By Gary Wilkes
There is a trend in modern behavior talk to pretend that dogs bite people because of some event in their background. Then they propose that you must change the underlying emotions to change the behavior. In reality, the cause of aggression is DNA, not emotions.
All dogs bite. Events in the dog’s life trigger the behavior—the same way a thrown tennis ball causes a Border Collie to instantly rocket after the ball. Ironically, of the 400 dog breeds in the world, the majority were genetically selected for behavioral traits; Pointers point, Heelers heel, guarding breeds guard. But what about the lap dogs that bite? They weren’t bred for that and yet there is still a genetic connection.
It’s good to remember that simple concepts govern this topic. For instance, breeders breed. They have their own goals and desires. If they are breeding for conformation, they select primarily visual characteristics. To create one Grand Champion, they are going to breed other dogs that will end up at ‘pet quality’ and go to normal homes—meaning the majority of your clients. Whether that dog has the qualities to make a loving pet is a matter of chance.
Dog people tend to be able to put up with unacceptable behavior better than average pet owners. A breeder might continue to breed a line that makes horrible pets but wins ribbons and titles. A top agility competitor had her dog latch onto her arm as the dog left the ring. The woman’s solution was to wear long sleeve shirts for a while to hide the bandage. A Bichon that wins in the ring isn’t going to be removed from the gene pool for being a snit at home. All of its puppies will retain the genetic heritage, whatever that might be.
Then there are the tiny dogs that want to conquer the world. All terriers are ‘ratters’ under the skin. That includes dogs like Miniature Schnauzers. For these breeds, the ‘bite’ is just under that coarse coat and whiskers. I am currently working with two Bedlingtons that are totally cute and anything but passive. Dachshund aggression is easily explained when you realize that “dachs” in German means badger. When you take a badger–dog and make it smaller, you don’t remove the aggression that is the hallmark of the breed.
I am seeing a miniature Poodle later this morning who bares his teeth when his owner tries to put a leash on him—even though he loves going on walks. That doesn’t appear to make sense, but that is the way with innate behaviors. They don’t always make sense, they just are.
The obvious conclusion is that instinctive behaviors like aggression are built into the dog. They are not learned behaviors. They don’t need some external instruction to wink into existence. They are triggered by both internal and external events. For example, all puppies play–bite. They lunge and wrestle and practice the behaviors that would allow them to survive in the wild—even though they could never actually survive in the wild. While some behaviors are there from the beginning, some are developmental.
A male dog lifts its leg for the first time at about nine months of age—the advent of sexual maturity. One day it’s not there, one day it is. The same is true of aggression. Puppies are not supposed to fight to the death. They are supposed to practice fighting to the death like school boys wrestling on a school ground. As the dog reaches maturity, the behavior becomes active. The same provocation that would make a puppy urinate submissively is swapped for a full–blown, mature attack at 18 months. You don’t have to teach this, it’s built in.
The most important thing to realize is that aggression is common to all dogs. Some have very long fuses and it would take a life–threatening event to trigger it. Some use their aggression to bully their owners, groomer, vets and anyone else that comes into their life. Some use aggression to get them off the hook and prevent someone from messing with their feet. They may indeed be the sweetest dog in the world other than that.
When someone pulls the specific trigger, the dog bites. No amount of obedience training or giving treats will arrest what is as natural as butt sniffing. As you know, to groom an aggressive dog means you must learn good handling skills and how to anticipate what’s about to happen. That can only come with time and experience.
For new groomers, I recommend volunteering at the worst county pound you can find. Each stray that comes in has to be examined for ID and possible injuries. When they are handled, it is done with an efficiency that is rarely appreciated. If they are aggressive, the handling takes on different forms. You will see and do things that are not common to grooming salons. Currently, I teach ungroomable dogs to be passive. I learned my handling skills in the crucible of animal shelters. It’s a good school for that.
Perhaps the most important opportunity is to watch experienced groomers. They handle aggression with skill and style. That is why groomed dogs are invariably better behaved at the salon than they are at home. The goal is to get the job done and not get hurt. Watch the people who have successfully learned that and, above all, remember that if it’s a dog, it can bite you.