Aggressive Assumptions

Cerus 30 minutes after growling and baring teeth at lead trainer Bryan.

In a private bedroom in an oversized crate there is a dog who is highly reactive to men. When I crossed through the doorway, I was met with a growl, posturing, and teeth. Cerus would display these charming behaviors anytime a male would enter the room. Of course most male visitors who would see him in rescue would quickly leave his quarters after his not so warm welcome.. His behavior while appearing aggressive is not entirely indicative of an aggressive dog. Words are wind… and so are snarls, barks, and growls.. True aggression would involve seeking conflict absent a stressor and would persist regardless of my cool reaction. Ignoring his signals and forcing interaction would be a terrible mistake, but just as poor a mistake as leaving the room.

Cerus and many other reactive dogs, leverage posturing and threatening to create space from unwanted guests(canine or human alike). By granting them space in these moments, they learn that they can control their surroundings with this type of behavior. For Cerus, it is possible that his past owners allowed him to use this tactic to ward off men even in his own household and attempted to accommodate his dislike of men rather than understanding that he came from a place of fear and needed guidance to grow through his mistrust.

Rather than yielding space, I closed towards his crate and waited him out. Once he stopped and I opened his kennel door it became apparent that he was terrified of me as he backed into the corner of his crate. Underneath all of his bravado was an insecure dog hoping to avoid interacting with me at all. It is fair and expected that a dog can bite out of fear, so this change in demeanor does not reflect a massive shift in safety precautions that need to be taken by a professional, but it does reveal that Cerus was not seeking conflict.

Being highly food motivated we worked on his perception of me and got him out of his crate on a slip lead and started working on basic markers with rewards and setting boundaries with spacial pressure. We switched to a transitional slip to better protect his neck while increasing the discomfort of aversive leash pressure without escalating him. The slip will effectively provide valuable information to him at home and provides a soft introduction to leash pressure as a concept in a low stakes environment. We immediately launched into tons of eye contact drills and thresholds all in a span of 30 minutes. In the picture you can see him panting in a relaxed state with his ears tucked back in a receptive space and relaxed eyes. He was happy to be working for food and comfortable with the boundaries I was establishing for him.

Hiding behind the posturing and rough demeanor was a dog who is eager to work and engage. An incredibly trainable and teachable dog. It was patterns of behavior that worked for him which likely landed him out of a home in the first place and a breaking of those patterns that will put him back in another one.

I don’t share his story to garner pity for him, he will thrive in an environment that doesn’t carry his past forward. I don’t share his story because I want people to give dogs a million chances, not everyone is emotionally equipped to become the human and leader a dog like this needs to change. I definitely don’t share this so that you take a misguided attempt at addressing this type of reactivity at home, leave it to the professionals. Cerus is a cautionary tale that represents many dogs whose behaviors both severe or subtle are anthropomorphized and misread, misinterpreted, and mislabeled by people whose good intentions are exceeded by their lack of education and skill set. Unless you are a professional, guessing the why of your dog’s behavior and implementing the wrong behavioral strategy based off your assumption, emotional motivation, or a Google search, is often how dogs like Cerus develop the patterns that land them in the pound in the first place.

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