i_love_freddie: (Cory)
There is a lot written about dog aggression. We have all seen the newspaper stories of dogs viciously attacking children or savaging other animals. Then the articles and books written by the experts, giving advice on what causes aggression and how to handle it. The endless statistics. The debates about whether certain breeds of dog are more 'dangerous' than others. Of course the latest theory seems to be to blame the owners; that while some dogs do have inbred aggression, vicious behaviour is mostly a result of bad training.

Both things can technically be true. It is a complex issue with many different factors. But I want to look at it from another angle. As a dog owner, what is like to own a dog who displays aggressive behaviour?

******

Despite intensive research, and a lot of questions, and on-going work with a behaviourist, I still have no real answers as to how or why Cory's problems began. Most people upon meeting us for the first time assume that he is a rescue dog with a history of abuse – yet that is as far from the truth as you can imagine.

His problems could have started near birth – he was one of nine puppies and the runt of the litter, all were removed from their mother early because she rejected them. It could have been something genetic, he was nervous and jumpy right from the beginning. Breed could well be a factor, since German Shepherds are known to be quite wary and nervous by nature. It could be that he was my first dog so I was an inexperienced handler, or maybe he picked up anxiety from me. It is quite likely that several of those factors have a part to play.

Whatever the cause, I do know that it is not due to abuse, or lack of socialisation, or because I have somehow encouraged an aggressive streak. Nor is it because he is a 'nasty' dog. People who know him know that despite his size and some of the behaviour he displays, he is actually a very gentle, intelligent and good-natured dog. He is, however, fear-aggressive – though personally I prefer to use the term fear-reactive. His triggers include strange people and dogs he does not know; the behaviour includes barking, growling, lunging and occassionally snapping. It is worse when he is on the lead, most likely because there is a sense of being trapped. Children in particular are frightening to him due to their general loudness and unpredictability, though he will surprisingly act very calmly around babies.

Of course, it has taken many years to work out what his particular triggers are, how he reacts to those things, and how to handle situations where they are encountered. We have tried most training aids and methods with various degrees of success. He is very well trained in obedience and that allows me some control in potentially difficult situations. He is muzzled in public, which gives me more confidence. We attend training classes and walk a lot, and I try to expose him to as many people and new situations as I can. Vibration and spray collars have been used in an attempt to control the lunging and snapping while he is off-lead. I do my best to ensure that I am calm and relaxed when we are outdoors, so that he doesn't feel that he has to protect me.

At one stage I seriously considered medicating him with a mild sedative, but I decided against it. It would have helped short term but would have solved nothing in the long term.

As it stands he is making progress. Recently we have been working on the command 'Look' – to get him to focus on me and be rewarded with a treat when something scary is near. There is still some unpredictability; he will take treats from most people now and even allow some of them to pet him, but he will bark and snap at other people for no apparent reason. There seems to be no real consistency in who he likes and who he does not.

Because of his nervousness and wary nature, he will never be 100% trustworthy and – as a responsible owner – this is something that I need to deal with for the rest of his life. Given that he is only just six years old, I could be keeping these issues in check for another seven or eight years – a daunting task!

In addition to his own issues and my anxiety, I also have to deal with the reactions of people we meet. Quite a lot of people are understanding and simply curious; they ask about the muzzle, they keep a respectful distance so as not to upset him, and some of them even willing to help with his rehibilation process and feed him some treats. Unfortunately, I also have to deal with some fairly idiotic behaviour too.

The muzzle can cause quite a negative reaction. People cross the street to avoid us, others give us dirty looks – particularly people with small children. I once heard a little girl ask her mother why my dog was wearing a muzzle and the reply was: “Because it's a bad dog.” I really had to bite my tongue, I was so angry.

Then we get the people who just seem to have no understanding of dogs. Sometimes we get people reaching out to touch him without asking permission, which makes him go crazy. Others will happily just walk right up to us, only to freak out when he starts barking at them. Then, of course, there are those who just seem to think that the rules don't apply to them. When I say, “Please ignore/don't touch my dog, he's not good with people,” the correct response is not to say, “Oh, but dogs like me,” and attempt to stroke him – because he will snap. Sometimes I wonder if people like this never developed any common sense. Whatever the reason, it isn't helpful behaviour when I am working to train him.

The third reaction that I hate is people not controlling their dogs. I have seriously lost count of the number of times we have been walking down the street, Cory is on lead and reading nicely to heel, and suddenly a loose dog rushes up to us. Sadly we have twice been attacked by other dogs; once a German Shepherd went for Cory's face and I stepped in between the two of them, the result was that I got bitten, the second time a dog came from nowhere and flew at us, Cory's lip was cut and his nose was grazed. So those situations make us both anxious. Cory panics and tries to bolt, I am holding on to him and trying to regain control, while the other owner is standing there and shouting because their dog won't come back. These encounters make me particularly angry because they always set him back and they are completely avoidable if everyone just kept their dogs on a lead while walking on the streets.

*******

As the owner of a dog with aggression issues, I experience a wide range of emotions from day to day. Sometimes we have a good day; maybe he has performed well in class, allowed a stranger to touch him, ignored a dog in the street. Then I feel proud, happy, confident that we are making progress. Then the very next day he might snap at someone, or lunge at another dog and I will experience an overwhelming sense of despair and wonder what I am doing wrong. It is hard not to blame myself, especially when it seems that the majority of society wants to point the finger of blame at me too. It is frustrating having days when nothing seems to make any sort of difference.

The biggest thing is the sheer amount of responsibility involved. I have to balance his needs with the safety of others, and that involves huge effort on my part. I have to be constantly alert and aware of my surroundings when outside. I have to be careful of where I walk, making sure to avoid children – who may grab at him – and off-lead dogs. It is awkward having people come to the house because of his reaction to strangers. I can't go away and leave him, because he cannot be left in kennels and most people find it too hard to cope with him.

And it is hard. It is difficult to explain in words how having a dog with such severe on-going issues can feel. I deal with the behaviour, the judgements, the limitations it places on my life. I deal with the guilt if something goes wrong, the anger, the frustration. I have days when I have wondered 'Why me?' I wanted a friend and companion, and instead I got landed with what sometimes seems to be an insane, reactive creature.

But I know that underneath is a loving and gentle dog, who would protect me with his life. He does not mean to react the way he does, he just finds the world to be a scary place. Whatever happens in the future, we are a team and I will continue to do whatever is necessary to make life easier and happier for the both of us.

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