People never call me and say that they have a biting problem with their dog. Instead, the usual phone call goes something like this:

Owner: "Hello. I think my dog needs some training."

Me: "What problems are you having?"

Owner: "Well, he doesn't like some people."

Me: "What do you mean by not liking people?"

Owner: "He just doesn't like some people."

(By now I guess that there is a problem the owner is having trouble admitting to, and that getting information is going to be like pulling teeth.)

Me: "Has he ever bitten anyone?"

Owner: "Well, he once snapped at a man he didn't like."

Me: "Was the skin broken?"

Me: "Did it require stitches?"

Owner: "Well, ten, but this is the only person he's bitten that had to go to the hospital.

He's really a nice dog most of the time."

You may laugh, but I am not exaggerating. One of the most dangerous things about dog aggression problems is that people often deny that the problem exists until it is fairly advanced and therefore harder to solve or, even worse, until someone is badly bitten. The purpose of this chapter is to help you recognize if your dog has an aggression problem and to help you understand it. It is not about how you can solve your dog's aggression problem. Diagnosing and solving this kind of problem, if it can be solved, generally requires expert help.

There are many reasons people might deny that their dog has an aggression problem. Many people like their dog's protectiveness until it gets out of control and becomes a liability. Some owners blame their dog's aggression on abuse the dog might have suffered before he came to live with them, and they hope that love will cure it. Others think it is just puppy behavior and that their dog will grow out of it as he matures. People may put off seeking help because it is hard to admit that they are afraid of their dog. A common excuse is to blame the victim for provoking the dog, even if the provocation was a nonthreatening act, such as petting the dog.

"But he's nice most of the time." This is a statement I often hear when dog owners contact me about their dog's aggression problem, and it explains why it is hard for owners to face their dog's problem. Their dogs are affectionate, cute, and playful some of the time, with some people. The owners love their dogs. The incidents of aggressive behavior occur infrequently at first, so it is easy to make excuses for a few nasty encounters until someone gets hurt. Oftentimes the owners don't even realize that they are learning what to do to avoid "setting the dog off," and they deceive themselves into thinking that he is getting better.

Biting, snapping, and growling are behaviors that can have many different causes. A dog may snap and growl as a form of play, or he may do it because he has some form of brain damage. Understanding the cause of aggressive behavior is important in deciding how to handle it. Here is a partial list of things that may cause aggressive behavior toward humans:

• fear (which can be caused by many things)

• protection of territory

• possessiveness of an object

• protection of a litter of puppies

• dominance aggression

• objection to being restrained

• interpreting punishment as an attack

• being raised without littermates or without a mother to teach inhibition of aggression

Because a dog cannot talk and tell you why he is biting, determining the cause requires good detective work: adding together the clues given by the dog's body language and behavior, asking the right questions about the dog's behavior, obtaining a thorough history of the dog's problem and upbringing, and looking at the dog's breeding. While an expert is best at preparing such a profile, this chapter should help you start to understand dog aggression problems.

Although some general patterns will be described, aggression problems cannot be easily categorized. All dogs are individuals with different backgrounds, both genetically and environmentally, that affect the problem. No two aggression problems are exactly alike. To complicate the situation, a dog may have more than one kind of aggression problem. Aggression against humans and aggression directed at other dogs are two separate problems, although both may exist in one dog.

The first and major part of this chapter will concentrate on aggression against humans because as an obedience instructor I receive more complaints about this kind of aggression. Aggression with other dogs will be discussed at the end of the chapter.

Keep in mind as you read about aggression that the really remarkable thing about dogs in general is not how aggressive they can be, but how gentle and willing to inhibit their bites they are.

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