The effects of maturity on behaviour
Another day at the office. "Ring ring, ring ring:"
“ Hello, my dog has suddenly started lunging at other dogs. He was well socialised as a puppy so I can’t understand why this is happening now, can you help?”
This statement is terrifyingly common in my job. I can almost certainly predict the dog will be between 18 months and three years old if a larger breed, or over six months old in a small breed. So, how come I know this?
When puppies are young, it is very rare for them to use aggression unless they are of a bold disposition. Most puppies will try to avoid confrontation as they lack the confidence to do anything else. The next question I ask is:
“ Did your puppy roll over onto his side a lot when meeting other dogs when he was a puppy?” the answer usually is “Oh yes, he was very submissive”.
Thanks to Cesar Millan, it is now widely believed that “submission” is a good thing because it shows the dog is not “dominant”. Well, I’m afraid Cesar is wrong. Submission – when a dog lies on its side or back with a leg up, lips drawn back into a smile and ears pressed to the head (drop eared dogs) or flat over the head (for the pointy eared dogs) is appeasement.
Appeasement is used to deflect the threat of violence. Much in the way I will grin exaggeratedly with my hand up to another driver if I accidentally pulled out in front of them (yes, I am talking about Canford Bottom roundabout for people local to Bournemouth). I am making an exaggerated facial expression with my hand up to show that I wish to avoid being beeped or yelled at or even chased up the road. I do this to appease them.
We could talk about dominance, but this is another article, just take my word for it that “dominance” is not a “thing” in the dog world. Anyone who says a dog is dominant really needs to catch up with the science as they are about forty years out of date.
So, why did I ask that question? I asked because I know that when a dog starts to show aggression at maturity it is because he now has his adult tool kit. But this is only likely to happen if previously he was trying to avoid trouble because he wasn’t mature enough to deal with the perceived threat. When aggressive responses develop at this age it normally indicates that the dog has been using avoidance or appeasement strategies in the past. Trouble is, loads of dog owners do not know how to read their dog’s body language. They don't see the signals that the dog is afraid or trying to avoid. In fact, some people make their dogs “socialise” with other dogs, even though the dog is clearly communicating they would rather not. Obvious signals include hiding behind the owner, trying to climb up the owner (no this is not jumping up for attention) or trying to run away whilst being chased. The big clue is that if your dog is not looking over his shoulder to egg the other dog on, he is trying to run away, not playing “chase me.” The difficulties with interpreting a dog’s feelings are compounded because I believe different breeds or cross breeds of dogs have different ways of signalling, a bit like using different dialects that can be hard to understand or, in some cases, even different languages. This is due to the different appearances of dogs, such as: tail shape and position, ears shapes, fur weight, body conformation, facial shapes, eye shapes- the list is almost endless.
Unfortunately, by the time a dog shows he has problems, the dog has had a couple of years of feeling worried by other dogs, and once he has learned using aggression successfully repels the other dogs, this strategy will be used repeatedly as it works and makes him feel safe. It’s risky though, as other dogs can retaliate. Once your dog is at this stage, a registered clinical animal behaviourist needs to be seen to help you to resolve this serious problem.
The simplest way to avoid the risks of your dog using aggression as he matures is to ensure that you attend professionally run puppy parties and puppy training classes. A professional will be a member of a dog training or behaviour organisation and you will be able to check they are listed on that organisation’s website. Your vet should be able to direct you to a suitably qualified individual.
So if you are getting a puppy, please make sure you take to a professional for puppy parties or training classes as the evidence shows that you reduce the risks of your dog developing aggression by half if you can take your pup to even just two puppy sessions before the age of 12 weeks. However, check the hygiene standards of the school to ensure you are not running risks of your puppy catching any disease and make sure that the class is well run where the pups are calm, relaxed and have plenty of space. If there are more than four puppies in a class, then you need at least two trainers as I would suggest four pups to a trainer is the right number for experienced trainers.
Prevention is everything!