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

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

May 01, 2001

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.

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

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

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

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

1. "There is no chemical imbalance in the dog. There is not an aggressive bone in his body. He is not an alpha." (Note: the breeder had not seen the 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 understand that we are just bags of genes and chemicals that can go awry. This means that brain chemicals can be altered (anyone who has ever eaten to excess, smoked, taken recreational drugs, or even pain killers, had an alcoholic beverage, run until they "hit the wall," knows this).

The most up-to-date evidence in both human psychiatry and animal behavioral medicine suggests that aggressive disorders are inextricably linked with some 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 anxieties and associated aggressions?

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

The concept of "alpha" has no meaning here. Dominance aggression is about control or access to control in social situations involving humans; the aggression is a response to the dog's underlying uncertainty or anxiety in 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 perpetrated on dogs, and there is absolutely no data that indicate that any of them are valid.

The scientific use of "alpha" is as a breeding animal or one who 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 because they have argued for punishment and force, rather than for treatment of the underlying anxiety, but they have caused dogs to be endlessly, needlessly abused.

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

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

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

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

Dogs that defer to other dogs sit or lie down. By sitting down and looking at the client, they have stopped what they were doing and now are poised to 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 tearing around the course. I also find this a strange comment from a mindset that asks 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 allowed to be a brat when appropriate.

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

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

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

4. "The owners were too strict and made the dog listen to too many commands for a Ridgeback. Specifically, they should never have made him sit and look before he had his meals. A Ridgeback should never have to work for 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 have to be painful. Again, sitting and looking is a way to make sure you are not bowled over by the dog on the way to his food dish.

More importantly, this is the human equivalent of how dogs behave with each other. They don't tease; they share with a rule structure. You should be rewarding a patient look and calm sit with the dinner dish. This is very different 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 let me know you are ready and calmly waiting. I put it down without getting inadvertently mauled, and say okay, you eat."

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

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

If there was one line that could convince me that these breeders shouldn't be, it was this.

The more danger a dog can do- even by accident - the better his manners need 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. If you have to scream or demand, there's a lot more information in there about the human needs and almost none about the dog's.

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

It might be hard to believe, but dogs don't discriminate by breed, nor do breeds make up their own social structure. Dogs are more pliant and plastic in 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, people and situations. But the amount of exposure to prevent pathology is on the order 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 dog first, a big dog second, and unless it's in Africa, a Ridgeback third.

Bigger dogs need better manners. Period. That said, Rhodesian Ridgebacks are among the most numerically dominant of the dogs in a joint Paw Partner's visitation 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 location where the breeder could suggest a testable alternative, this statement is just 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 about food, additives, state of cooking, etc. have not been backed up by data. Some dogs do better behaviorally and physically on different foods, and we may need to expand our understanding of "allergy" to account for 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 chemicals in the food.

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

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 he is fed, the simplest solution is to feed the dog behind a locked door away from people. In this case, you will not want the crate to be associated with that place since this is a place where the dog should be able to relax and feel safe.

10. And, finally, my friend's personal favorite, "The dog's name was 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't have been written. Yoda is a great name for a dog and suggests that the client expected calm wisdom.

It's for this reason that I cringe when I hear of dogs named Killer (even if many of them turn out to be Chihuahuas). No one needs to project that image of their dog, and if there is ever a problem, a dog named Killer will not get a break, but a dog named Petunia might.

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

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

I confess to being surprised at this breeder. I am now so accustomed to 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 but appalling, and it's a tribute to her compassion and ethics that my friend and former student shared this with me.

And people wonder why I love my students.

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