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  • Richard Chan

Helpless, hopeless, and powerless!!!

"My dog just attacked someone for no reason. He has always been a sweetheart and we have socialized him extensively with people and dogs. My friend has to go to the hospital when all he did was trying to pet my dog in my home, which he had done many times before! My dog has also just started to act very aggressively on leash to other dogs for no reason. I feel so hopeless, powerless and helpless!" Dogs never attacks for no reason. If you cannot see the reason, it is because you do not know your dog and dog behaviour well enough to know what the reasons are. Just like people, dogs may put up with certain things for a while before they finally say, "enough is enough!" Some people have higher tolerance than others, so do dogs. Dogs may have some genetic issues that cause them to act aggressively but those are very rare. Usually, dogs are using their teeth and voice to express their discomfort towards some form of pressure and stress. We present spatial pressure when we approach another animal. We may stress a dog with our movement, energy, and the way we touch a dog can be considered rude, invasive, and even intimidating. Although we all like to think of dogs as human's best friend, dogs are not human and they have their own values and needs, one of which is to feel safe. When a dog does not feel safe, he may choose to fight or flight. If he feels cornered (e.g. in his home trapped with no where to run, on leash when he cannot move freely), he may feel that he has no option but to fight, which will result in him using his teeth and voice to try get the stressor away. A dog lives with us in a pack. It is important that he feels safe in this pack. It is our job as the dog's pack leader to offer him this important sense of security. Socialization is about building confidence and engagement. It is not just about meeting dogs and people extensively. If a dog has some negative experience meeting other people and dogs, that can be counterproductive to the purpose of socialization as it can lead to the dog developing a sense of insecurity around us, resulting in the dog trying to get other dogs and people away with "aggression" by himself. In many cases, it is because the dog does not trust his human owner and does not feel safe around the pack. For a dog to feel safe, he has to know he will be protected and that he can always trust his human to have everything under control. Many owners give their dogs lots of freedom, affection, but very little education/training. Many such dogs are not under the owner's control especially when there are other distractions around. When a dog knows you have no control of him, how can he trust that you have control of other dogs and people around him? If the owner keeps asking people and dogs to "greet" this already doubtful dog repeatedly without advocating for the dog, it will further reinforce the dog's belief that his human is indeed unable to keep his personal bubble respected when there are other people and dogs around. "l keep telling you l don't like this but every time l come across strangers and dogs, you can never keep them away!" Many well intentioned people unfortunately do not know how to greet a dog properly. They think of a dog like a human and they greet a dog as they would with a child. Dogs are uncomfortable with fixated eye contact, sudden erratic movement and very unstable energy especially when being approached from the front. Ironically, this is usually how a dog is greeted by other people or dogs. Usually the person will stare at the dog, get down to the dog's eye level being very close to the face of the dog and start putting his hand on the head in a full frontal manner while talking to the dog in a very emotional and excited fashion. Usually dogs on leash will be allowed to pull and rush to the dog and start sniffing the dog face to face in a very hyper fashion when they meet. This is uncomfortable for lots of dogs and many dogs will lose trust in their human owners for allowing this to happen all the time and for not being able to control the situation. Some dogs will not mind this, some dogs will even be conditioned to love it, but many many dogs will grow to hate this over time. They will put up with it for a while and try to give out subtle cues to their owners hoping that their owners will put a stop to it. Because of a lack of understanding of dog behaviour, many owners completely miss these cues. They may even push this type of "meet and greet" more thinking that will make their dogs more "friendly". If you were this dog, and you keep asking your owner to stop, but he appears totally clueless, and he has never once helped you, what would you do? How would you feel about him? When a dog sees that the human owner does not understand him, he will feel that he has no choice but to protect himself. So he will resort to using his voice and teeth (lunging, barking, biting...). To rebuild trust is the key to this type of behaviour. We need to earn the trust and rebuild the confidence of the dog. We need to show the dog we are in control, and we will offer him direction and protection without exception. We are not helpless because we have a choice. We can stop these strangers and random dogs to invade the space of our dogs. We can take the time to train our dogs so we have better control of the dog during the walk. We can implement daily structure to give the dog a sense of security. We can change our life style to help our dogs to engage more in us and less in other people and dogs. We are not powerless because we can change. We can change how we view and live with our dogs so our dogs can live a happier life with us. We are not hopeless because there are many things we can do to improve the dog's mental state and modify the dog's perception. The only problem is, are we willing to make these changes? The only way we are helpless, hopeless and powerless is when we are unwilling to change the way we live with our dogs. 


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