Canine Agression Problems: Working Towards Peace in the Pack

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The first rule of leadership, Princess: Everything is your fault. – Hopper, Pixar’s A Bug’s Life

I love this quote. It would be funny if it wasn’t both painful, and so doggone true.

Whew. Where to begin?

Let me just say, first of all, that I am a big fan of Cesar Millan. I love his show. I love to watch the man work. I love the absolute power and control and zen that he brings to difficult dog situations again and again. That said, my appreciation of The Dog Whisperer has always been kind of along the same lines as my appreciation of the program What Not to Wear. I like it; occasionally I watch it; and then I wear sweats or pajamas pretty much every place I go. I suppose I could say that watching the programs is all that I do. Because much like my wardrobe, the dog behavior around here has always left much to be desired.

I take full responsibility for the fact that for about four years now we have had little control over the dogs. I was pregnant when our female dog had a litter of puppies, and I would like to believe that if I hadn’t been coursing with motherhood hormones that I never would have kept those two male pups in the first place. But keep them we did, and we brought our newborn daughter home to four dogs – our female English Cocker (now spayed), an intact male Cocka-poo mix, and two of their intact male four-month-old pups.

Of course I was too busy being pregnant and working full time to properly train those puppies (she says, as if that’s an excuse!). I mean, it didn’t really occur to me to do it. I’d never really had to train the two I started with. They were more or less well-behaved, by which I mean that they did not bark incessantly in the house, or fight, or destroy things, or otherwise drive me crazy. But with four dogs … well … needless to say, the dynamic around here changed. The puppies – being puppies – were often energetic and overexcited, and I was constantly shoving cookies and bones into their mouths to shut them up. At any moment when they got to be unbearable, I would put them out into the back yard. Don’t get me wrong. I love those dogs. And we have plenty of quiet time around here, as long as the doorbell doesn’t ring, or a truck doesn’t drive by, or my husband doesn’t open a door somewhere else in the house …

We take care of them. They’re housebroken. They have ample food, a large, fenced yard, tons of love, flea and tick control, heartworm medication, dog licenses, dog beds and annual vaccinations. We’re doing everything that we’re supposed to do when you have dogs – except, apparently, leading them.

Part I: In Which I Offer the Evidence of the Past

I love dogs. We pretty much always had a dog when I was growing up. But in the way that I suspect it works out in most families, none of these dogs were mine. Whatever dog we had always attached itself firmly to Mom. Mom did the feeding, the taking out, the taking of the dog to the vet or to the kennel. Mom issued the marching orders. So while we always had a family dog, I had never had my own dog, and as I entered adulthood I wanted a dog of my own. I wanted a dog of my own very, very much. So much so, in fact, that at the age of twenty or so I issued an ultimatum to my then significant other (who had recently acquired a dog of HIS own): either I get my own dog, or I’m moving out.

And so H. came into my life. She was half Lhasa-poo and half some kind of long-legged, long-snouted mutt with hair like a Collie’s, only thinner. I have never figured out what her father was, and I’ve never seen another dog that looked like him. But this Romeo was smart, and he absolutely courted my significant other’s Lhasa-poo. And I’m not talking about her being in heat. I’m talking about ALL the time; all year round. Whenever he broke loose from his owner, which alas was frequently, he would travel through the neighborhood and plant himself on our front steps. The Lhasa-poo would be in an upstairs window sometimes and we would know that she saw him coming, because her little tail would start to wag with hysterical happiness. I’m telling you, these dogs were in love. And so time passed, and with a little orchestration on my part, after seeking permission from Romeo’s owner, we had a litter of puppies – two puppies to be exact (lucky us). We found a good home for the male, and the beautiful black and white female was all mine.

I loved H. I loved H. in a way that I’m not sure that I have ever loved any living being since. When, several months after my ultimatum, I left my then significant other anyway, H. was a natural to fill the role of number one in my life. She was my roommate and my best friend. I took her to work with me at the bookstore in the mall, where she would hang out quietly (usually) in the back room; where the regional manager would bring her dog biscuits whenever he came around; and where the store manager tolerated several reprimands from mall security before I was finally ordered to cease and desist.

H. climbed trees – for the pure pleasure of it. I would let her outside and before I could get around into the back yard she’d already be up on the one thick, sideways-growing branch of the tree back there, over six feet off the ground, walking up and down, proudly surveying her kingdom. As a result of her tree-climbing passion, she often did the one thing that I have never seen another dog do – she looked UP as she walked down the street; not because a squirrel or anything else had momentarily attracted her attention, but because unlike most dogs – unlike any of the dogs that I have now – she was aware of UP as a place to be.  

She caught Frisbees between her paws. I could pat my hips and she would jump right up into my arms. She would walk down the street beside me, leash-less, and never leave my side. I could walk into a convenience store with her and tell her to sit down and stay inside the door, and she would do just that, watching other customers come and go, waiting for my return, whether we could see each other or not.

She was perfect.

Except that she was always afraid of little kids. She would jump up into my arms whenever one was around, whether I was expecting her or not, a tendency which often left me with raw, red scratches on my chest. She suffered from a serious separation anxiety. If I tried to crate her, she would gnaw on the metal or the plastic of the crate to the point of injuring herself. She would tear at doors, floors and carpet if I tried to contain her in any way. She was always in the trash the moment I left her alone. If left to her own devices when I wasn’t around, she ate my clothes, my carpet, and my shoes literally right up until she died. As a matter of fact, the last thing she did a few days before she died of lymphoma at the age of 10 ½ was to chew up my red cowboy boots.

So you might say that I have a history of problem dogs, and since all three of the males I have currently are descended from H. – they are her son and two grandsons – you might also say that all of these boys may have a genetic predisposition towards certain behavioral problems.

Or you might say that I make a pretty lousy pack leader.

Part II: In Which I Come To Understand That This Is All My Fault

I spent a lot of time during our snow storms this year reading dog training books. And then one weekend I watched a dog-training marathon on television. Four hours of Dog Town. Four hours of The Dog Whisperer. A few days later I ordered one of Cesar Millan’s books, Be the Pack Leader. And boy, let me tell you, it was an eye-opening read.

If you’ve ever watched The Dog Whisperer, you’ll know that Cesar Millan’s technique is unlike any other dog-training technique you’re likely to encounter. Even knowing that, I wasn’t prepared to read a book that was going to change me and my life. I mean, this is about the dogs, right? Check this out:

The moral of the story is no matter how much money or power you have, how many academic degrees, or how many priceless works of art you own, your dogs don’t care. They do care how unstable you are, because, being pack-oriented, it directly affects them. Dogs do know how comfortable you are with yourself, how happy you are, how fearful you are, and what is missing inside of you. They can’t tell you, but they absolutely know exactly who you are. You can ask a human, “Are you happy?” Some … will say, “Of course” – either hiding or unaware of the fact that he’s not. Then you’ll see the dog. The dog can’t hide his emotions, and he’s clearly not happy. It becomes very obvious, by reading a dog, how stable or unstable his human companion is.

Wow. I thought I was buying this book to learn what to do about my dogs. Not to discover that I’m a basket case.

We made a few changes that have managed to stick. No more dogs on the furniture. And we meant it this time! Three months later, and no-dogs-on-the-furniture is a way of life. I stopped leaving dry dog food out for them all the time. Now I feed all four together, one bowl per dog, as soon as they come back inside in the morning, and at somewhere around 6 every evening, and that’s it. Both of these things made a big difference in the dogs, and have become second nature to us.

And yet, all was not well.

Shortly after our snowbound Dog Whisperer days, after two years of gradually escalating displays of aggressive growling, one of my young male dogs, J., had finally begun launching outright scary and violent attacks against his aging (almost fifteen-year-old) father, A., who is largely deaf and mostly blind, and has the physique of the hundred-or-so year old man that he is. We had started to keep the dogs separated. I was in a state of constant anxiety. A. couldn’t walk near J., couldn’t approach me or so much as walk into the room where J. was without being attacked. This was all bad enough. Then a few weeks ago I hit rock bottom with this whole situation. I was out of town for a day and when I got home after about 10 hours, I asked my husband how the dogs had behaved in my absence. Come to think of it, my husband told me they’d been fine. There had been no incidents.

Interesting – especially since I wasn’t home and in the room for five minutes before J. launched another attack.

Clearly, this was somehow about me.

Part III: In Which I Clearly Articulate the Problem

I remember the night that all of this started – about two years ago – like it was yesterday. I had had A. to the cardiologist that day to check up on his congestive heart failure, which had improved a lot since his last visit. I’d changed his food, and he was getting more exercise, and he’d lost about 5 pounds of unnecessary weight. We’d come home and everything was fine – until I got ready to go to bed that evening. I was doing my usual corralling of the dogs preparatory to us all piling into the bed together, and suddenly J. started growling at A.

This was surprising and unsettling to all of us. My husband and I were perplexed. A. was upset and outdoing himself trying to get back into J.’s good favor. M., J.’s brother, was wide-eyed and huddled up against the wall with this what-the-? look on his face.

Why was J. doing this? Where had this come from? Why had it erupted, all of a sudden, out of the blue?

Quite frankly, it scared me, and obviously J. knew it, because from my reaction on that very first night he had a foothold. His toe was in the door. The power games had begun.

As time went on we figured that this – unfortunately – was the natural world at work. A. was getting old and infirm at about the same time that J. was reaching maturity. None of the boys were fixed. There was some probably to-be-expected reordering of the pack going on here. I still believe that this is true, but I also believe that it’s only part of the story, because I know for a fact that J. has always had issues.

He was born right in my living room, on December 11th, 2005. I have literally been with him every moment of his life. I know that he displayed aggression towards the other puppies in his litter when he was still toddling. Oh, isn’t that cute? They’re playing! (Ahem.) I know that he has always had what seems, from the outside anyway, to be something of an anxiety/inferiority complex. After all, his brother M. has always been his physical superior. M. was breaking out of the puppy enclosure when he was only a few weeks old, and exploring the house. M. could get over anything, while J. had a little puppy hernia that we had to have repaired, and just plain couldn’t physically keep up with his brother. And yet, J. has always been my favorite. I think because I knew how much he needed me. I got a sense that in J., I might once again have that devoted, one-on-one dog relationship that I had had with H., and which I feared – now being married with child and multiple dogs – that I would never have again. And so I coddled his every infirmity. I met his whines and his frustration with affectionate and enabling sympathy. At every crucial point when bad behavior could have been corrected, I unwittingly did the exact opposite of what I should have done.

Consequently – apparently – I had created a monster.

Part IV: In Which I Have My Rock Bottom Breakdown

As I said, a few weeks ago, I hit rock bottom. The day after my out-of-town trip, I came home from work and my husband once again reported that the dogs had gotten along fine together in my absence. As soon as I walked in the door, though, J. became violent. I simply could not be in the same room with them peacefully. I couldn’t separate them peacefully. The situation had become impossible. Not knowing what to do at that moment, and clearly feeling that I was losing it, I put I. (J.’s mother), M. and A. outside and left J. inside with me. I was standing by the French door leading out to the deck, when I. walked up to her side of the French door and J. sprang at the door in a growling, snapping fury that scared the crap out of me, and I screamed. It had finally happened. I was afraid of my own dog. And my dog-induced nervous breakdown – which like so many other things around here was a long time coming – had finally arrived.

When I finally got a hold of myself, which took quite some time (What’s the matter? Why is Mama crying?), my husband and I ended up in the kitchen arguing about what to do. Getting rid of J. was not – and has never been – on the table. It wouldn’t solve his aggression problems. It’s more likely that he would bounce from home to home, end up in the pound, and get destroyed. But neither could we continue to live this way. By this point I had watched and read enough Dog Whisperer and other dog training books – and seen enough evidence – to really believe that the problem was less with the dog than it was with me. And besides, there was evidence to support that J. was far from a lost cause.

In spite of being “the problem dog” in the house, J. has some interesting and unexpected qualities: like, for instance, being the dog most likely to sit and stay and lay down on command; the dog most likely to heel; the dog most likely to be hanging out beside me when out free in the back yard; the one dog to always come to me happily when I call; the one dog that follows me around and generally looks up at me with expectant eyes all the time. There was no way a dog that would do all those things was a bad dog. The problem must be that I wasn’t being clear enough about what I wanted – and didn’t want – him to do. He had developed a dangerous possessiveness about me. Even as I said all this to my husband, J. was the only dog in the kitchen with us. He was laying calmly about six feet away, his head on his paws, perfectly serene, perfectly beautiful, looking up, from time to time, at me.

“Look at him,” I told my husband. “He wants me to tell him what to do. He’s always looking to me.”

“He’s not going to stop looking to you,” my husband told me, misunderstanding, I think, what I was trying to say. “That dog adores you. You’re everything to him.”

“I don’t want him to stop looking to me for leadership,” I said. “What I’m saying is that I think I ought to start working harder to give it to him.”

So I outlined my plan, based on the basic Dog Whisperer principles of Exercise, Discipline and Affection. Number one on my list was that I needed to start walking the dogs. J. probably wasn’t getting enough exercise, so we had to rule that out as a problem first of all. But just walking J. wasn’t going to be enough. I had problems within my pack, and they weren’t going to be solved by pulling one dog out and trying to fix the problem in isolation. He was never any trouble by himself. The problem was about dynamics. It started when I put them all together, so any solution was going to have to involve all four of them at the same time; a daunting task. Especially when, I’ll be honest, I was still feeling a little intimidated and afraid of J.

But in the words of another favorite movie around here – The Princess and the Frog – I had to “dig a little deeper.”

I was determined. I was going to start walking my pack – every day. The pack walk, I decided, was going to be the foundation of our future together, and I was going to start right now. This very moment.

The idea of walking four dogs at the same time, my husband told me, was ludicrous.

Part V: In Which I Undertake the Pack Walk

Ludicrous it may be, but impossible it ain’t. I know this because I have done it a number of times, though it had been quite some time since I’d done it last. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that I’d done it much at all in the past few years that this situation had been developing. It’s a skill I picked up after spending a (mostly wasted) huge amount of money on a dog trainer a few years back; in fact, the ability to walk my four dogs while pushing my daughter in a stroller is probably really the only lasting, useful thing I got out those dog training sessions.

Because on that first walk I was the most concerned about J., and wanted to tire him out, I first took him out alone with my daughter in the stroller. We walked a mile and a half, and he was pretty good. He pulls on me the least of all my four dogs. His problem is he wants to bark and whine and freak out at every single dog or squirrel or cat that we pass. But we dealt with each incident as it arose, and, as I said, he was pretty doggone good, and after I’d drained most of his energy (to use a Dog Whisperer phrase) we stopped at the house and picked up A. Back when I used to do this (not always successfully), J. and A. always walked strapped together on my right side. Obviously I was concerned about walking them side by side because of the attacks. But I took confidence from two facts.

1. J. generally never growled at or attacked A. outside of the house.

2. J. was already getting tired.

So I strapped them together and off we went – and we had no problems. None. Not one.

So I stopped at the house again, and on the very afternoon of my rock bottom breakdown, I took my whole pack for a walk. And I’ve done two or more miles with them almost every day since. The threatening postures, the growling and the attacks are now down by about 90 percent. Though from time to time I still need to administer a correction, it is no longer necessary to keep the dogs separated. J. and A. are in the same room together in my presence, peacefully, all the time now. The pack no longer barks hysterically at every little thing that goes on in the house. They don’t wake me up every morning in an anxious, energetic frenzy. And I am no longer afraid.

Exercise. I’m telling you. It makes a huge difference.

But I didn’t accomplish all this with exercise alone. The other thing I’ve done is to start telling J. – in the language of dogs – that I don’t want him to threaten or attack A. anymore.

What is the language of dogs, you ask?

It’s body language, of course.

Whenever J. starts to act up, I bite him.

Part VI: In Which I Backtrack for a Moment

I feel I have to pause here and backtrack a little, in order to give credit where credit is due, because this story wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t tell you about M.’s role in all of this. Remember J.’s wide-eyed, what-the-?, cowering brother on the night of our first aggressive incident? Well, he didn’t stay that way. Despite looking smaller, he actually outweighs his brother by half a pound. He is 35 ½ pounds of smart, lean, athletic and utter COOL. And in the final few weeks of our problems, as things were hitting their emotional peak, M. was literally stepping in often, and quite obviously, as my protector.

It came to pass that when J. and I were struggling – J. growling, me trying unsuccessfully to get him to stop – that M. would walk up to us and very calmly insert himself between us, facing J. This was usually enough to get J. to back down and be quiet. It became obvious to me that M. was positioning himself to take my part should J. decide to turn on me. M. was telling J. – knock it off, or you’re going to have to deal with me.  And I know, because I’ve seen these boys fight a few times, that M. always ends up on top as the winner. Obviously, J. knows this too.

Anyone want to know a sure-fire way to break up a dog fight? Throw a pitcher of water on them. Right in their snarling, snapping faces. It works every time.

M.’s behavior was not so much reassuring as it was disturbing. After all, if M. felt that J. might actually get aggressive towards me, then there must be some truth in it. And J.’s growling was upsetting me, and I guess every dog in the house knew it.

I had been watching M. and learning. After all, he wasn’t ruffled by J.’s behavior. He wasn’t afraid to step up to him – tall, composed, confident – and tell him to stop. What M. did worked. And so it became clear to me that if I was going to handle J., I was going to have to be cool, like M.

Part VII: In Which I Begin to “Bite”

You may have seen Cesar Millan “bite” dogs on his program. He takes his hand and “nips” them sharply at the neck area, a touch that is supposed to simulate the kind of corrective nip that a mother dog gives to a puppy. I believe he describes it as a “touch” (not a hit!) and it seems that the real power behind it is in the transfer of his calm and confident energy and of his intention: you will stop this undesirable behavior right now. In the midst of formulating my solution to our problem I was reading a story online about how a young woman had solved her dog’s aggression problems by trying this technique, and I thought what the heck. I’ll give it a shot.

Now, I am no Cesar Millan. I do not have his experience. I do not have his composure, his confidence or his cool. And I am well aware that it’s always a good idea to consult a professional when dealing with any kind of dog aggression problem. But J. is not a rescue/shelter dog. I know every moment of his history. And I do truly believe that J. does not want to hurt me; that he is craving leadership and direction, and that he has the capacity to be that perfect dog that I have always wanted. So, in addition to the pack walks, I gave the “biting” a shot, and it worked. Whenever J. would begin his low warning growl, I would nip him and tell him no. If he persisted, I would do it again. I would not get upset. I always remained calm but firm. And he always (sometimes sooner than other times) backed down.

Attitude is everything in this, and I still have to correct J. from time to time. And some days are better than others. And I’ll be honest; he does still occasionally launch an attack against A. But I’ve come to realize that these displays are just that – lots of noise and posturing – no one has ever gotten hurt. I’m not afraid of J. anymore, and I manage to communicate to him to knock it off when I need to. I think this is why my husband never had any problems like this when he was alone with the dogs. Not for one minute was he ever afraid of J.

A. is now able to mind his own business about the house without constant fear of an immanent attack. And from time to time, I even catch them hanging out peacefully together.

Part VIII: In Which I Consider the Practical Implications of My Experience

Even greater than ending the dog-violence – if such a thing is even possible – is that suddenly I realize that problems we’ve struggled with for four years don’t have to be problems. Solving the problems may be as simple as just telling the dogs no – in a language that they can understand. J. used to bark – high pitched, anxious barking – all the time: if my husband opened or closed a door, for example; if one of us walked into the house after being gone, etc. That has decreased a lot, and I attribute much of that decrease to his increase in regular exercise. What hasn’t stopped by itself, I just tell him not to do it, and he stops. The command I am most interested in at this point is “Quiet.”

There is liberation on all kinds of fronts.

I suddenly realize that maybe I don’t have to put up with my dogs barking at the fence at the neighbor’s dogs. That maybe I can teach M. to play ball, which is his very favorite thing to do, without him constantly barking at me. That maybe I don’t have to worry about the dogs harassing the chickens whenever we actually get them – a concern which has been one of my main worries about the whole potential enterprise. I have an idea that maybe I can get the coop first, and train them to stay the heck away from it. That maybe I can get chicks and brood them myself, teaching the dogs from the get go that they are not wild prey, but part of the family.

It’s a thought. I think it might actually be doable.

The possibilities are endless.

Part IX: In Which I Consider the Philosophical Implications of My Experience

I suddenly realize that all these hard-to-believe, instant transformation stories from The Dog Whisperer probably really are true.

I am reminded of my favorite philosopher, J. Krishnamurti, who has much to say about the immediacy of transformation: “Most of us are accustomed to thinking that time is necessary for transformation; I am something, and to change what I am into what I should be requires time. … First of all, why do we want to change what is? … Because what we are dissatisfies us; it creates conflict, disturbance and disliking that state we want something better, something nobler, something idealistic. … Being in a state of conflict you want to achieve a state in which there is no conflict. Now is that state of no conflict the result of time, of a duration? Obviously not, because while you are achieving a state of nonviolence, you are still being violent and are, therefore, still in conflict.”

I will say this: the change in J. was not gradual; it was not of a duration. From the moment that I became different – J. became different. We still have our moments; I said the attacks were down 90 percent, not that they were completely eradicated, but they are few and far between compared to what was going on before. So, while there is an element of practice at work here, the “practice” is both meaningless and useless without the immediacy of transformation that is only possible by first being different.

 Cesar Millan: “The truth about dogs is, they don’t feel bad about the past. They don’t dwell on their bad memories. We are the only species that does that. Dogs live in the moment. If they feel safe and secure in the moment, then any past conditioned behavior can be reconditioned, provided we give our time, our patience – and our consistency. They – like everything else in Mother Nature – naturally want to return to balance. Too often, it is we, the humans, who are unknowingly preventing that balance from occurring.”

Krishnamurti again: “Revolution is only possible now, not in the future; regeneration is today, not tomorrow.”

Hmmn. Philosophy is where you find it; interesting how a fundamental abstract idea can be so completely illustrated in an everyday life problem. And come to think of it, if it can’t, then what the heck good is it?