Aggression – Who’s to Blame – the Dog or the Owner?

When dogs attack, who is to blame?  Is it the dog, or is it an irresponsible owner?

Some feel that dogs are born good, essentially a blank canvas for owners to work with.  Others feel that there are bad dogs.  Or in the case of dog attacks, they blame an entire breed of dogs for the actions of a few.

I meet a lot of puppies.  We foster puppies, meaning that we can compare one puppy to another and compare behaviour between them.  All of them live in the same home environment.  This means, the variation in their behaviour while here is due to one thing – the dog’s temperament.

If dog aggression was 100% the owner’s fault, then I should be pumping out those foster puppies like toasters on an assembly line.  One quality doggie foster after another…wrap ’em up and ship them out.  Each dog going through my home should arrive as a clean slate, destined to become the exact same type of dog.

Dogs are not toasters rolling off an assembly line.  There is variation.  Each dog is unique and different.  As each new foster arrives, the first step is to honestly evaluate, “Who are you?  What makes you tick?”

Nature gives a starting point.  Owners influence what happens from that point forward.  Owners can make this better or make things worse.

Some dogs are easy.  Some take a little work.  And yes, some dogs are messed up and aggressive from birth.  Sorry to burst your bubble, but there are puppies that won’t let you touch them.  Others growl, snarl and bite – hard and with intent.  They come that way.  If it makes you feel better, chalk it up to oxygen deprivation at birth.  All I’m saying is that seriously aggressive puppies do exist.

Easy puppies make experienced trainers look like rock stars.  It’s why many performance dogs are hand picked with great care.

That same easy dog can be ruined if subjected to repeated mistreatment, or even repeated mistakes.  Some dogs are so easy, so forgiving, that they give humans another chance despite abuse and neglect.

Challenging dogs in the right hands can become pretty amazing.  However, despite excellent handling, they probably will take longer to get there.  Even with the best care, they might always have some quirks.  Placing a challenging dog into an irresponsible home is a recipe for disaster.

My Kip was seriously challenging.  There’s a reason we called him the ex-crotch ripper.  Instead of focusing on performance or normal puppy socialization, we started by dealing with a whole host of problems that you can read about in a previous blog.  Despite all the work, he will never be like our Kaya – a dog that passed his therapy dog testing at one year of age.  Kaya was easy while our mantra with the ex-crotch ripper was, “Aim for sane.”  He’s turned our rather well despite the rough start.

Had the ex-crotch ripper gone to a different home, I have no doubt that he’d be dead by now.  I believe that he would have died even if placed in an average, caring home.  Love, compassion and best intentions are not always sufficient.  You need to know what you’re doing.

This is because problem puppies perpetuate future problems with their own behaviour.  The puppy that lashes out aggressively isn’t going to get petted as often as the social butterfly.  This inhibits progress.  The challenging puppy is not as forgiving as an easy one.  There is less room for error.  Inexperienced owners understandably will make mistakes.  Owners need a stubborn streak and the foresight to say, “We need to deal with this now.  I will not let this fester and I know where to get really good help.”

Experienced and responsible owners also know to avoid risky behaviour.  They ensure their dog, and the community, is kept safe while the puppy learns.

What should owners take away from this?

  • If you have a tough pup, don’t panic.  However, do get to work.  Challenging puppies are not destined to be bad dogs.  Having a genetic predisposition does NOT mean the dog’s behaviour is set in stone.  You can make things better.  If you do things really well, you might even be pleasantly surprised.
  • Do not become jaded.  Challenging puppies are….challenging.  When frustrated or scared, focus on the dog’s talents and positive attributes.
  • Owners of easy dogs – do not sit on your laurels.  Sign up for puppy classes.  Make the effort to socialize your puppy.  Socialization is behavioural insulation.  If you fail to put in the effort, a few negative experiences can ruin the best dogs out there.
  • People facing extremely challenging behaviours need professional help immediately.  It doesn’t take an irresponsible owner to mess these animals up.

Most importantly remember that the dog versus owner blame game is a false dilemma.  Dog aggression is a complex question.  Don’t be so quick to judge and blame – whether it be the dog, owner and especially the breed.  There’s a full history there that can and should be explored to find out what really happened.

18 thoughts on “Aggression – Who’s to Blame – the Dog or the Owner?

  1. Thank you for being real! I’m so sick of being blamed for my aggressive dog. I did training with about five different high-quality trainers (many warned me that she was going to be extremely difficult). My dog even went to boot camp. And she’s still a monster sometimes. In her case it was probably a bad combination of genes and lack of nurture (5 inappropriate homes before I got her). If I hadn’t believed that all dogs can be trained / all dogs are blank slates, I never would have got this dog.

    • Far too many people in the same boat – people who take on a project dog. And they often get treated as the “cause” of the problem, not the potential solution. Very true js2173

  2. Thank you for communicating your practical, knowledgeable, and anything-but-dogmatic 😉 view. It is a message more people need to hear.

  3. Pingback: Aggressionsverhalten | Chakanyuka

  4. I think that it’s people in general’s fault, because while the owner may have been to dog obedience classes to learn the correct way to act around dogs, the person it harms may not have. Not asking the owner if you can pat their dog first is only asking for trouble.

  5. no dog is born bad a puppy is like a child they need guidance and training some people who neglect this leaves the dog to make up its own mind remember they don’t speak our language but are expected to understand what we say. ALL dog attacks are down to the owner not the dog it is proven a dog will act on instinct if left to its own devices as a dog owner (English bull terrier) I always make sure I am aware of my dogs feelings and reactions and even when being responsible some (stupid)people think I am doing this because my dog is dangerous its not !! its because I can trust my dog but I cant trust some people so take precautions to safe guard my dog who is so soft and confused when I wont let her go to people tail wagging.

    • I think when you’ve seen enough puppies – and I do mean a lot – you eventually come across a puppy that is messed up from birth. I know it’s hard to swallow or believe. There are dogs that are born with extreme aggression. Maybe they had some type of trauma or developmental problem. But yes, there are very aggressive puppies out there.

    • BS. I had a puppy that my family loved and doted on and as she grew older she became more and more aggressive towards people visiting our house. we raised her the same as any dog we’ve had. she was always fine with us, but would not listen or stop the threatening behavior to our friends and family (who were over a lot and she should be familiar with). she became aggressive to me one day for no reason at all. I did nothing to set her off. She growled, lowered her head and came at me, luckily our door was open and I got inside without being attacked. we got rid of her. I am not an idiot, I’ve had dogs my whole life. This dog was just born aggressive.

      • let me add that we had her for a year and a half, no longer a little puppy. started aggressive behavior at 6 months or so. sharpei pitbull mix

      • Medical/neurological conditions can cause this. Not doubting at all that it can happen. I’ve had a few clients whose dogs were diagnosed with brain tumors or lesions. I’ve seen dogs that reacted during anesthetic and had permanent neuro damage.

    • I have a very strong minded Lab,he has been with a dog trainer since he was a year old, he now is 3 years old. The change in him is amazing, when people ask if they can pet my dog, I always say I’m sorry he is in training as instructed by my dog trainer, my dog is not aggressive and totally loves people, but as my dog trainer has taught me dogs may nip or bite for many reasons, this way both my dog and strangers will stay safe

  6. BTW – love the YELLOW SCARF – Spread the word on the Yellow Ribbon & DINOs campaigns. It should become as universal as the red octagon STOP sign. A Yellow ribbon or bandana on a dog means that the dog needs space. Don’t approach. Don’t pet. Don’t look in the dog’s face. Keep your distance and ignore the dog. All people, not just dog people, need to know about this.

  7. Human beings, dog owners and non-dog owners alike, need to understand that dogs are not human beings. Their vision is not like ours, their senses of smell and hearing are not like ours.

    I learned about difference in vision between humans and animals when I was involved with horses. No one around a horse should ever forget that they can see 350 degrees. The only space they cannot see is directly behind their head. Moreover, their vision sees something moving better than something still. So a horse can respond to the movement of a person or car or bush long after you’ve passed that point…. and a horse’s 1st response is flight…. Voila! you have a runaway and no clue why. Add to this, horses often have poor depth-perception. Some will jump shadows because they believe the shadow to be a hole.

    Dogs are more like us, they see straight ahead, but we see better than dogs do. Often a dog will have to smell to tell whether that moving creature in the distance, besides what is obviously a human adult, is a small child or another dog. Like horses, dogs see motion better. Humans surpass them with the ability to see the stationary… particularly at night. Dogs smell thousands of times better than we do, but what all are they smelling, of which we are totally unaware? Dogs hear better than we do, and like horses, many have directional ears. What are we missing?

    Moreover, dogs, like humans, can and do get PTSD. An event that is not at all scary to a human being, may be terrifying to a puppy. When that puppy is an adult, if it experiences something identical to what had happened as a puppy, it can react unexpectedly. It had a flash-back. If a dog cannot flee (as it cannot on a leash) or confined space, it will become aggressive.

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