You can read the second part of this article here.
Gunia was adopted when she was around 5 or 6 months old. She was my perfect pit-bull type dog. Even her color matched the one of my dreams about perfect a pitbull.
From the very beginning she was shy and insecure towards dogs and strangers.
I had made many mistakes while raising her (but who does not) and with my current knowledge I definitely would have changed many things.
I can not say why she is/ was/ became aggressive. Her early life (it was not paradise as she ended up on the street), genes, certain events in her life, an early sterilization. I have no idea and never will. I have to focus on what is happening now.
The only thing I am sure is that she is the dog that taught me a great deal about the dog’s world and I’m forever grateful. This post will not be behavioral advice nor any advice. It will be a simple description how life is with dog like Gunia and what can we do to make it better.
So, what does life with an aggressive dog look like? Normal and very peaceful. To tell you the truth, more peaceful than a life with a non aggressive dog.
One key to success when dealing with aggression is to remain calm. If I am calm and peaceful there is a much greater chance that Gunia will stay that way. If I react nervously when noticing a stranger on a horizon I can be sure that Gunia will pay attention to to him and stay alert. Be rational, analyze.. Calmness allows us to rationally asses our current situation and helps us to make the best decisions; and this is crucial with aggressive dogs.
Calmness and ACCEPTATION
Accept this is how our dog is. Gunia has aggression issues. I know it and I love her. I also know that she will never be a super social dog, greeting every stranger encountered on a street. No running around in a dog pack for her (although with dog packs we should be careful even with dogs without problems). I will not take her to crowded places with dogs or people. She will not compete. She will not greet guests at home freely. I know all of this and I accept it. I accept that she is a unique individual. She has the right to have her own preferences, She does not have to like everything and everyone. She does not have to like other dogs and people. The moment I understood and accepted it our life together became easier and more comfortable.
When another dog is approaching us, I know that for Gunia’s comfort I have to step off the road to give her space. I could be obstinate and persistently draw her attention away from the oncoming dog or force her to tolerate him. But what for? It is enough for her to step aside for a few seconds. It makes her feel secure, observe the stranger and she can get used to the passing dog.
I will not let the stranger pet her. Because she doesn’t like it and it is a huge discomfort for her. I could also try to put a muzzle on her and force her to withstand the pressure, she wears muzzle but it doesn’t mean I can put her in more challenging situations.By doing so I would deeply harm my dog’s trust in me and place her in a situation where she feels endangered. Gunia will not attend dog-trekking with dozens of other dogs. Even though I enjoy dog trips. If for some reason I will go to a dog trekking competition I will have to wait more than an hour until others have taken off and follow them at the very end. I will not pass the finish line. I will take a shortcut to the car to avoid crowded places. Because that makes Gunia feel more comfortable. Yes, I could put her muzzle on and keep her on a short leash so she can walk next to the other dogs. After 3 km of barking she would get over it. She would give up. But I see no reason to do this. Dogs can like or dislike things we do. They have the full right to do so. I accept Gunia the way she is. All of the above mentioned situations are not problems for me. This is simply our life with Gunia. It will not be different.
Calmness, acceptation and ROUTINE
Routine is helpful with a fearful dog. Gunia has her meal, walk and training time. A predictable world significantly lowers stress levels in her life. It is gravely important to her. She does not have to face overwhelming challenges every day.
Although, I add tiny, surprising elements to her daily routine. Just enough to get used to unusual changes and to be able to deal with it.
Calmness, acceptation, routine and TRUST
Mutual. Gunia has to trust me. She has to because I understand her, I respect her and I accept her. I trust her. I know her threshold, her boundaries, her preferences and strategies for dealing with problems. I know there are things I can not do with her.
Calmness, acceptation, routine, trust and UNDERSTANDING
Aggressive behaviors are natural for dogs, we have to understand that. Canis familiaris would have become extinct if dogs had not evolved aggressive behaviors. It is absolutely normal to use aggressive behaviors. Unfortunately many people do not understand this. We want nice dogs, dogs who are not barking, not growling. We want them to stop being dogs. A dog has to obey, calmly walk on the leash, listen to the commands and make no problems. We tend to forget that dogs are animals. Even if we do not like it, some behaviors are normal and not unusual. We domesticated dogs but they were never meant to be humans. Our dogs will be grateful if we can clearly communicate what is good or bad. Mutual understanding is crucial. If a certain situation is too difficult for Gunia and she is overwhelmed I can not be mad at her, shout or “correct” her. I can learn from this experience.
A while ago Gunia had developed ability to transfer her aggression, in other ways, if she was unable to attack, she bit what was closest to her, usually me. She was not acting intentionally. It was her only strategy to deal with problems.
Now she has learned new tactics how to cope with fear which she can use instead of attacking. She has not bitten me for over a year now.
Calmness, acceptation, routine, trust, understanding and REALISTIC APPROACH
I will not take my dog to a dog park or walk with other dogs if I know she will not handle it well. Even if I truly care about this walk with friends (then I can go alone) this will not change how my dog feels about it. She will not handle it.
I know Gunia is not good with other bitches. She can stand them from 10 meters, so I will not risk a dangerous situation with a friend’s dog just to take a nice picture. I will not provoke Gunia. I have to look realistically at a situation and carefully asses it.
Calmness, acceptation, routine, trust, understanding, realism and RESPECT
Respect your dogs. Their choices. I do not take my dog to the stable if he is afraid of horses. It doesn’t mean I will not work with him to reduce the fear. But I will do this gradually and slowly. Without losing his trust. I often see people who are under the influence of others and when in the company of others start to behave irrationally and unusually towards their own dogs. This constantly happens during seminars. For example, we know our dog is not feeling safe when crated close to passing dogs. But we are attending a seminar and everyone places theirs crates in a corridor. We put our dog in a situation he will not handle under the influence of others. Because we feel ashamed in front of other participants or maybe because a trainer says not to bother, the dog will finally stop barking. This is a perfect way to lose our dog’s trust. Do not feel awkward because you do things differently. You know your dog and you are the one he trusts the most. Do not risk ruing your relationship on the spur of the moment.
Calmness, acceptation, routine, trust, understanding, realism, respect and ACTIVITY
Physical activity is very important for Gunia. Everyday walks allow her to explore and relax. Mantrailing was extremely helpful with dealing with fear of people. Now, a person hiding in the forest or in the bushes is a great friend whose life she saves and she gets rewarded with food :)
Calmness, acceptation, routine, trust, understanding, realism, respect and activity, and BEHAVIOR
This one is one of the most important points. Unlabel aggression. Define it by behaviors. Because aggression is nothing else but label we give to numerous behavior. Learn how to work on those behaviors, learn science behind it. Learn how to change it, how to do it ethically. If you search for thew cause inside the dog, you may find yourself trapped in vicious circle of explanatory fiction and inability to help your dog progress.
Behavior is our focus. It doesn’t mean emotions are not happening, we are simply unable to measure them. They are crucial and extremely important part of dog’s life but we can only alter them by working on behavior. That’s why we should focus on behavior and rules by which it is governed. This also implies ethical approach, as dogs are unable to use verbal behavior to explain how they feel in the moment, we should be even more careful with the methods we use. That’s why our first hand choice should always be positive reinforcement.
Behavior does not exist in vacuum. To fully understand the antecedent conditions and consequences, we need to be very careful observers. Because to look only in one behavior without it’s context, history of the learner is just a grave mistake. Scientific approach gives us tools and empowers us as teachers. It gives us tools to work on aggressive behaviors effectively.
I would have never had access to this part of dog’s life if not for Gunia and her issues. Thanks to her I have a much better relationship with the whole G TEAM. Our current life is quiet and predictable. We know how to rely on each other. She forgives my mistakes and I forgive her. I don’t expect her to be different. I don’t need to.
Agnieszka Janarek – Dog Trainer