by Bill Whiteford
My heart is grieving as I write this article; I have just put down my friend and hunting partner, Bailey; Many of you knew him. Bailey was the picture of health, very athletic, and a super hunter and trial dog. He qualified in two Invitationals and was eligible for the upcoming one In 1999. He loved to hunt, and had been in many different states, doing just that. He had one problem, and that was dominance aggression.
I will try to relate my story as best as I can, to be informative, and hopefully share with you a little of what I have learned over the past three years. I have consulted many veterinarians who have specialized In animal behavior, as well as trainers, both pro and amateur, on this subject. Realize, I speak from personal experience, on this subject, even though it may be somewhat limited.
Aggression - It's like a four-letter word. You avoid talking about it, especially if it is happening with your dog. It makes you feel ashamed, guilty and can even be fearful. Even so, we need to come out of the closet, and get it out in the open. You can only hide it for so long, before it will resurface.
There are three recognized types of aggression. Protective aggression is a type which might show when a bitch growls as you approach her newborn pups. Your dog may growl or even snap at a stranger. This is not abnormal, but In extreme can be a problem. Fear aggression occurs when an insecure dog perceives they will be Injured and or pressured, and reacts. It may also occur when you suddenly startle a dog or awaken one that is sleeping. Although this is not abnormal, it is harder to control, as a fearful dog may react without reason. Dominance aggression involves the animal being "King of the hill". He/she has to be the best and will challenge the leader, always. It can be directly or happen covertly. This one by far is the worst to deal with, because we are always asking our dogs to perform, and we should be the boss. They must submit lf you are to work together as a team; otherwise your performance In the home, field or on the circuit, will be less functional.
There are things we can do to prevent or lessen the episodes or aggression. Even so, It will occasionally rear It's ugly head and we, as handlers must be prepared to deal with it in a mature and informed way. My first piece of advise for you is, you must deal with it right away. Any behavior, which has been reinforced either in a positive or disciplined way will be repeated. It can be tricky, and do not be afraid to get help. You will need it. Talk to friends, trainers, animal behaviorists and vets, to get a grasp on the situation. Remember, this is your dog, be committed to getting this problem taken care of, quickly.
Bailey's problem became apparent when he was 4 months of age. I can see that now, but was not aware of it at the time. He was a pup which did not like to get on his back. He also did not like to lie down when being trained. I really had to spend a lot of time on this, more so than any other dog I have owned. This is a submissive posture for a dog, and it would allow me to win. He would not do this willingly, but finally, after much training complied. Once during an episode in the house, he was told to get down and he snarled at me. I disciplined him for the snarl, and he came back at me with more white teeth. I quickly controlled the situation, and that was the end of it. I figured he had been taught his lesson. I could not have been more wrong.
Looking back, I now would have made sure he was comfortable an his back. I would have been slower with getting him to lie down, and reinforced him in a positive way, instead of making him do it. Bailey was one of two males in a litter of fourteen. The other male was the dominant pup, and Bailey was tired of being picked on, and already had a fear of being on his back. I should have recognized this, but when you are In the midst of a lot of puppies, you kinda go brain dead. The breeder was not one who socialized with the puppies, and this is also an important factor to consider when selecting your next companion.
There were no other signs, that I remember, during his training which would have alerted me to a possible problem. It was not until he reached the age of 2 1/2 years old, that I again, saw aggression with this dog. My wife and I had a French exchange student living with us far eight weeks. It was during this time, I saw Bailey growl at this student, when he approached to pet him, while Bailey was lying on a couch on our screened porch. I was surprised, but shrugged it off, as a fluke and it went away. I told the boy, who had been in our house, only a week or two, not to pet him on the couch, and everything was fine. It was not until it happened again, when Bailey was lying on his cedar bed in front of the fireplace, that I became concerned. One day, it happened with my wife, and then I started asking questions, and trying to find a solution to the problem. Bailey was trying to find his place in the real world as he was reaching social maturity. My having people leave him alone, and allowing him to keep his place, on the couch or bed, rewarded his inappropriate behavior. Now I know better. Even though I stopped it from happening, I did not correct the situation.
Bailey was doing well in the trial circuit and was hunting great. He was a handsome dog, and I had decided earlier, I would try and breed him. He was a natural pointer, and I really wanted to see if his offspring would perform as well. I bred him thinking this would not affect him. You have to understand, his aggression was not an everyday occurrence; and, I thought I really and truly had this under control. I had talked with breeders as well as vets and handlers, and after careful consideration, felt it would be OK to go ahead with the process. Again, knowing what I know now, I would have neutered him at an earlier age, before other problems started.
We ask a great deal from our dogs, and they are super athletes. We should do all we can to make it pleasant for them with the exception of with holding proper discipline. To discipline means to teach, not necessarily to punish. There are many ways to teach, and I encourage you to find out all you can about aggression, should your dog show any signs at all. Some things I have seen since being aware of this with Bailey, and having had the opportunity to judge, include the following: dogs growling at thier handler when releasing the bird; biting the handler's hand when lining the dog for a retrieve; biting the handlers leg when trying to steady the dog on the line, etc. Mind you, none of these incidents in and of themselves are necessarily a problem. Just know that your dog is telling you something, and you need to take heed. Stop it mere, before It snowballs into bigger problems.
Maybe I am like a drunk turned sober - going around preaching against drinking, in this case against aggression. It is like being inoculated with a disease. Your body quickly picks up on the exposure, and alerts you to make antibodies to fight off the offending Intruder. I too have been inoculated, and I see it in a few of the dogs being run in the circuit. Please take care of this problem in a mature fashion. Talk about it, train properly and please, do not continue to reinforce It. It will get uglier, and someone, maybe you or a family member will be injured. No dog is worth that, not even my own Bailey. "Bailey, may you rest well. You were one heck of a dog"!