Dominance & Aggression
                                                                                                                                    LAURA  KENNELS  American  Bulldogs
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Recognizing Signs of Aggression

American Bulldog owners must learn to recognize whether their dog is showing off a trick he learned (obedience) or whether he is showing disrespect for the owner and the owner's rules (dominance).  Local obedience instructors lead pet owners to think they will end up with a well-mannered dog just for completing the class. Pet owners are told their dogs only need to learn sit, down, come and walk on a leash. These classes may fail to teach owners that dogs must also learn to be polite around strangers, to leave small children alone, to stay off furniture or beds unless invited up, to not jump up on people or take food off the counter, or act stupid when the door bell rings etc, etc, etc.  The owner often misses the fact that his dog needs rules to live by and he (the owner) must learn the concept of constancy and especially the concept of consequences for disobedience.

Growling is not always a bad thing

Social rank is a big thing to a social pack animal. Leaders eat what they want and get the better sleeping quarters. Lower ranking members would not challenge the leader for food, or act aggressively towards a higher pack member by trying to move the leader out of his bed.

If your dog growls at you when you go near his food bowl or if the dog is laying in your bed and growls when you get into bed or if it growls when you take toys away, that dog is either fearful because of how it was treated in the past or it does not respect your position as a higher social rank.

If a dog that has not been mistreated by family members but growls at the wife or children, it sees itself as a higher rank. Growling is the dogs warning or challenge. It is often accompanied by other subtle body postures that most owners miss. Some people think growling is a bad thing, I do not. Growling is a signal that there is a problem of some kind and I need to find the solution.

Look at it like this. Some dogs don't growl, they simply strike (bite) with very little warning. Would you rather have a dog that growls or a dog that strikes? In my opinion people who administer unfair corrections for growling are making a mistake. They are setting themselves up to get dog bit. What they should be doing is thinking about why the dog is growling and then come up with a solution to stop it in the future.

Is the dog growling over food? Then it should be fed in a crate. Is it growling when you take toys away? Then it shouldn't have toys. Is it growling when you come to bed? Then it needs to be on leash in the house and it should go in a crate at bedtime. Does it growl at guests? Then put it in a crate when guests come over. A little common sense goes a long way in figuring out a solution. And each of these solutions avoids a fight with the dog. These are just a few examples of controlling the environment that the dog is allowed to live in.

Dominance and Aggression -- Puppy to Adult

It is an extremely rare situation for a puppy younger than 8 months of age to show signs of dominant handler aggression.  In 35 years of breeding working American Bulldogs we have received less than a dozen reports of dominant behavior which could not be rehabilitated.   The fact is when a puppy is raised correctly, the issue of rank is established early, risk lessens, and the dog seldom again challenges the handlers authority.

Unfortunately new puppy owners who lack experience often mistakenly confuse prey drive with dominance. These are two totally unrelated and different things.

When a pup chews on your hands or your pant leg (even when accompanied by growling) it is simply  displaying play/prey drive.  Puppies play with their litter mates by using their mouth. They bite each other, they jump on each other, they growl at each other.

When they then move away from their litter and into a human family they can only assume that this is how to should play with their new human pack members. It becomes the owner's job to teach the pup manners and human rules.  The best way to control puppies that bite is to redirect the puppy by using food or toys. When a pup is biting hands you simply refocus the pup onto a high value food treat or a high interest toy.  Sadly owners often allow the puppy cuteness factor to overshadows leadership responsibility.   No matter how cute the pup, it is more important to help it develop good manners than to indulge yourself with a moment of entertainment.

This often leads to the emails we get from frustrated puppy owners who mistakenly think they have a dominant puppy when in fact all they have is a very nice pup with a lot of drive that has not had its drive managed correctly.   When puppy nips/growls at you or others, distract it with a sound or touch (Cesar's "schhhtt", finger snap, or touch with finger tips).    Your verbal command "no" should become an effective tool in your training arsenal which occurs immediately following bad behavior.    Try not to use puppy's name when correcting....but always use his/her name when giving praise.

Unfortunately new dog owners don't learn how to redirect their pup or how to control the environment they allow their puppy to be in.   For example, it should be common sense to not allow mouthy puppies around very small children.    At the very least, monitor  such interaction constantly, giving the pup your full attention the entire time it is allowed to be around the small child.   Otherwise you are dealing both the pup and child an unfair hand.


Signs of Aggressive Behavior

If a dog is going to show serious dominance or handler aggression problems, it will become clear as the dog enters maturity.  Early signs present as at 6-8 months of age, with unmistakable aggression around 18 months.

As dogs mature, their instincts tell them to assume a rank within the pack.  Youngsters are willing to be followers, but if they don't receive the proper training or if that training was lacking or if it is allowed to display rank behavior (i.e. guarding toys, lay on the bed or on furniture whenever it wants, etc.) the drive to assume higher pack position takes over ... especially at this 18-24 month age.

Obedience Training is only ONE piece of the puzzle

It's a given that obedience training helps every dog, no one would argue that point.  But unfortunately even consistent obedience training is not enough to rehabilitate a dominant dog.  A truly dominant dog needs more than that.

Even a dominant dog understands getting food as a reward for good (non-dominant) behavior.  In fact reward based training is perfect for these kinds of dogs because it is non-confrontational.  The consequence for not minding is that the dog doesn't get a food reward  rather than a physical correction that could lead to a fight,  especially with a mature tough adult.

So my point here is that American Bulldogs need obedience training, but once the dog has become dominant and aggressive it needs more than just simple needs a change of perspective as to where it actually fits in the pack order.  If unfortunately you feel you have reached this point, you should seek professional assistance or get back in touch with Laura Kennels for additional information and/or referral.

Poor Obedience Training is Part of the Cause of Dominance Problems

When you think in terms of rank and pack behavior it's easy to understand how ineffective or incomplete  obedience training results in dominance issues with maturing dogs.

The correct way to obedience train a dog involves several stages of training:

1.   In the Learning Phase the dog is taught the meaning of a command in a distraction free environment (I.E. your kitchen) through motivational methods.  This means you guide and help the dog through different exercises by giving them food or a toy reward when they do what you want.  It's your job to determine what motivator works best for your individual dog.

2.   Once the dog has learned the command in the first location you then "generalize" the behavior by teaching that behavior in more and more environments and with more and more distractions.

3.   In the Correction Phase you teach a dog that it will be corrected if it does not follow a command that it has learned in the learning phase.  you  never correct a dog unless you are 100% sure it knows and understands what you are asking him to do.  To get 100% consistency of behavior you must have a correction phase of some sort.  While corrections for many dogs may simply mean withholding the reward, for others it's going to mean a physical correction of some kind.  Try to combine corrections and rewards with a verbalization on your part which your dog will then associate with what is expected of him.

4.   In the end your dog must learn to mind in  every situation, every time.

Obedience classes do a decent job teaching owners the learning  phase.  Unfortunately many classes leave out the correction phase of training.  Although puppy training should focus on rewards more than physical restraint, correction is required to reinforce good manners especially as puppy begins to mature.  Almost all of the large pet warehouse classes skip the correction phase.   In doing so they unknowingly encourage puppies to develop dominant behavior because the owners were not informed regarding future obedience correction.


When Your Dog Won't Mind

When the Alpha wolf issues an order - pack members listen and mind or they don't survive.  When dogs choose not to mind their owner they are in effect saying they do not respect that person giving the commands.  In other words they don't respect the consequences they have experienced in the past when they ignored a command.

To solve that problem corrections need to be consistent and they need to be at a level that the dog remembers the next time it thinks about not following commands.  Dogs are extremely observant.  It does not take them long to determine that the trainer must be listened to.  It also doesn't take them very long to recognize an inconsistent handler.  In other words a dog that doesn't follow directions doesn't respect the handler giving those directions.

When that happens dogs begin to think they can ignore commands they don't like.  With some dogs (thankfully not all) this can lead to a dog that challenges an owner or family member because they don't want to do what is being asked.  They have not learned to respect the correction.

This is the exact point where some dogs will start to show their teeth, growl at the owner, nip at the hand that tries to take a toy away etc., etc., etc.

Had this same dog gone through training for correction and distraction at a younger age the odds are this situation would never have evolved. Dogs that have not gone through correct consistent training end up being dogs that seem to live peacefully with their family up to 12 to 18 months of age and then suddenly change into CUJO.

When dogs reach breeding age their hormones start to flow.  All of a sudden rank within the pack becomes a big thing to them.  They have learned that they don't have to follow direction from pack members they don't respect because there has never been any serious consequences.  When dogs lack a strong pack leader they will step to the line and try to become the leader.  They instinctually know that corrections on lower pack members have to be enforced and so they appear to the owner to become dog aggressive.

Did You Wait too Long to Obedience Train?

When owners acquire a dominant adult dog or when if they have waited until a dog matures before they start training They often have problems. Some dogs think "Why should I mind this person? They have no right correcting me because I am stronger than they are and I don't have to do what they say".

In other words by waiting to train a dog or by ineffectively training a dog the owner empowers the dog and creates a situation where they have to use more force than they would have had to use at a young age to accomplish the same thing.

Controlling Every Aspect of Your Dog's Life Helps Control Dominance

Once a dog has become dominant the question becomes "How do we fix it?" If the situation is a large aggressive dog and a small handler the solution certainly is not strong leash or e-collar corrections.

The beginning is to control the dogs environment.   Watch for and eliminate the following:

·              Sleeping in bed with the owner

·              Pushing people to pet him

·              Him not allowing the spouse into the bedroom after being gone on a trip

·              Growling near food or toys

·              Not allowing you to take toys away by showing aggression
             (not just playing keep away)

·              Always going through doors first

·              Always going down stairs first

·              Being extremely dog aggressive

·              Resisting laying down when told to DOWN

·              Showing aggression to certain family friends and not others

With a little forethought many of these scenarios don't ever have to happen.   If they are present, begin correcting them each and every time they occur.


Your Bedroom and Your Bed

Controlling dominance begins at home. The first thing to do is take total control over the dog in terms of where he is allowed to sleep, eat and play. The dominant dog should never be allowed to sleep in the bedroom. The best place to sleep is always reserved for the pack leader (you). Make your dog sleep in a dog crate in a room other than the bedroom.

When people bring an 8 week old pup home there is nothing wrong with putting the dog crate in the bedroom for a week or so to allow the pup to adjust to his new home. But as soon at the dog is crate trained (does not scream in the crate) the dog crate should be moved around to get him used to sleeping in new places.

I would never allow a dog that I thought could be even a little dominant to sleep in the bedroom until I am 100% sure the dog knows exactly who the pack leader is.

Toys are YOUR TOYS - not the dogs toys

As puppies grow up they should not be allowed to become possessive of their toys.  Your attitude needs to be ALL TOYS ARE YOUR TOYS and you allow the pup to play with YOUR TOY.

The saying used to be that "new pet owners should not play tug-of-war games with their pup" because it teaches the pup to compete for dominance.  However, when tug games are done correctly they help establish a value that the puppy places on the tug toy. You then use that toy as a reward during other training sessions because the tug toy belongs to you and it is a reward for him to get to play with it.


Dogs On Furniture

Dogs should only be allowed on furniture when they are invited up. They must agree to get down when the handler tells them to. If there is any resistance - they should not be on furniture.

Dinner Time

A dog with dominance issues is never allowed to be in the kitchen or dining room while the family eats. If the dog is a house dog, put the dog away during dinner hours.  Again its a simple solution to control the dogs environment. 

The worst thing that can happen is to feed a dominant dog from the table. Again, the pack leader always eats first and gets the best pieces of food. If your dog is a house dog, put him in the dog crate or another room at mealtime.  Feeding the dog from the table invites disrespect.

Aggressiveness Around the Food Bowl

Being aggressive around the food bowl is a common problem with some dog owners. It also has a very simple solution. Feed the dog in a dog crate and keep the crate in a secluded location.

See our article on "Food Bowl Control".

When and How to Pet and Praise the Dominant Dog

Having a good bond with a dominant dog is critical. These dogs live and die by pack order. The only way to maintain control is to maintain a good relationship. But this must be done on your terms.

A dog that comes to you and tries to force you into petting him when you are reading the paper or working on the computer is displaying a form of a dominant behavior.  Do not allow this to happen. Make the dog go lay down. In fact, controlling his behavior through the use of a long down on a throw rug is one of the very best ways of establishing yourself as the leader.

Almost all dogs want to be petted. But there is a difference between a happy, friendly dog that just wants a pet and a dominant dog that wants to force his attention on you when you are busy doing something else. Understanding the difference between these situations may come down to experience. If your dog doesn't display any other symptoms of dominance except wanting to be petted, you don't have much of a problem.  The solution is to always make a dog do something before you pet him.   Give him a SIT command, or give him a DOWN command then pet him.


Showing Aggression Towards Family Friends

When a dog shows aggression to certain visitors to the house this is often a form of dominance.   People with small dogs think this may be cute, while others are pleased that their dog is being protective.  Both are wrong. This behavior needs to be controlled.   The dog needs to be taught that this behavior is unacceptable.

The best solution is to put the dog in his crate or put him in a different room when guests come over. When you show him that you control his environment all the time, you are establishing yourself as the leader.  In a pack, the pack leader is the one that determines who fights and when.  If we allow our dogs to determine who to attack on their own, we are allowing his dominance to take over.

In regards to dominant behavior around children, the adult's role as pack leader becomes critical.   A dog which has been allowed to develop dominance will seldom submit to a small 4-5 year old child.   Your goal should be  to teach the dog that your "PACK LEADER RULE" is to not show aggression to children or to stay away from the children.   This becomes an obedience issue.   With this said the children must learn to stay away from the dog so as not to provoke dominant behavior.   In these cases, control of the environment means controlling both the dog's and the child's behavior.