Dog Behaviour Advice - Dog Advice Articles
Possessive Aggression of Rio, Understanding the Problem
Rio is a Pastor Vasco Spanish herding dog that has a suspension system that I have never seen in a dog before. He does not walk, he trots. He has huge feet and it would appear he is still growing. Rio is not a dominant dog and he is in fact a big baby. If any dog barks at him, he runs away. He does try to take charge if he thinks he has the opportunity but if he pushes another dog too far it soon puts him in his place.
Rio loves to play with all dogs he meets. People, coming here for training, just love him, especially when watching this miniature horse goes into play bow asking another dog to play with him. Seeing Rio charge around the field pursued by another dog is a sight to see. He is very friendly to both dogs and people. He is a very loving dog and loves cuddles. If I fall asleep on the settee, he will sneak up alongside and then just roll on next to me until I wake up and tell him to get off.
The problem of Rio is he has bitten his owners when they wanted to see if they could take food from him. They do have children visit them so it was important for them to make this check.
He has bitten those that have looked after him for simply removing an empty food bowl or just a blanket. It would seem that once Rio thinks something is his, he uses aggression to maintain ownership.
Possessive aggression in certain dogs can take many forms and it does not only happen with dominant dogs. Initially most dogs will try to protect their food from its siblings. Once in a human home, incorrect training can teach any dog to protect toys of any kind, another animal, a child, a family member, a place like a kennel, a car, its bed or just about anything. It can even be something that another dog or human wants so it takes it before they do.
It is so important that if we see a dog that is becoming possessive we must stop it at the outset and not treat it as a joke. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me that their dog will not let anyone touch their toys or they are unable to remove its food.
Most dogs do not do this though some dogs will and so their owners simply learn to live with it as if it is a dog’s particular trait. If you actually analyse the dogs training, it is possible to see how the dog received the wrong encouragement so creating the difficulty. Owners must recognise this as a problem and learn how to correct it.
Rios owners did originally e-mail me to ask what they should do to stop this. I gave the usual methods of controlling the food presentation and removing it by walking up from behind, saying leave, and taking away the bowl. If necessary, they should use a saucepan as a food bowl, extending the handle length using a long plastic tube. This would make it easier to remove the pan without hands being too close to Rios jaws. Nothing seemed to be working so as Rio was coming to stay with me for a few days I suggested they stop until I had a chance to assess Rios problem.
My first thought was that having seen Rios reaction the owners became anxious. This a dog can read in the owner’s body language and most people would find difficult to hide. Once Rio knew this, I suspected human anxiety taught him we are just as vulnerable to his show of aggression as dogs are.
The owner felt anxiety could not always be the problem. One occasion her husband went to pick up some plastic netting from their gate that lay in the drive and Rio still lunged to protect it. This is actually quite normal.
Dogs read body language very well. If you witness a dog that senses the presence of prey, other dogs immediately notice this Pointing and rush to encircle the indicated area in order to catch it.
Also stopping with me was a German shepherd called Teddy. He loved me to throw pinecones and balls for him. I would even wake in a morning to find cones or balls left on my bed. Whilst sat watching the dogs playing, I noticed Teddy coming out of the woods. I then saw him spy a large pinecone in the middle of the drive. So also did Rio and before Teddy could get to the cone, Rio had rushed up and stood over it snarling at Teddy to back off, as the cone was now his. Rio had spotted the owner looking at the netting and just did the same as he did to Teddy.
As I wrote in the last article, dogs are naturally protective, especially of their food. Eight weeks with their siblings, they will use the normal lip curling and growling to keep the others away. Many breeders will feed their dogs and remove the food only to replace it again just to teach the puppy that there is nothing to fear from humans. Teaching this whilst they are so young, they learn to respect humans as well as losing their fear of us stealing what they think is theirs.
Possessive testing and any necessary retraining of a puppy can be fraught with difficulties because each person and their dog are different. How we desensitise our puppy has to be suited to the dog and owner. There are so many different methods described in various books so it is important that we get it right first time. The puppy must be in no doubt the owner is always in control. If an owner makes the wrong move and their puppy shows aggression making them back away, the dog has learnt a very dangerous lesson.
Professionals do not use ropes, leads, and protective gloves without good reason. They know retraining any dog capable of aggression; it can cause them considerable damage. It is therefore imperative that the dog never learns it can win.
Any sign of anxiety from humans only bolsters the dog’s perceived power. If professionals take so much care in providing themselves with a high level of protection, then ordinary dog owners should also take some reasonable care. I hear of so many owners attempting such retraining without any protection. This must make them anxious, yet they seem unaware that their anxiety has any importance; yet it does.
It is so important that as soon as a puppy comes into our home we should make sure it learns to respect humans. It is necessary they learn we are not dogs but as in this case, Rio treats humans and dogs the same.
Those of you who have more than one dog will often see one protect its possessions from the others using lip curling, bearing of teeth followed by growling, then lunging. If such warnings fail then an actual attack may follow.
The most important lesson for our puppies to learn is they never ever use such aggression language directed towards humans.