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PWD Aggression: Can it happen to you?

By Kathryn Monroe

How widespread is aggression in Portuguese Water Dogs? Concern is growing in some of the people who love this breed, while others vehemently deny that the PWD has any aggressive tendencies whatsoever. A number of fanciers encourage high energy and high drive, including prey drive for retrieving; more than a few handlers encourage strutting and posturing while ringside. Simultaneously, when speaking to prospective buyers, some breeders represent this breed as superb companions for children.

It’s a hard topic to discuss. Aggression is a distasteful subject. Compounding the problem are emotional attachments to our dogs and embarrassment at being thought a "bad owner." Distasteful, embarrassing, scary or not, if a health issue is one that affects the quality and length of a dog’s life, then surely the topic of dog aggression deserves to be in this special Courier issue. Thinking about aggression as a dog behavior can make anyone a better owner, whether or not one’s own dog has ever displayed aggression. Pluck up your courage and please read on.

Assessing the Risk

When comparing dogs of different breeds—

From slow to fast, PWDs generally tend to be towards the quicker end of the scale.

From acquiescent to obstinate, PWDs tend to have more of a mind of their own.

From restrained to reactive, PWDs tend to be more overt and intense about their reactions to things.

I don’t assign any positive or negative connotations to these traits. Simply stated, whether a particular PWD shows tendencies towards engagement or avoidance, towards being glad to see people or alarmed by their presence, the Portuguese Water Dog breed tends to be quick, overt, persistent, and intense in its actions.

How did they get this way?

Two related trends produce this comparatively strong personality. The first is simple evolution—speed, tenacity, and intensity enabled the dog to fend for itself when it was not a household pet. The more control the dog had over its environment, the more likely was its survival.

The second trend is human selection in breeding. The more domesticated a dog became, the more mildness of temperament was required. The more a dog was expected to be a pet, playmate of children, and surrogate family member, the more breeders emphasized docility, tolerance, and the very traits that made the dog less capable of independence. In brief, the shorter the history of a breed as a household pet, the greater the tendency of members of that breed towards actions that humans find unacceptable in companion animals.

Where does that leave us?

Are PWDs more aggressive than other breeds? Let me answer this way: PWDs are more primitive as household pets. Today’s PWDs are within 12 to 15 generations of their working, street dog ancestors, hardly enough time to erase thousands of years of evolutionary tendencies. They were resurrected from a very small gene pool, with limited choices. Even had the choices been greater, it is debatable whether Sr. Bensuade, fascinated as he was by the spirited "magnificent working Cão de Água," would have bred for less intensity, strength, and self-will than the dogs of the Algarve had acquired.

Here are excerpts from a description of Leao, the prototype of modern PWDs, in The Complete Portuguese Water Dog written by Deyanne Miller and Kathryn Braund: "Every now and then during the first few years, Leao ran away. Each time they found him at the house of his former master…He was noted for his intelligence, his affection and his temperamental, almost moody nature…He could break ice with his teeth. He dove even in winter…" (1986, p. 33).

From Leao to today, PWDs are physically tough. They are obstinate, proud, swift, and intelligent. They are manipulative, demanding engagement and attention of those with whom they live. Our standard describes them as spirited, self-willed, and alert guards. We know them to be vocal, demonstrative, and excitable.




They are, in sum, dogs with many characteristics that can easily lead to aggressive behavior. Their only saving grace is their responsiveness to humans…and in our response to them, if they are not to become aggressive, love is not enough. Love is almost irrelevant; knowledge and consistency are far more important.

I know Portuguese Water Dogs that have bitten their owners, other people, or dogs. These dogs that have bitten are not unusual and the incidents are not isolated. The aggressive dogs I know include champions, obedience titlists, water titlists, therapy dogs, and agility titlists. They include stud dogs, brood bitches, and spayed and neutered dogs. They include dogs from all lines in our history.

Nor are the owners of these dogs lackadaisical, uninvolved, or inexperienced. They are as varied as the dogs themselves, and include some of our most accomplished and caring owners.

Owning an overtly aggressive dog can happen to anybody. Owning a dog with latent aggressive tendencies happens to us all. For example, a nationally known canine behaviorist, recipient of many prestigious rewards over her long career, tells the story of her husband bending over to kiss her goodnight as she sat reading in a chair. Her alpha dog charged her husband, knocked him down, bit and pinned him. Whether or not the dog was interpreting his action as a threat or dominance to the woman we do not know. We do know, however, that it was intentional.

Is it reflective and mental, or reflexive and visceral?

It stands to reason that observable PWD traits mirror the mental and emotional perspective from which they arise. The strict behaviorists among us might say that we should concern ourselves only with what we can see and therefore know to be true. In a limited way this is accurate. But much aggressive behavior is spontaneous, not learned, and its origins lie in the nature of the organism itself, to use B. F. Skinner’s word. In other words, the nature of the aggressive act is spontaneous; continuation of aggression is learned. And therein lies one of the greatest sources of conflict between humans and canines: we simply are not the same.

Let’s look at aggression not in terms of a PWD trait (I’ll return to that later) but in terms of canine ethology, or ways dogs express being dogs.

What’s being said, really?

We are just beginning to appreciate the depth and scope of the language of dogs, a complex, subtle, and predominantly visual and physical system of communication. Dogs find significance in the slightest fractions of distance, softest degrees of volume, and smallest angles of presentation that are all but imperceptible to humans. They are exceedingly aware of their physical space and place tremendously high value on gestures, postures, movements, and positions.

The keeper of a wolf sanctuary once asked me to review a tape of two wolves that lived in a wolf sanctuary. The dominant female had a younger, pushy female in a corner, and she was not letting her out. She was not using her teeth but her body, the arch of her neck, the lifting of her lips. The tape went on for several minutes before the dominant female relented.

The wolf keeper did not think that the younger bitch was challenging at that moment and could not see why the lead female was persisting. What, I noticed in the tape was that the younger female was not keeping her head lower than the dominant bitch's shoulders. She would lower her head; the dominant bitch would back off. She would raise her head, and the dominant bitch would reassert herself. It was not until the younger bitch lowered her head, kept it low, and took a few steps with it low (the steps were therefore somewhat crouched) that the dominant bitch felt her status had been properly acknowledged and walked away.







Text Box: Turid Rogaas, in Calming Signals, stresses the subtlety of canine visual language. She notes that humans detect only the most obvious gestures that immediately precede aggression, and tend to be unaware of the tremendous range of stress, appeasement, or diffusion signals that precede an attack. 
23 different signs of stress are listed on the website of the Center for the Study of Human-Animal Relationships and Environments at http:// www.censhare.umn.edu/LTC7.htm. 
ü       Do you know all these signs of stress? 
ü       Do you know which ones your dog exhibits? 
ü       And in which order? 
ü       Do you know what the triggers are for your particular dog?

Have you thought about how two dogs of sociable intent approach each other in close range? They may advance straight on, but within the 6' fight or flight circle, they tend to circle. They present sideways, perhaps to show lack of intent to use their teeth. They lower their heads, not only to sniff, but perhaps also to show lack of intent to dominate. They circle, allowing the other dog freedom to move away.

Even if we are aware of these and other canine signals, we may not consider that some of our human actions mean different things to a dog. For example, when we primates prepare to kiss, we pucker up our lips and extend them slightly forward. But have you noticed that a dog’s lips get full and puckered when the dog is angry and excited? It’s a precursor signal to intentional attack—exactly the opposite of our meaning.

Apples and oranges, but much more serious

Interesting stories, but how do they play in every day life? In agility, trainers have emphasized some of this knowledge for years. Exhibitors know that the direction of their shoulders means more than a verbal cue. Dogs consider whether handlers place their feet in line or at an angle in selecting the next direction in which to run. Disregarding these handling techniques can make the difference between a Q and an NQ. But there’s a much more serious and necessary reason for dog owners to know canine ethology.

Take the seemingly innocent habit people have of kissing their dogs. Human bending down from the top, face first, lips puckered. Dog lying on couch, bed, or floor, with no opportunity to back away if it does not want contact at that moment. In human terms, an attempt to show fondness. But in dog ways, altogether a very bad move. People have been bitten doing that, multiple times.

When we lean down to kiss a dog on the top of the head, we have forgotten that this is another species. We may have only forgotten for a moment, or it may be the way we always deal with the dogs that live with us, but it is, in its essence, a lack of acknowledging our differences.

Inter-species communication and sharing of domicile are phenomenal. They are also limited, unfortunately, by our lack of study and understanding dog ways of being.

Don't misunderstand me: With our dogs, there is affection, there is mutual adaptation, and there is tremendous connection. But there is also a great deal of tolerance by the dog of things that are incomprehensible to it, just as there are accommodations and things that we don't understand on our part. The difference is that when we reach our limit—because we are tired, or startled, or feeling sore—we are linear, logical, verbal beings. We yell, we scold. We are "civilized" so perhaps we hit instead of biting. Dogs are innate, instinctive, and physical. They lunge—and they bite.

Status, dominance, and aggression

Where does a more or less natural dog reaction cross the line into unacceptable aggression? A few general definitions are in order, with thanks to Dr. Patricia McConnell’s succinct presentation in The Other End of the Leash: "Status is a position or rank within a society, while dominance describes a relationship among individuals, with one having more status than others in a particular context. Aggression is not a necessary component of dominance. Aggression, as defined by biologists, is an action that intends to cause harm…"

She also states, "The irony is that dominance is actually a social construct designed to decrease aggression, not to facilitate it. A hierarchical social system allows individuals to resolve conflicts without having to fight. Any individual who truly has a lot of social status has enough power that he or she doesn’t need to use force. You could argue that force actually reflects the absence of real power, because if you have pure power, you don’t need force…

"The aspect of dominance that’s important to dog owners is the social freedom that comes with it. Some dogs will mug you relentlessly to get you to pet them but then growl at you later when you reach to pet them in their dog bed. Dogs who are status-seeking and who see themselves as high up in the social order feel the freedom to touch you and solicit petting when they feel like it but will warn you off for taking such social liberties yourself."

McConnell ends this section with a note warning about assuming that "social status always explains such behavior—some dogs behave the same way when they’re in pain and can protect themselves when they initiate the contact but not if you reach out to them" (2002, pp. 146-8).

Achieving status, then, or the will to power and control over resources, is an innate canine drive. Many dogs readily accept secondary status, but only when they feel secure. The opposite of security is confusion, which arises when the dog interprets the world and humans around it as inconsistent or threatening.


Text Box: There are approximately 70 million dogs in the United States.
Dogs bite more than 4.7 million people a year. Each year, 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites; half of these are children. Of those injured, 386,000 require treatment in an emergency department and about a dozen die.
Source: Center for Disease Control, 2004




The more primitive the dog, the more emphasis it places on guarding resources it deems necessary for survival—security, shelter, and sustenance. The definitions we place on these things may be vastly different from the definitions a dog has. If a dog sees attention from the significant humans in its life as insufficient, it may react aggressively to other dogs that approach those humans. We might label that dog as "dog aggressive," and yet, when off lead and at a distance from the humans in question, it may be perfectly sociable in canine terms. That dog really is resource guarding (defensive) rather than being indiscriminately dominant (aggressive); the label aggressive, and thus any treatment attempted may be inaccurate and inadequate unless other training for self-control and status recognition is also implemented.

Second, a dog is aggressive—intends to harm—in very distinct cases: When it is startled or hurt. When it does not perceive consistent signals (regardless of consistent intent) in its relationships with humans or other dogs. When it fears it has reached its limits and other warning signals and appeasement gestures have failed. When it has not developed self-control, sometimes referred to as an off button, in the face of frustration. And the very rare, and very dangerous, dog who is "obsessed with achieving complete social freedom."

If we examine that knowledge for possible factors we are led to ask: How consistent is our dog-owner relationship? Is it filled with adoration and permissiveness some of the time, but at other times perhaps harsh control (e.g., to control a dog that is aggressive to other dogs)? Are the dogs being smothered with love, burdened with projections of our own dreams/desires that they certainly don't understand? Do we expect our dogs to turn off the energy and speedy reactivity we demand in the performance ring without offering them a cool down period of a moderately paced walk, or do we just put them in their crates and expect them to come out calmly later?

In terms of aggression, what do we need to know from this information?

1. Dogs have dozens, if not hundreds, of signals. They will try, in approximately ascending order:

Avoidance—no eye contact or turning away,

Submissive postures, from exposing their bellies to refusing to act,

Physical warnings such as lifting lips,

Auditory warnings such as barking or growling, and

Early defensive warnings such as snapping without contact.

They will try virtually all of these signals, and many more, before resorting to actual attack. Contrary to prevailing myth, there are very few attacks that are totally without warning at some time in the past. We cannot afford to ignore, misunderstand, or minimize what the dog has previously tried to tell us by these actions.

2. Even within attacks, there are levels of severity and restraint, if viewed in terms of canine behavior:

A nip with quick release is a warning.

Pinning or cornering the opponent, accompanied by growling and not backing off for several seconds, is a challenge.

A bite without immediate release signifies a display of strength.

A single bite with tearing of flesh (which may occur from the victim pulling away) or an attack of multiple bites is extremely intense. The immediate attack may be thwarted or called off, but the underlying tension is not resolved. It is the most extreme response, and chances are high it will be repeated. Displays of human aggression in response do not change the dog’s underlying experience and, in fact, simply add pressure to a situation the dog has already demonstrated it believes to be intolerable and cannot allow to continue.


Text Box: Dr. Ian Dunbar, veterinarian and respected dog trainer, grades bites on a level of 1-6:
1. Did the bite leave no evidence of damage?
2. Teeth made contact, but no pressure was used. 
3. One to three punctures in a single bite, none deeper than ½ the length of a canine tooth.
4. One to four punctures, with at least one puncture deeper than ½ the length of a canine tooth. This means that the dog grabbed and shook what was in its mouth.
5. Multiple Level 4 bites.
6. Death.
Note: This grading is not absolute—a bite to a human wearing heavy clothing might not produce the same effect as the same pressure or intensity to a bare or lightly covered limb.






Studies of both dogs and wolves indicate that true aggressive behavior is quite rare. It is usually the last resort after a myriad of other canine approaches have been tried. A dog continues to act aggressively because it has resulted in the response the dog wanted, and the longer that reinforcement has occurred, the more deeply ingrained it is.

Very few dogs are so genetically hardwired and/or environmentally damaged that they cannot relearn more adaptive and more acceptable behaviors. But at the same time, once a dog reaches the extreme, part of the veneer of social interaction has been destroyed, and its re-growth is a long, monumental, and delicate process.

Now, juxtapose the self-willed nature and history of the PWD on our expectations that a dog will remain subordinate to us, and the need for even more thoughtful and informed handling of these dogs begins to crystallize. Our best hope is to establish habitual governors on their reactions, long before an event occurs.

Our tools…

How do we establish governors on instinctive canine actions? Three general approaches come to mind. First, instinct can be mitigated through early and continued socialization to human foibles. Breeders need to handle their pups all over, and sometimes in ways that make them uncomfortable. For example, some pups express the canine touchiness about physical space by squirming when they are held. The natural human inclination is to let the puppy go.

It is fairly certain, however, that at some point in a dog’s life a human will want or need to hold it. We can improve the pup’s future acceptance of human touch if we hold the pup (securely so it does not feel like it is in danger of falling) until it accepts the human right to hold it. Restraining a few-weeks-old puppy while it learns this lesson is far easier and less risky than doing it on a 6-month-old pup or an adult dog.

Bite inhibition is another major lesson that a dog must learn early in life. The dam generally teaches her puppies this lesson as regards other dogs, provided she is allowed to do so and that the puppies remain with her until their teeth and muscle are large and strong enough to actually hurt her when they bite. Hearing her ferocious response and the puppy’s terrified response is startling, and first time breeders could make the mistake of correcting the bitch. Yet, in truth, the dam is not worried about the puppy’s psyche, she is intent on teaching them that biting bigger dogs can get them killed.

Breeders and owners of puppies and adolescents must teach the same lesson as regards humans. Puppy exploration of both the world and their place in it is done with their mouths. Puppy nipping and play, while alternately annoying and amusing, need clear limits. The best approach is not to allow any pressure of the teeth on humans—none.

Techniques such as operant conditioning and classical conditioning or desensitization are the effective tools of choice in shaping non-aggressive behaviors or extinguishing aggression that exists, but a word of caution is in order.

Just because we have used operant or classical conditioning in performance training does not mean we know how or when to apply those techniques in the treatment of aggression.

While there are several books that discuss dealing with an aggressive dog, and most of them have accurate advice, your dog’s chances of success are far better if you start a remedial program with a behaviorist and use the reading to increase your understanding of the techniques being used.

One of the best things we can do is to learn as much as we can about dog language. Dogs are pack animals, and to preserve the pack, they will attempt an intricate series of appeasement, deference, or diffusion signals before resorting to active defense or attack. By knowing the continuum of behaviors, we can better gauge the direction in which our relationship with our dog is headed.

For example, if we always respond to our dog when it seeks our attention, then two results occur. First, the dog learns neither self-control nor that we are in charge. Second, if at some point the dog does not get what it wants, it will tend to escalate its behavior from merely annoying to challenging. A typical progression might be mugging, muzzle flipping, pawing, barking, tugging on our clothing, and then nipping. If nipping gets attention, then, as McConnell pointed out, what the dog has learned is a method of dominance, and it will operate from that basis in the future.

Every dog owner should read Dr. McConnell's The Other End of the Leash. It is an easy to read yet massively informative compilation of how much our basic approach and communication style differs from that of dogs. It spells out different ways to use our eyes, our voices, and our bodies. It gives tips on how to raise our awareness of our own actions as well as reading those of our dogs. It points out the inescapable differences between primate and canine gestures. It is the best dog book I have ever read.

…and our limitations

If a dog has shown aggressive responses in the past, we should not try to "manage" it. We should not try to "fight fire with fire" by being aggressive in return. We should not waste any time seeking qualified help from a behaviorist (not just a performance trainer), preferably one with a veterinary specialty who can rule out physical causes and prescribe temporary drug therapies if needed. Often times the difference between a reactive but acceptably curtailed response and an aggressive response is simply early intervention, training, and conditioning.

However, do not even start a remedial program unless you and everyone in your household resolve to follow it to the letter of the law and for as long as it takes. If you only implement part of a classical desensitization or operant conditioning program, if you give up because it is not working fast enough for you, or if you allow lapses in which the dog reverts back to aggressive behavior, you have pretty certainly condemned your dog to euthanasia, because it will be that much harder, if not impossible, to successfully extinguish the behavior later.

Insecurity and confusion can also arise from a dog’s physical vulnerability. Some behaviorists now think that there is no difference between fear aggression and dominance aggression—both stem from the dog’s self-perception of status though the starting point is different. If our dog’s behavior has changed, abruptly or gradually, the aggressive behavior could stem from a physical problem.

The first step in addressing aggression should always be detailed physical examination, testing, and blood work. Detailed means, for example, that the thyroid panel should include T4 and T3 tests. I have known people who had to argue with their vets that even the first test was necessary, because the vet did not see traditional signs of hypothyroidism (for example, if a vet is not familiar with the proper strength of a PWD coat, s/he may not realize the lack of quality). Then they had to argue to do the second panel because the first tested low normal. Finally, the results of the second panel, reviewed by a specialist, showed, indeed, a thyroid functioning level low enough to require medication. Medications themselves can cause an increase in aggression, especially the cortisone therapies used to treat several of the conditions found in PWDs.


Text Box: A sampler of physical conditions that can increase aggression:
§         Pain from orthopedic problems, including hip dysplasia, misalignment of vertebrae, etc.
§         Pain from muscle and ligature strains and tears
§         Exhaustion from excessive vigorous exercise rather than moderate exercise, even hours after the event
§         Adverse neurological reactions to immunizations or to toxic environmental conditions
§         Addison’s, both from feelings of vulnerability and from cortisone treatments
§         Hyper- and hypothyrodism, the first causing increased excitability, the latter producing feelings of physical vulnerability
§         Epilepsy
§         More—Consult a veterinarian for a detailed exam.








Whether aggression arises from medical, physical, or psycho-social conditions, several points are clear: First, the dog cannot help its reaction; it is being a dog. Second, physical problems need to be alleviated if the source is poor physical health; environmental and social conditions need to be changed if the source is insecurity. Third, early treatment is crucial.

No bragging rights included

Finally, while some aggression is known to arise from insufficient exercise, both mental and physical, performance training cannot be confused with socialization. Performance training such as competition obedience or agility deals with the alacrity with which the dog follows through on human commands. Socialization, on the other hand, emphasizes the maturity and education of the dog to have appropriate responses emerge from within itself, whether a human has given a command or not.

Basic manners training (teaching our dog appropriate behaviors in a variety of circumstances) and socialization (non-threatening exposure to the world) develop a dog’s own self-control and self-confidence. Trying to always give our dog the proper command in any situation is management. We are neither as fast as our dogs nor as aware of our surroundings. We also interpret things differently. Attempting to manage aggression will always fail, sooner or later.

Reality check #1: Chemistry, cosmetics, and complete accuracy

Betty Twiggs, founder of Rebento Kennels, had a succinct way of expressing this part of the problem. She said, "We do not have a temperament problem in this breed, we have a grooming problem." I think she was absolutely correct: When we groom these dogs to look cuddly in the retriever clip, or elegant in the lion clip, we set ourselves up to forget what they really are, and we set up the unknowing public for deception. The dogs cannot help that they are handsome, but we have a great deal of control in how we physically style and verbally describe them.

If we cannot value the Portuguese Water Dog for what it is—a primitive, determined, and demanding dog—then we should not own one. If we personally enjoy the spirit and complexity of this breed, we cannot automatically say it is suitable for anyone else. If we have one dog that is laid back, introduction of a second dog may cause enough changes in the status quo for aggression to emerge, from either dog, towards each other, humans, or other dogs.

If we personally have never seen our dog behave aggressively, we cannot say that the breed does not tend towards aggression, only that our dog has not yet been pushed to aggressive behavior. When we are talking to newbies and wannabes, if we do not stress the vigilant socialization, ongoing attention, effort, and tenacity that it takes to train most PWDs to tolerate children, urban life, separation, other dogs, or a host of other circumstances that a dog may define inappropriately, then we are not telling them the truth.

Reality check #2: So different, so awesome

Love, trust, affection, yes, but we need to learn the right way to show them. We need to regard and respect dogs as Other, with full understanding of what that means.

One of the things I tell my puppy people to do at least once after their pup has its adult teeth is to take their young dog out into the yard and give it a fresh raw chicken wing or turkey neck to eat. Feeding BARF is not the point. To see our "beloved pet" outdoors, with bloody raw flesh hanging from its mouth, hear those jaws crunching bones, see how quickly our dog can tear, crush, and swallow that wing is an awesome reminder of several facts... that they are not us...that their goals are simple—food, security, and shelter...that they are powerful and strong, quick and direct.

Our dogs are better dogs by nature than we could ever be by choice, and they are dogs 24/7. We need to lead by being humans who know how to lead canines. That means knowing that they are not our children and not human; that they cannot fulfill our every dream and their dreams are quite different; that their emphasis on security requires our unyielding consistency; and our responsibility, since we control their lives and survival, includes learning about them, their ways, and their needs. They are already learning about us, studying our most miniscule movements, expressions, and habits. Understanding theirs, even though we cannot do it as well or as completely, is the least we can try to do.

Reading about canine behavior, restraining or curtailing what we do and how we do it in recognition of different meanings, studying from books, rethinking the human-dog paradigm and changing our habits accordingly—those are not the fun parts of dog ownership. But our mutual happiness and safety requires it. And lives—human and canine—depend on it.

Reality check #3: Our ownership is not absolute

Ultimately, being a good human leader means that we need to stand in awe of dogs as magnificent creatures in their own right—not less than we are because they are "not as smart" when measured in human terms, but perhaps more than we are, because they are physically stronger and quicker, more focused on the essentials of life, and more adaptable to our environment and life styles than we are to theirs. We need to remember that they serve us by an acquired act of will and habit. But if we cross the line where their learned behavior meets their essential nature, we have split the atom. Once split, the results may take a long time to erupt, but they will.

Does this mean that dogs are not appropriate as companion animals and pets? Not at all. It only means that it is essential to honor their separate identity in specific, concrete ways we must behave and knowledge we must acquire.

Worry about your own dog biting you or someone else? Yes, there is always a risk. Is the risk higher with a Portuguese Water Dog than with various other breeds? Yes, I think it is. Is it inevitable? Not at all, and the risk is lessened by hundreds of little daily thoughts, steps, interactions, etc. that start long before the dog is pushed.

Fear your dog? Not in the way I think most people mean, but in the way the word fear is used in the scriptural phrase, "Fear God,"—respect the power. Learn their limits. Learn their differences. Learn what a dog's needs are and meet them generously. Learn what you need to do so that the power is not evoked—not by "giving in" but by doing the right thing.

How big is the risk? That's really up to each of us, and the only answer is to ask ourselves—What is a dog? Do I really know this dog? Or, do I know only my image of this dog? Or, do I know only what I want from this dog?

What if our answers are an honest and gut–wrenching "I don’t know"? What I hope you have learned from this article is that aggression accumulates from many factors in the dog’s perception and experience. Some factors come from how history has shaped our dog, and, forewarned with that knowledge, we can look at our dog more honestly, and train our dogs more appropriately. Some factors come from mistakes we make from not knowing and understanding how dogs interpret our actions, and we can learn not to make those mistakes again.

Getting help

What if we know that our dog is aggressive? I hope you have also learned the following:

Clues to aggressive tendencies usually precede an aggressive attack.

Quickness coupled with pride can be a difficult combination to address if one relies on punitive measures rather than reprogramming with conditioning. Knowing when to use classical conditioning and when to use operant is a skilled decision.

Extinguishing an established aggressive pattern takes expertise and long-term commitment.

It also takes a careful and detailed history, and

One-on-one observation of the dog by someone aware of the meaning of multiple, simultaneous postures and gestures, and

Minute, gradual steps of rehabilitation, each one tailored to the individual dog and based on the outcome of the steps that preceded it.

Advice of that caliber is not effective in the abstract, and certainly cannot be given in an article of this kind. But I can give you the hope that most aggressive behaviors can be corrected, and that the sooner you start to work with knowledgeable advice and consultation, the better your chances are.

Choose your behaviorist carefully. Get recommendations. Ask for credentials and a description of techniques. Ask about experience with specific breeds and specific problems. Ask what types of corrections, including physical ones, s/he uses. Make your selection as intelligently as you can. Be honest and frank.

Commit to starting all over. Examine your own heart for any feelings of anger or revenge towards the dog, and use your fear only to strengthen your resolve to listen carefully to the advice being given and follow it through.

If the recommendation for your dog is euthanasia, consider this: A dog that is consistently aggressive is not happy. It is demonstrating extreme tension and stress. Be strong, humane, realistic, and unselfish in your decision.

We cannot make the mistake of thinking that a close relationship with our dogs means that they ever can or ever will be anything other than what they are—as a breed, as individuals. We can lead, train, develop, and implement safeguards and limitations. Our dogs have shown us that they accept and want all these things, and they give them as their part of the bargain. But let's never forget that it is a bargain...that our human-dog interactions are learned, not innate, and that they are not us. The task never ends...they will always be dogs, all of their lives.

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