Thursday, April 14, 2016

Aggression Management

I recently had a discussion with several other owners of flawed dogs, and was surprised to learn about some of the behavior issues they had each dealt with. Particularly among the behaviorism and dog nerd crowd, sharing the extent of your dog's behavior issues is almost taboo. Support is hard to come by because admitting that your dog wants to bite people or attack your other pets tends to open up a floodgate of judgement from those who think you could have tried harder, or done things differently, or have no business handling that dog in the first place.

Realistically, aggression is something that can't be cured overnight. In most cases it will never fully disappear. All aggressive dogs need some form of management, and management always fails eventually. Even if you take your dog's aggression seriously, and manage it to the best of your ability, seeking help wherever you can find it, you can and likely will experience some sort of management failure. This is where the judgement comes in.

Regrettably, through the internet it is difficult or impossible to express how you've read countless books, worked with multiple trainers and spent hundreds or thousands of dollars and endless hours improving your dog's behavior. People don't normally give you the benefit of the doubt, or believe a management failure was a freak accident or honest mistake. We keep quiet because it never seems to be good enough to say "This happened, this is what I learned from it, this is what will be changing in the future."

Handling Aggression Responsibly
Dramatic lighting dog showing teeth
Photo by Erin Koski

Regardless of how other dog people view your situation, responsibly handing aggression means asking yourself some serious questions, and being honest about the answers. Just because you can keep an aggressive dog in your home doesn't mean you should, and just because you can choose to humanely euthanize an aggressive dog doesn't mean you should. It's entirely up to you, whether you can adequately manage your dog's behavior to protect him and the people and animals around him, and whether you can live with the consequences of management failure. Here are the questions I have had to consider for my own dogs:

What Does Management Failure Look Like?

This one feels like it should be last, but I'm putting it first because I feel it is the most important. Both Brisbane and Sisci are human aggressive, as was my dearly departed foster Ulysses. It's a common issue in cattle dogs, a product of their "bite first, ask questions later" mentality. Uly was also dog aggressive, and management failures occurred with all three dogs. 

Management failure with Brisbane and Sisci looks like a small scrape on someone's leg. They both have excellent acquired bite inhibition and don't touch people with more than their little front incisors. Total management failure with them looks like giving someone at the beach my contact information because they decided to sprint past me with 6" of clearance while I was tying my shoe and got a scrape on their ankle because they practically ran over my dog. Of course this is not ideal, and is a liability for me, but it's something I can live with. Management failure for Ulysses looked like multiple deep puncture wounds and permanent scars. I could not live with that.

Does management failure at your house look like a toddler with a bruise on their cheek? Or does it look like a kid with a face full of stitches? If your dog gets out accidentally, will they put holes in the mailman? Kill your toy poodle? Just annoy the neighbors? Can you live with that?

What Does Management Genuinely Require?

What does it take to keep the world safe from your dog, and your dog safe from the world? For Sisci and Brisbane, it means using martingale collars and harness to keep them securely leashed. Sometimes it means using a head halter or muzzle. Management also means avoiding high-traffic areas, we don't go to the beach at busy times. We don't walk through the busy downtown shopping district, or sit at sidewalk cafes. For Ulysses, management involved a crate and rotate routine for him and Brisbane, and ultimately him being crated most of the time for safety. 

Responsible management of aggression means accepting reality and planning for likely failures. If your dog will bite anyone that comes to the front door, then keeping the door locked and confining the dog before opening it may be enough. If you have kids or other residents that can't reliably follow that protocol, then you need a backup plan like a series of baby gates preventing the dog from even reaching the door. If your dog will bite the baby when approached while she's resting, then you need to be realistic about how much "watching them very closely" you can do, and use a barrier like a crate or playpen to keep them separated.

Can We All Live With This?

Managing Brisbane and Sisci means being very selective when allowing them to meet strangers in public. It often means crating them when people visit the house. They have extremely full and active lives, and I don't think managing their human aggression detracts from their lives terribly. Behaviorally they are happy and relaxed, enthusiastic and fulfilled. Managing Ulysses meant taking him on an ever-dwindling number of places where I could be reasonably certain we could avoid other people and animals, and confining him for an ever-increasing amount of time at home while the rest of us worried about when the next attack would happen. It was stressful for my other dogs and my cats, but not nearly as stressful as it was to be Ulysses.

Is managing your dog fair to you, your dog, and everyone you live with? Can your family, all species included, comfortably exist in their own home with this management plan? Will your dog's needs be met without putting them or others at unnecessary risk? Most importantly, can you yourself handle the stress? Care fatigue is a real thing, and a permanent crate-and-rotate routine, separate walks late at night, and keeping a dog and toddler safely separated at all times in a tiny house, can all add up to a lot of stress.

Be Kind To Yourself

I cannot stress this enough. Management always fails, there is simply no way to anticipate every possible situation. All you can do is educate yourself, plan for the things you can anticipate, and be realistic. You will make mistakes. To be truly responsible though, you must do your very best to learn from those mistakes. There is a huge difference between "my dog growled at my baby so I put up a baby gate and now the dog is confined to the kitchen when the baby is on the floor. Now we're working on training the dog to feel good about the baby", and "my dog growled at my baby so I'm keeping an eye on them and moving the baby when she crawls too close to the dog". If you take warning signs seriously and do your best to manage issues, I don't think anyone should fault you when your baby pushes a chair over to the gate, climbs on it even though she can't walk yet, and falls over the gate onto the dog all in the ten seconds you were answering the door. You can't plan for everything, but you can forgive yourself for mistakes while learning from them.

Appreciate the Good Parts

I had a management failure with Brisbane a few weeks ago. We were at his first barn hunt class, and I allowed him to greet a very tall older man with poor dog-interaction skills. Briz is uncertain about tall guys and old people, but is usually fine greeting for a few seconds and then coming back to me for treats. This has been very good for him. My mistakes this time were assuming that a person related to the trainer had decent dog-interaction skills, and allowing Brisbane to interact for a couple of seconds too long based on that assumption. In the future I will be more selective about who I allow Brisbane to meet, and make sure I have him disengage after a few seconds no matter who he is greeting.

A few days ago Brisbane met my best friend's 18-month-old twins for the first time. Briz is very good with kids. He was totally comfortable, gave very appropriate signals, and enjoyed some gentle patting from tiny hands. Old people and tall guys might be scary, but I truly appreciate that Brisbane is totally cool with babies.

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