What is a Dangerous Dog?

Have you ever feared that a dog was going to bite you? Perhaps you were out on a walk when a stray approached you and you were unsure of his friendliness…or maybe you remember a dog from your childhood that frightened you? When you think of a dog which frightened you, what type of dog do you picture? Is there a breed which particularly scares you?

After all of my years professionally working with dogs, the mental images I conjure of aggressive dogs might surprise you. The first dog which I think of is my grandmother’s Lhasa Apso. Boo Boo, who weighed in at a whopping 18 pounds, terrorized her house and everyone in it. Boo Boo was an extremely aggressive dog-- a serious resource guarder of any and all things placed below counter level. If you put the newspaper you were reading down on the couch to go get a drink, by the time you returned, the paper had become his—and he would defend it with Piranha-like teeth and quickness . His frequent bites were Level 3 and Level 4 on Dr. Ian Dunbar’s bite scale, with punctures, multiple lunging attacks, and head shaking while biting.

Another dog which left me shaking in my boots was a Cocker Spaniel in the adoption kennels of an animal shelter. A volunteer dog-walker said she was concerned about his behavior. She put him in one of the shelter’s interaction rooms for me to evaluate—although, looking back, I’m not sure how she did it. The interaction rooms were spacious, with benches lining the walls, dog toys, and large windows to watch the pooches and their prospective adopters. Approaching the room, I saw an absolutely Disney-like Cocker Spaniel—blond, flowing coat, wondrous ears. But I never made it past the door to greet this beautiful dog…he viciously attacked the door and windows of the room once he saw me. With lowered head and a whale eye, he began to resource guard any and all objects in the room. In my mind, I saw the family which would adopt him—a nice mom and dad with a couple of children who wanted their very own Lady from Lady & the Tramp. But they wouldn’t be getting Lady…they would be getting Cujo. I couldn’t let that dog be adopted, so I let the shelter staff know my painful decision.

Thankfully, I don’t have to make life and death decisions for dogs very often. Many of the aggression cases I work with can live normal lives with their families after working through behavior modification protocols and implementing good management programs. Some require a lot of work, but do not present a danger to their community.

What types of dogs do I see most frequently for aggression? Would you believe me if I said Chihuahuas? Golden Retrievers? Cocker Spaniels? Dachshunds? The small, designer dog mixes? You should believe me, because those really are the breeds I see the most frequently for aggression. Notice anything? Did I mention Pit Bulls? Dobermans? German Shepherds? Rottweilers? No, I didn’t. Talking to trainer colleagues, I hear the same list of breeds over and over again. We all share a concern for the temperament of the so-called family dogs like Golden Retrievers.

Any and all breeds of dogs can be aggressive and potentially physically harm people. After all, all dogs have teeth, right? How do we prevent aggression? Is it through breed bans and legislation? Should we enact sweeping legislation aimed at particular breeds? Should all dogs of a particular breed suffer and be destroyed for the actions of a single dog?

As a trainer, I truly want to see the number of serious dog bites each year begin to decline. I am saddened to hear about the “dog bite epidemic” in our country. And, every day, I work with dogs to help find a solution to this widely publicized issue. But, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty, that enacting legislation to eradicate breeds which are potentially dangerous is absolutely not the answer. If we enacted laws based on the breeds I see in practice, Atlanta would have passed breed bans on Goldens, Cockers, and Chihuahuas years ago…

The answer to our nation’s dog bite problem is in education—educating breeders on selecting for temperament, educating dog owners on selecting a breed which actually fits their life style, educating veterinarians on socialization practices for puppies…

I wanted to write on this topic today because of a disturbing editorial piece which was shared on Facebook. The writer, Teresa Chagrin, is a member of PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. On July 13th, she wrote a piece for Fredericksburg.Com advocating that the only way to kindly deal with Pit Bulls was to spay and neuter all adult Pits and to euthanize all Pits in shelters. In other words, death for all Pits is a far better fate than potentially going into a responsible home, receiving proper socialization and training, and living a happy doggy life. She actually says in the article that responsible people don’t adopt Pit Bulls. Interesting, coming from a group which supposedly wants to save animals, isn’t it? Below is a link to the article—tell me if I am misreading it:

http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2011/072011/07132011/638588?______array

As a trainer, I can’t imagine a world in which we have decided that any particular breed is such a danger that it must be exterminated. I have to hope that we will deal with dogs and their behavioral issues individually, rather than condemning an entire breed based on the actions of just a few. I hope that the dog lovers reading this will check into legislation pending in their communities. Find out how your community is working to define “dangerous dogs.” Does the label apply to the behavior of an individual dog or does it broadly proclaim a list of dangerous breeds? Pay attention—breed specific legislation is a very slippery slope which someday may affect your breed…

1 comment

  • Ellen Moats

    Ellen Moats

    Hi, You are obviously correct in saying that all dogs are potentially aggressive and I agree one hundred percent. I currently have 2 mixed breed dogs that I take to an outdoor dog park here in Cobb co. We have been going for 10 years and I have seen a lot of doggy disputes at the park! Here is what I have personally observed: if a cocker spaniel or any other non-pitbull type dog gets into a tiff with another dog they are easily pulled off and the episode always looks and sounds much worse than it was with no blood spilled. If a pitbull or any other bully breed gets into a tiff, the pit won't let go and sometimes ends up shredding the other dog. Pitbulls have always had a reputation for violence. Back in the 70's our next door neighbor bought 2 pitbulls and my mother warned me to stay away from them. She was very scared of these dogs. I think the main difference is that pits go for the kill and other dogs don't. I think pits are gorgeous dogs that are smart, sweet and extremely loyal. I would love to have one, if only they didn't have such high fight drive. And if it's the owner's fault then there are a lot of irresponsible pit owners in the world.

    Hi, You are obviously correct in saying that all dogs are potentially aggressive and I agree one hundred percent. I currently have 2 mixed breed dogs that I take to an outdoor dog park here in Cobb co. We have been going for 10 years and I have seen a lot of doggy disputes at the park! Here is what I have personally observed: if a cocker spaniel or any other non-pitbull type dog gets into a tiff with another dog they are easily pulled off and the episode always looks and sounds much worse than it was with no blood spilled. If a pitbull or any other bully breed gets into a tiff, the pit won't let go and sometimes ends up shredding the other dog. Pitbulls have always had a reputation for violence. Back in the 70's our next door neighbor bought 2 pitbulls and my mother warned me to stay away from them. She was very scared of these dogs. I think the main difference is that pits go for the kill and other dogs don't. I think pits are gorgeous dogs that are smart, sweet and extremely loyal. I would love to have one, if only they didn't have such high fight drive. And if it's the owner's fault then there are a lot of irresponsible pit owners in the world.

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