Meet Muskie, my rescue dog from South Carolina who I got last summer. In this picture, my daughter is dressing him up with a stocking cap to keep him warm during a pre-hurricane walk last fall.
Here is Muskie, wearing the hat. As you can see, he was very concerned about it. Not.
The dog you see in this pictures is quintessential Muskie. He is a total lover, a total sweetheart, and as non-aggressive as you can get. Or is he?
Muskie also likes to play with other dogs. He likes to play hard, not aggressive, but he is strong and likes to really go at it. Here is Muskie with his best pal, a German Shepherd named Gabriel who weighs 20 lbs more, and yet is evenly matched with him.
A few months ago, Muskie saw a German Shepherd on the trails that wasn't his buddy, but he went tearing up to this dog in a tail wagging leap to play, assuming that it would want to be leapt on like his friend Gabriel. The dog got mad and bit him. Hard. There was copious amounts of blood, and it scared both my dog and me. But what became more of a concern for me was the change that it seemed to create in my dog.
After months of being Mr. Mellow at the dog park when dogs got snappy at him, now my dog was different. Whenever a dog snapped at him, Muskie would bare his teeth and lunge at the dog, barking and growling. Sometimes, the other dog would take it as a challenge and the two dogs would go after each other, growling, snarling and snapping.
I'll be honest. It scared me. I don't want an aggressive dog. It scared me when my dog antagonized these other big dogs because I knew they could cause serious damage if he pushed them too far.. After it happened three times in 10 minutes with three different dogs, I went home and googled "Dog Aggression," convinced I had a major problem on my hands. After reading dozens of posts (including lots of great info on Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, website), I realized several things:
1) My dog had "fear aggression," which meant that he was trying to defend himself.
2) My dog was acting out against "playground bullies," which basically meant that he was trying to claim his own space from dogs that wouldn't back off. Apparently, standing up for himself against playground bullies is not considered aggression in dogs.
3) Because of (1) & (2), if I chastised my dog for being aggressive, I would make it worse because he would feel like he couldn't defend himself for his own safety. Eventually, he might end up actually biting another dog because he felt he couldn't growl or snarl to communicate his need for space. So, now, I couldn't correct the behavior.
4) My dog needed to regain his confidence and socialize more, not less.
Armed with that information, I embarked on a plan to regain the submissive, mellow dog I had once had. My number one goal was to eliminate threatening situations for him so he didn't feel like he had to defend himself. These were the steps I took:
1) When walking in the woods off-leash, if I saw a dog coming toward us, I would recall him and make him sit or heel as we passed the dog, so that he wouldn't bound toward it and set it off. As he became more confident, I would let him approach small dogs that he knew he could easily side-step if they got aggressive. I kept gradually allowing more and more socialization with dogs that I knew weren't aggressive, and he was able to rebuild his confidence.
2) When at the dog park, if big, aggressive dogs come in that made Muskie nervous, I would leave the park with him so he doesn't ever get in a situation where he feels trapped and threatened.
These two tactics have worked completely, and I am so happy to report that my dog's aggression has disappeared, and he is once more Mr. Easygoing. Yesterday, in the woods, he trotted up to a dog that immediately growled and snapped at him. Muskie jumped back and then kept walking. After I caught up to my dog, I discovered three toothmarks in his ear from the dog that had just snapped at him. Despite being bitten, my dog hadn't even bothered to react aggressively. He'd simply been confident enough to know he could step aside and move on.
There are so many reasons for dog aggression, and many of them can't be solved this easily, but if you know your dog and pay attention to what he's telling you, sometimes, you can figure out exactly what he needs. Sometimes, it's correction, and sometimes, it is simply a matter of opening your heart and giving him the loving care that he needs.