I have a confession to make. One of my dogs is aggressive. She is an aggressive dog out of fear of the unknown, but aggressive nonetheless. Believe it or not, even someone who works with and around pets day in and day out can have a reactive dog and still not know what to do about it or how to fix it.
Sara was an unplanned rescue that I brought home during a vacation in Florida three years ago. I don’t know the details of her early life, other than it was a little rough around the edges: terrible nutrition, flea infested, possibly beaten. She was around 7-8 weeks when I rescued her.
Sara’s my latest addition to a pack of three. My boys, while they don’t behave like angels, are well-adjusted dogs with your usual issues. They’re a little over friendly with visitors, they beg for food, and one even likes to chase the kitties. Nothing too serious (I swear, the cats LIKE to be chased. He doesn’t hurt them, just wants to play). They know the basics; sit, stay, lie down, come, leave it, and how to walk on a slack leash, but that’s as far as we took our training. I like my dogs to act like dogs. It’s part of the fun of being a dog owner! I like to steal Tripawd’s motto and say “Be more dog!” when life gets too serious.
Back to my confession: I brought Sara to work with me every day when she was a pup. She met lots of people, other dogs and children. She was happy, healthy, fluffy, playful, and wiggly, though never much of a snuggler. She was rather indifferent towards most people. I thought she was well socialized. I guess I was wrong.
I don’t know when it started, but at some point around 10-12 months old she started getting really territorial about my desk space. She didn’t want anyone but me in her space. It slowly grew to her growling when anyone even looked at her or approached.
I tried to associate people with yummy treats by tossing tidbits to her while people would walk by. I don’t know if I didn’t give it enough time or if I wasn’t consistent enough about it but one day she actually snapped at a person’s hand as they passed by. She didn’t actually touch them, but she snapped at them! I was horrified and so embarrassed! I stopped bringing her to work. Around the same time she became the same way about people in our house. People she’s known all her life, like her grandparents, don’t pose a threat, but anyone new and we have to be on guard for their entire visit. We keep her on a leash because she growls and barks and lunges and will nip at hands if they get too close, especially men.
People stopped coming to our house regularly (and so the throw treats at her training stopped too). At some point just managing her behavior around other people turned us into hermits who didn’t let anyone into our house.
It finally dawned on me that next year we’re planning to go on a long vacation.. and we’re going with our regular dog-sitter. Oh no! How will we ever find a sitter that she won’t bite? The way she acts around strange dogs I don’t think she could even handle being boarded. It would be overload for her and probably aggravate the situation.
I can see in her body language that her aggression is fear based. She has always been afraid of anything new (including the new drapes I bought for the living room). Instead of cowering in fear, she goes on the offensive. She strikes out of fear.
So, what’s a dog lover to do? This dog lover is seeking professional help from a certified dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement training methods, and we’ll go from there. I’d never give up on one of my dogs, but the reality may be that we just need to manage her stimuli and keep her in a safe place when we have visitors. I don’t know yet, I’m hoping to get some answers soon.
Bottom line: it is hard and very embarrassing to admit your dog is aggressive. Especially when you work in the pet industry. I do know that admitting you have a problem is the first step I recovery, so this post is my step 1 in my 12 step process. I’ll be sure to update you as I continue this journey. Please, share your dog house confessionals in the comments!