early behaviors than we are, and play with any dog is wonderful.

Any breed should be exposed as early and often to different dogs, peopleand situations. But the amount of exposure to prevent pathology is on theorder of minutes per day, shockingly enough.

This breeder's comment, again, shows how a preconception about a breed(e.g., a prejudice) has blinded the breeder to the fact that this is a dogfirst, a big dog second, and unless it's in Africa, a Ridgeback third.

Bigger dogs need better manners. Period. That said, Rhodesian Ridgebacksare among the most numerically dominant of the dogs in a joint Paw Partner'svisitation program at Children's Hospital.

Oh, and these Ridgebacks don't steal food from the kids, either.

7. "The crate was not in a good location - it was too busy."

This may have been true, but there are no data one way or the other.Without a cause and effect correlational pattern of behavior and locationwhere the breeder could suggest a testable alternative, this statement isjust grabbing for the straws of blame.

8. "The owner was feeding the wrong food."

The owner was feeding an AAFCO-certified food. Most of the claims aboutfood, additives, state of cooking, etc. have not been backed up by data.Some dogs do better behaviorally and physically on different foods, andwe may need to expand our understanding of "allergy" to accountfor some of this. However, if the breeder didn't believe in chemical imbalances,to begin with, they cannot use the Twinkie defense and blame the chemicalsin the food.

9. "The dog should always be fed in his crate and never any otherplace."

Actually, this is an ideal way to make the dog hyper-vigilant about turf.If we know that the dog cares either about his food or the place where heis fed, the simplest solution is to feed the dog behind a locked door awayfrom people. In this case, you will not want the crate to be associatedwith that place since this is a place where the dog should be able to relaxand feel safe.

10. And, finally, my friend's personal favorite, "The dog's namewas too harsh."

The dog had been named Yoda; the breeder changed it to Yahtzee YoYo.

If the dog had emulated any of Yoda's character traits, this column wouldn'thave been written. Yoda is a great name for a dog and suggests that theclient expected calm wisdom.

It's for this reason that I cringe when I hear of dogs named Killer (evenif many of them turn out to be Chihuahuas). No one needs to project thatimage of their dog, and if there is ever a problem, a dog named Killer willnot get a break, but a dog named Petunia might.

So, at about this point my friend and former student was just sad. Becausethe breeder was unwilling to consider that the dog might really have a problemthat could be helped (more than 90 percent of our patients become fabulouslybetter and euthanasia is the true exception) if understood, it's likelythat this dog was given to another unsuspecting family.

How many kids have to be bitten or dogs killed before we understand thatwe are our pet's and patient's guardians. Pets have problems, just as wedo, and we have to face those problems and provide the available help.

I confess to being surprised at this breeder. I am now so accustomedto breeders and trainers coming with their clients to behavior appointments,that I thought enlightenment was more far-reaching than it is. Even so,the cruelty exhibited by this breeder in the form of blame is nothing butappalling, and it's a tribute to her compassion and ethics that my friendand former student shared this with me.

And people wonder why I love my students.

What's your question? Send your behavior-related questionsto: DVM Newsmagazine, 7500 Old Oak Blvd., Cleveland, OH 44130. Your questionswill be answered by Dr. Overall in upcoming columns.

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