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Understanding Survival Aggression

I have some good news. You may recall I looked after a large dog that for the articles I called Rocky. His correct name is Ropi and you may now have seen his picture in the paper looking for a family willing to adopt him. At last he has found an owner and Winston and I were asked to be at the meeting when they saw Ropi for the first time so he could have a better idea of his character. This is very good idea when dealing with any big dog and defiantly where small children are involved.

Ropi has had a difficult start to his life and despite all of this; all he wants is a cuddle and people to love him. I gave him all the tests for aggression I could think of and there were no signs of any. I even used him to socilise another dog previously attacked by two dogs and where it had become withdrawn.

When we arrived, the gentleman had already seen Ropi, had placed a holding deposit for him, and was just waiting for the fencing in of his large garden to be finished before he could take him home. There is also the possibility that the owner will have another dog that I know Ropi would love as he loves to have company.

Ropi was so pleased to see us. It is a lovely feeling to see such a huge dog jumping up with pleasure at our visit. I let him out of his kennel and after lots of fuss; he started to play with Winston. Now Winston is a little rough with Ropi even though Ropi is a much bigger and stronger dog. Winston plays hard with him and most of this is domination play where Ropi has to roll over, curls his legs and tail into showing him submission. He even lets Winston mount him so having to accept his domination as he also lets Winston place his paw over his shoulder.

The prospective owner could see that with all this rough play there was no aggression from Ropi at all. Therefore, what is the significance with this exercise? Winston has had, as they say, had his pockets picked (castrated). Ropi on the other hand is still an entire male. This begs the question how Winston can dominate Ropi under these circumstances.

In many dogs, there is a definite link between testosterone and aggression. Scientists have found that where a dog wins more fights the higher the level of testosterone. Conversely, a dog wearing a muzzle has its level reduced because it cannot defend itself. Castration therefore only removes testosterone-based aggression but this does not necessarily mean it will reduce other types of dog aggression. I am certain there are many owners of un-castrated dogs that were never ever aggressive. All of my dogs have been entire males yet none of them was ever aggressive or considered dangerous.

Unfortunately and especially in the UK shelters have tended to adopt the policy of castrating all entire males on the basis it is better to be safe than sorry. I will not criticise this policy only where a dog is put to sleep without first checking why the dog is showing signs of aggression. Fortunately, Ropi went to a shelter where they were prepared to check his character.

One of the problems is the necessity for dogs entering a shelter that they need injecting with an identification chip, immunised and especially here in Spain blood tested. Now dogs sense and react so if I were a dog, though you and I know the workers in shelters are all caring people, seeing them coming to hold me down whilst holding a large hypodermic I would think that maybe a shelter is not the best place to be at that moment.

I had a request to look at another former shelter dog that too had started to growl at its new owners but again only at women. Luckily, the dog went to the kennels where Maia had some compressed air. With this, she quickly corrected the problem when it growled at her as she walked past its kennel.

This only left me to socialise the dog by taking it out into the streets of Javea and on another occasion taking it on a trip to Benidorm. Here it met many women who were all surprised to hear of its former problem. He certainly did not look anything like an aggressive dog and was as good as gold enjoying all the attention it received. As a test I did mention the problem to a few women before they approached and patted the dog just to see if being aware, their apprehension would change their body language signalling to the dog to growl but there was still no reaction.

On the day we went to Benidorm Maia needed to place some drops in one of the dog’s eyes. I know I was apprehensive and the dog obviously did not like my holding its head so it managed to hold my hand between its teeth but it did not bite. Winston does the same thing when he had his injections. It was not meant as a threat merely a plea to stop what I was doing as it was afraid of what was going to happen. Eventually it sat still and Maia cleaned the eye and administered the drops without any sign of a growl. A few days later, she did not even need any help with this first aid.

I think we all know that dogs will take advantage if they can read the body language of a human who is showing apprehension. We even utilise this in the way we teach Police or competition Patrol dogs to detain criminals. We fain fear with a little teasing and the dog will feel it has the power to attack the arm on command.

It is important that when facing a dog that shows us aggression that we do not show any signs of fearfulness even though maybe we are shaking inside. I have known many owners of dogs that have lived in fear of them and I do know from experience it is difficult regain ones feeling of supremacy after being involved in an aggressive incident.

Here Maia had successfully retrained the dog to know that women have the power and so it should not trifle with them again.

Many dogs that arrive at the shelters come from homes that for one reason or another the owners are unable to keep them and only wish to find them a new home. Such dogs as these are probably used to vets handling them, giving injections, and taking their blood. Other dogs may not have been so fortunate and are obviously apprehensive of the intentions of people who only have the dogs’ welfare uppermost in their minds. For any such dog, it is probably better to let them settle in before attempting any medical treatment. If there is a need to administer medication then I feel it is better to inject a sedative and relive the trauma for the dog as we did with Winston. This way it will not create a dangerous problem for the dog’s new owners.

A friend of mine has a dog that needs frequent blood tests. When it goes to the vet, it simply lifts its paw ready and shows no apprehension. The other week it needed some medical treatment to its tail and was becoming very agitated at the prospect of have its tail treated. Both the owner and the vet decided that it would be better to use a sedative rather than making the dog fearful of returning in the future.

I think I have Winston’s anxiety towards the injection of boosters sorted for next year. I will try feeding him titbits whilst the vet gives the injection. As for blood taking, rather than create more fear for him maybe I will ask for the sedative. I know the vets do not like to regularly administer such drugs but if we know our dogs weight there is little risk.

I believe it is important that our dogs should not have to suffer the trauma created of fear of us even though the things we do are for their medical benefit. If we ignore this, we may teach dogs to show fear aggression and this is not conducive to a sociable dog. Any dog will bite if it fears for its survival and only by teaching it that there is nothing to fear can we over come this type of aggression. I feel this has more priority than administering any medication for whatever good reason. If we can reduce this traumatic experience the better and why I have the entry in the Important Notes section for owners to take, their dogs to vets just for a friendly visit.

Whenever I assess a dog, I use many methods that under certain conditions will encourage the dog to show aggression. Any aggression shown whilst being administered needed medication I do not count as any intentional aggression only it shows their inherent need to survive.

You may recall I wrote about a dog that had gone to training classes and misdiagnosed as dangerously aggressive when it growled violently at the other dogs during the play session. On investigation, the vet found that it had had a fractured pelvis that had not healed correctly. The show of aggression was to warn other dogs to keep away from it as their boisterous play was creating it pain.

There are many such similar circumstances where we should not be quick to jump to the conclusion that dogs showing aggression means we are always dealing with a dangerous dog.

Though both Winston and Ropi showed aggression at their blood testing session they both immediately calmed once it was all over. The problem is that with big dogs shelters must be careful not to misdiagnosis aggression as this could have meant that Ropi may not have been with us today. Had they not taken the chance to have him assessed they might have requested the vets to put him to sleep and he would have missed this opportunity of the good life he so rightly deserves.


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