If you have ever, even for a moment, been afraid of your dog or what he might do, you need help, whether you realize it or not.
Aggression in dogs has both genetic and learned factors. Some dogs are born with the potential to be aggressive, and that potential can be fully realized in a home that either encourages aggressive behavior or is ill-equipped to cope with it. Other perfectly nice dogs can become unreliable fear-biters because of abusive treatment -- and remain time bombs in new homes.
Maybe you prefer to live in a state of denial, hoping nothing awful involving your dog will ever happen. Nearly 4.5 million American dog owners are jolted into reality every year -- 4.5 million being the number of bites reported in the latest Journal of the American Medical Association, based on surveys by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Control at the University of Pittsburgh. The researchers also reported that in 1996, 334,000 dog-bite victims ended up in emergency rooms, and 20 died.
Is your dog potentially dangerous? Answer these questions, and be brutally honest:
-- Has your dog ever "stared you down"? I'm not talking about a loving gaze -- my dogs will hold those for minutes at a time. I'm talking about a hard, fixed, glassy-eyed stare that may be accompanied by erect body posture -- stiff legs, ears forward, hackles raised.
-- Do you avoid doing certain things with your dog because they elicit growling or a show of teeth? Are you unable, for example, to approach your dog while he's eating or ask him to get off the couch?
-- Do you make excuses for his aggressive behavior, or figure he'll "grow out of it"?
-- Do you consider your dog "safe" -- except around a particular group of people, such as children? When he growls at the veterinarian, do you tell yourself the behavior is reasonable, and a veterinarian should be able to cope with it, after all?
-- Has your dog ever bitten anyone, even if it was "only" once and because "it was an accident," "he was scared," "he's usually so good!" or some other equally inexcusable rationalization? Little dogs often get excuses made for their behavior, but growling and snapping is no more acceptable from a Pomeranian than from a pit bull.
If you have a problem, get help. Now. You should no more attempt to cure aggression yourself than you should try to treat cancer. The reason is the same: You haven't the training and the expertise to do so. If you suddenly try to eliminate your dog's self-appointed role as leader of your pack, there'll be trouble.
Ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist with experience in aggressive dogs. And realize from the start that just like cancer, aggression is a disease that is sometimes not curable. Have your dog neutered -- most dogs involved in attacks are young, unneutered males -- and follow the expert's advice on retraining.
If in the end you have a dog who still cannot be trusted, have him euthanized; it's the only responsible thing to do. Yes, it's hard. But if your dog is a biter, he'll probably end up euthanized eventually. The difference is that if you wait, someone will get hurt first.
Finding an aggressive dog a new home -- one with no children, perhaps -- is not the answer. Children are everywhere, and you may be responsible for one of them being hurt if you pass a problem dog onto someone else. Especially if you do so without admitting the real reason you're finding him a new home, knowing that no one will adopt a biter. You do the dog no kindness, and you put the new family at risk.
Canine aggressiveness never improves on its own. Get help, before someone gets hurt.
Pets on the Web: The American Miniature Horse Association's Web site is a good first stop for anyone who has ever thought about owning the only kind of horse that's truly "pet-sized."
The site (http://www.minihorses.com/amha) gives the history and current status of these petite ponies (they cannot be more than 34 inches at the withers) as well as information on purchasing, care and showing.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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