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The A Word

August 4, 2016 | By: Judith

The A Word

It is 6 o clock on a Monday evening. The skies are calm and the breeze is gently blowing. I can feel my stresses starting to dissipate. Life is good.

I am at my weekly volunteer session at the local community centre welcoming in the students one by one as they arrive. “Hey, Mort. Clara, your hair looks so pretty today.” Cars are pulling in slowly and the sound of children laughing and doors closing fill the air. This is one of the reasons why I love being a volunteer.

Our session has some new students this week and I hear a pair of new moms greeting each other in the parking lot.

 

(This is when things take a turn for the worse)

 

As I look over, one mom is in her car in the parking area right in front of the entrance to the centre. She has her beautiful mastiff beside her on the passenger seat. The window in rolled down while the other mother is standing next to the passenger window happily chatting, waving her arms in the air with animation. I smile as they exchange words and ask each other about their day. I took notice of the mastiff. The dog was really eye catching with tan and black hair that shone in the light.

Within a breath, the mastiff was out of the window with his teeth sunk deeply into the mother’s arm. I jerked forward, shutting the door as the woman ripped her arm away only to have the dog grab onto her thigh with its big jaws. This was a nightmare – the calm aura erupted around us into screams and children who were walking past started crying. There was blood everywhere as I rushed over to help. What was so shocking is that the dog owner was holding onto the dog with such shock and the quick aggression that the mastiff had shown, had been quickly replaced with fear and shock at all the commotion.

Truthfully the bite was deep and within 15 minutes the poor injured woman was on route to the hospital in an ambulance.

After I settled all the students with the three teachers on duty and calmed the situation I asked the mastiff’s owner what possibly could have happened? It was a complete shock to me when she told me that her beloved dog has known the other woman for years and they were, in fact, good friends. He had never shown aggression before and is great around other dogs and children. This was a completely random attack and she was devastated. Her tears broke my heart. She sobbed for a while and then phoned the vet to ask if she could bring the dog in for a checkup, perhaps he could shed light on the situation

Two days later. I called both the moms to check up. The dog owner had found out that the medication that her dog was on, was the cause of the anxious behaviour and the vet thinks that it was the side effects that caused the attack. One of the many reasons we need to ask questions when our pets take medication. The mastiff is also enrolled in behaviour training sessions with a great dog trainer and they hope to see great results.

The mom who has the 4 stitches in her arm and the badge on her leg is amazing. She shocked me with her compassion and understanding of the situation, totally forgiving the dog and owner. “These things happen,” she said. “We just need to be understanding when they do.”

Brilliant ending to what could have been catastrophic to all involved.

Understanding Aggression in Dogs

We need to firstly understand that aggression is a normal response in all animals. Just like humans, it is a natural response to fear, frustration, surprise and anger. However, when it comes to dogs any signs of aggression can end in a death sentence. This is why it is so important to understand what belongs in the category of aggressive behaviours and how to prevent it from escalating.

Behaviour such as:

  • Barking
  • Growling
  • Bearing teeth
  • Snapping
  • Biting

 

“These various behaviours can seem commonplace in a dog’s lifetime and in many ways never escalate further than barking or growling at a stranger or an unfamiliar dog in their neighbourhood. However, they should not be taken for granted as many of these can be warning signs of escalating aggression and need to be recognised before it is too late”, says Marie, a dog trainer that I spoke to in my research.

 

Why is this happening?

In many cases, aggressive behaviour is most frequently caused by fear and stress. But can also be due to:

  • Lack of early socialisation
  • Lack of training
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Abuse at home
  • Neurological issues
  • Side effects of medication

It is important to understand that no dog is aggressive all the time. Aggression is in response to something in the dog's environment, whether it is the sudden appearance of another dog, action of a human, pain caused by injury or illness, and more.

How do I as a dog owner prevent this from happening?

Being able to predict the aggression from your dog is key in preventing an escalated event. It is incredibly rare that a dog’s aggression is random. Most of the time dogs will give subtle warnings that they are feeling stressed and anxious. When these signs are ignored sometimes the dog will begin to show signs that are more obvious - like growling or snapping.

Signs of anxiety and stress include:

  • Tense body
  • Slow movement
  • Avoiding eye contact with people and other dogs
  • Walking away or avoiding the situation
  • Tail tucked between its legs
  • Ears lowered and down

How do you stop the aggression?

The first thing to do is to remove your dog from the situation that is making them react in an aggressive manner. After that consulting a trainer on behaviour modification has proved to be very successful at decreasing your dog’s stress when they are presented with triggers.

For every dog what they can get out of this training depends on each case of aggression. Some dogs may be able to fully integrate and play with other dogs and some may only be able to tolerate them at a distance.

Some things to consider:

  • Aggression is not a quick fix - several sessions with a trainer will be needed to teach the necessary skills a dog needs in order to encounter dogs or people.
  • You have to be consistent – Pet owners will have to continue the work that trainers do at home and in all walks of life.
  • Understand that every situation is different – If the aggression is based on stranger interaction, dogs in a quiet household will have better success than dogs in a busy household with many guests coming and going.
  • Have realistic goals and expectations – Expecting your dog to go to a dog park in three weeks may not be realistic. Behaviour modification and dealing with stress and anxiety is an arduous process and will take time.

At the end of the day, please remember: No dog is a bad dog. Take care of your animals and create a safe and nurturing environment so they can thrive and live long happy and healthy lives.

Judith