Recently a Furlocity member came to us with this question:
My dog, a Bull Mastiff named Tiny, came to us as a rescue. My husband and I have rescued a dozen dogs in our lives, and some have obvious trust issues, but Tiny is the first we’ve rescued who just seems inherently aggressive. I don’t know what his life was before us, but given that he was injured and abandoned, I’d bet he was part of some fighting ring or something. Is it possible that it’s too late? That he’s just violent now? My worst fear is that he will hurt someone because we cared too much to put him down, but we’ve never put a healthy dog down in our lives and we’re not about to start now unless we exhaust ALL possibilities. Is this something you guys have seen before? Any advice? – Rita, Phoenix AZ
Let’s get something out of the way right from the start: There’s no such thing as an inherently violent dog. There are too many instances of so-called “violent” breeds of dogs being rescued, rehabilitated, and adopted into loving, peaceful homes for there to be any doubt as to the inherent good nature of dogs, and yet the myth persists. Well not in this piece it doesn’t!
And now I’ve really gone and done it. Answered the question in the first paragraph. So why keep reading? Because there are many reasons above and beyond fear that a dog might exhibit aggressive behavior, so here’s a guide to figuring out what’s bothering your pup, and how to redirect that negative behavior into something positive.
It might not be the most fun thing to think about, but dogs have many of the same physical ailments that we do, and just like we can have medical issues that affect our behavior, so too can our four-legged friends. It not always easy to determine if a medical ailment is the cause of aggression in animals, for this reason we highly recommend consulting a veterinarian, but you can make some initial educated guesses by considering the following.
- Has the dog lost hair or gained weight? – These can be symptoms of hypothyroidism, a treatable but serious condition.
- Have you noticed it have a seizure, or multiple seizures? – Full or partial seizures may seem like something you’d notice immediately, and of course you’d take your dog to the vet the minute it had one. The thing is, most pet parents, even the great ones, aren’t around their dog all day, and these seizures can be small and/or infrequent. If you have any doubt, go see a vet. It’s no surprise to anyone that seizures can be dangerous, and the underlying causes can be life-threatening.
Breeds Aren’t Inherently Violent, but Some Breeders Don’t Help
Some people breed dogs to be small, big, strong, and/or beautiful. These people, on the whole, are amazing, caring, dog-lovers who want nothing but the best for the dogs they breed. Then there are other people. People who breed dogs to be violent. They’ll take the most violent male, breed it with the most violent female, and sell that litter to people in dog fighting rings. To use the clinical term, these people are “scum”.
Knowing this, and knowing that despite our best efforts we will likely have to live with people like this forever, we have to consider the best way to deal with the dogs they produce and that we, thankfully, rescue. Again, there are no inherently violent dogs, but what do we do with those poor pups who were bred to be violent, and trained to be killers? Is there hope?
The good news is there are too many instances of “violent” dogs being helped by good people for us not to believe there’s hope for them.
If, like Rita, you think or know your dog was bred to be a fighting dog, there are a couple things to consider them… and lucky for you and Rita, not one of them is putting the dog down.
- Do you have children? – This is the first question we have to ask, because the general consensus in this case is that aggressive dogs should not be kept close to children. This isn’t because the dog is inherently violent, but because they’ve spent their lives being trained to attach small, noisy things. Children, being small, noisy, but also helpless things, are too much at a dog’s mercy to risk it. The good news is there are plenty of pet rescues specifically to help former fighting dogs, and your responsibility, for the good of both the child and the dog, is to find the right home for it. Sad but true.
- Do you have time to train? – Don’t let your pride get in the way here. Yes, we know you posted about how you rescued the dog on Facebook and all your friends now think you’re super cool, but if you don’t have time to train the dog, find a new home for it. It’s that simple. And we’re not talking about the typical time it takes to train a dog to sit, stay, etc. You need extra time, preferably with a professional, to train a former fighting dog. The dog needs discipline, and the only way you can fail the dog you adopted is by being too stubborn to help it in any way you can, including letting it be helped by people more able to do so.
- Do you have the resources for a trainer? – There are dog trainers out there who focus on helping aggressive dogs and their dog parents. They’re not always cheap, but they can be incredibly helpful, and they can be the difference between a happy, fulfilled pup and an injury to another dog or even a person. At the end of the day, a trainer’s job is not only train the dog, but also to train you on how to be the type of pet parent it needs, and the advice and expertise they can lend can be priceless. It’s no time to be frugal, and if you don’t have the funds and time to utilize their expertise, it might be time to find a better solution for your dog’s needs.
Your Pup Could Just be Scared
Just like in people, fear is a great motivator for dogs. Unlike in people, this fear leads almost exclusively to undesirable results, like aggression. As we all know, each dog has a unique personality; it’s part of the reason we love them. Some dogs are outgoing and energetic, some can’t be bothered to even lift their head for a visitor, and others are naturally skittish. This is something you can and should address to the greatest possible extent, because it is a personality trait that can lead to aggressive behavior.
The thing about aggressive behavior that is born of fear is that we don’t always understand the fear. Simply touching a dog that doesn’t know you’re there, or bending down over a dog to pet it, or unknowingly cornering a dog can lead to aggression, so it’s important that you learn what triggers your dog, and then learn how to address those triggers in a constructive way. We’ve put together a resource for how to address a fearful dog, and there are professionals who have experience in exactly this type of thing, so make sure you do your research and due diligence before working out how to make your dog less fearful. Once the fear subsides, so too should the aggressive behavior.
Just like some dogs can be fearful, a personality trait of other dogs can be being territorial. This can even be a desirable trait, as is the case for trained guard dogs, but for most of us, we’d rather this was not the case. You’ll know your dog is territorial pretty quickly. Maybe it has a dog bed it won’t let anyone near, or maybe the aggressive behavior is exhibited when someone enters the house. Whatever the case, if you know your dog is territorial, there are methods that can be used to address this trait and do away with the behavior entirely. Again, we’ve put together a resource specifically for this trait, and there are professionals experienced in training dogs (and their parents) with territorial inclinations.
So What’s the Next Step?
Hopefully with the information we’ve provided, you are more able to determine what motivates your dog’s behavior. Maybe, like Rita, you had an idea, and we hope this piece helped you solidify it. The next step depends entirely on this motivating factor, but there are some commonalities. If you believe the impetus for your dog’s aggressive behavior could be in any way medical, see a veterinarian as soon as possible. If you believe it’s any of the other factors we mentioned, it might be time to research what you can do at home or with a qualified dog trainer.