Gazette Vet: Maybe it’s YOUR Dog!

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I got my first dog—my first dog as an all-by-myself-grown-up-adult, that is—when I was in my second year of veterinary school at Virginia Tech. “Kaya” was an incredible dog and she came into my life as an 8-month-old rescue from the Roanoke SPCA.

As challenging as the veterinary school curriculum is, you are still a professional student, and thus your life is filled with plenty of flexible time to go walking and hiking with your dog. In fact, many of my memories of vet school involve the large amounts of time that many of my classmates and I would all take our dogs to a local corn field/cross country area behind the veterinary school and have huge dog play dates. We were probably an obnoxious crew to encounter—5 to 10 students with at least that many dogs all running off-leash and having a blast.

And so it was that Kaya, at least in her younger years with me, was very well-socialized with other dogs.

When Kaya was about a year-and-a-half old however, I noticed that the dog walks started to get a bit testy at times. Some walks were the usual great time, but some would end with a minor dog squabble or two, mostly involving my sweet Kaya girl. “That dog was such a jerk!” I would think after the first handful of altercations. “Their dog must have some mental problems or just not be very well socialized!” Soon I learned that I had to be a bit more on guard because it seemed like Kaya was getting into a fair amount of minor dog fights compared to the first few months that I had her.

Then I remember the day that I was walking through the corn fields with Kaya off-leash and we saw one of my friends and his dog. “Oh good,” I thought, “not too many dogs to deal with.” As we approached, Kaya ran forward and briskly greeted his dog and then promptly, without any provocation, proceeded to attack my friend’s poor dog until I ran over to break it up.

His dog was fine, but I was horrified. “How could my dog do this? She’s been so well socialized! And my friend’s dog was nice! Oh no…my dog is a jerk!”

Fast forward several years, and I had a full-fledged my-dog-isn’t-friendly-with-other-dogs dog. By the time she was two years old, I found that I could never take her to dog parks or let her off-leash with other dogs because she would always seem to get upset and start a fight with another dog. Even on-leash, if we passed another dog, she would turn vicious and growl and lunge at the other dog and its unsuspecting owner. Once, she even bolted out our front door and bit one of our friend’s dogs as they were walking by on the sidewalk. She opened up the poor dog’s shoulder and I had to stitch her back up! How embarrassing!

Despite the fact that Kaya was the sweetest and most trustworthy dog with people and children, she was simply terrible with other dogs.

I openly tell this story because this is a very common story out there for many dog owners as their dog matures. All puppies get along. Puppies are generally carefree and are usually more interested in playing than posturing for any dominance. However, as dogs reach 1 to 2 years of age, they start to develop more of a sense of identity of where they will fall as an adult dog in the social hierarchy spectrum.

Some dogs stay eternally submissive. They quickly defer to other dogs and often will lie on their backs and expose their belly if another dog comes over to greet. These dogs are usually also eternally playful and are rarely “jerks” with other dogs.

Some dogs however, are the dominant ones. These are the dogs, if we go back to their wolf ancestry, that would be the alpha male and female in a pack. They are more aggressive and assertive with other dogs and they do not waste time letting other dogs know where they stand. They are also not afraid to use their teeth to reinforce their claim as the top dog on the streets.

These traits, dominance or submissiveness, are inherent in any dog as soon as they are born. Sure, some of their upbringing can influence their behavior, but generally they are born with a certain personality type and by default will be that way as adults.

I have many owners who come to me quite distressed as their 2-year-old dog is simply not getting along well with other dogs. They share stories of horror as they can no longer bring their dog to the dog park or of how their dog attacked their brother’s dog at their house. “What did we do wrong?”

My honest answer to these people is, “Nothing. Your dog is just a jerk!” Or maybe I put it a bit more diplomatically by telling them that their dog is simply an Alpha and that he/she came out of the box this way. It may not sound like a very helpful first response, but I do believe that its crucial for these owners to start by realizing that this dominant, aggressive behavior is simply your dog’s natural tendency towards other dogs. Once we can accept that, then we can move on with how to manage the behavior and hopefully improve it.

Many owners assume that all dogs should be able to play wild at a dog park and get along with all dogs so long as it has been socialized and “raised right,” but in my opinion, this is far from the truth. Dogs will be dogs and even under loving, spoiling conditions, you may find that your once perfect puppy has now become the neighborhood bully.

There are a lot of tips and tricks on working with these behaviors that can be shared by your veterinarian, a behaviorist, or an experienced friend. Kaya spent the remainder of her days as a dog who lived a spoiled life and got tons of exercise, but just could never be let off leash or taken to a dog park. Her life went on, as did her deep hatred for other dogs. She was the sweetest dog to our son when he was born and in his toddler years, and ultimately she got along just fine when we brought home another puppy.

In the end, dogs are like spouses—you can’t change their personality, as much as you may want to. And once you accept them for who they are, you can learn to live happily together without anyone getting bit.

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