We have been contacted by several families in the past year because they adopted a dog that we fostered and trained. We gave a good report on the dog as being non-aggressive. The rescue that handled the adoption also saw no sign of aggression. So why, all of a sudden, is the dog getting aggressive with the family that just wants to give it a great home and lavish love on him?
The Role of Pack Order
I have touched on the importance of establishing pack order in several of the articles available on this web site. To understand this concept we need to understand the way dogs think.
As much as we’d like to cling to the image of our dogs being short, furry, rational, people who walk on four legs, that is just not the case. There are significant differences in the psychologies of our species.
I strongly disagree with those who want to paint dogs (and most other animals) as unfeeling brutes who operate entirely on instinct. I wonder if the people who write training books portraying dogs in this manner ever actually worked with dogs at all. Anyone who has, cannot possibly deny that dogs (and most other animals) do feel love, grief, anxiety, joy, curiosity as well as fear.
However, our domestic dogs are descended from wild canines (long, long ago) who had an instinctive social order to protect them and insure the survival of their species. That instinct for social order is still there. The prime rule of this social order is that for a pack to survive, they must have a leader. Being the pack leader is not always a matter or brute strength and cunning, although these help. A pack leader is a provider.
Like people, dogs come in a variety of personalities. Some are laid back, some assertive. Some are confident, some submissive. But under all this is the knowledge that to survive, a pack must have a leader.
When a dog, especially an adult dog, comes into a new home she will assess the situation and decide how she fits into the social order. If your family is to be the dog’s new pack, she wants to be sure it survives. If she finds no clear leader, she will most likely take that roll herself to make sure the pack is complete. This often is consternating to the human family because this role change usually involves aggressive behavior: she is asserting herself as The Boss because no one else has.
The Modern Parent and Dogs
The modern trend in parenting where children are never to be denied anything or told “no” because it might damage their psyche, where the parents try to be the kids best friend instead of their parent, may or may not work on human children. I’m not going to open that can of worms. But it most certainly does not work with dogs.
Dogs need to know who is in charge.
This does not involve brutality or screaming. In fact rewards for good behavior work better than punishing bad behavior. But the dog must know what the boundaries are. There need to be some rules, and those rules must remain stable, and someone needs to enforce them.
In our house I am The Enforcer. I do most of the training. But I also do the feeding. I am The Provider. That makes me Pack Leader. I am to be respected. I am NOT mean to them, I am very loving, but firm and consistent. Consistency is important to dogs. Inconsistency causes confusion. Confusion means a lack of leadership.
Welcoming a Rescue Dog Home
Adopting a rescue dog is a wonderful thing. You are saving a life, and more often than not you will end up with a better adjusted, more loving, healthier pet than when you buy a pure-bred dog.
Rescue dogs may come with some baggage (but then so can dogs from disreputable breeders). The dog may have been abused, neglected, abandoned. The dog may have been on the street for a considerable time. Dogs want to belong to a pack. But they can also learn to mistrust because of their history. If the dog has been properly fostered, that has already been worked through and the dog has been socialized and is ready for a stable, loving home.
Stable is the opposite of permissive. If you give the new dog the run of your home in an attempt to make him feel “welcome” you are sending the message that no one is in charge. Set a few rules. Discuss with the whole family what the Dog Rules will be for your household. Make sure everyone is agreed that these few rules will be enforced consistently by everyone. If Dad says, “no dogs on the sofa” but Mom says, “Dad’s not home, come sit with me on the sofa” you are sending mixed signals.
If you don’t want the dog to beg while you’re eating, do not hand the dog table scraps: EVER. If you want to share (and be careful of what you share: much of what people eat is bad for dogs) wait until you are finished eating and put the food in the dog’s bowl.
It is best if one person takes responsibility for feeding. Ask the dog to sit or shake (paw) before putting the dish down. Some small token of obedience establishes the fact that the dog is subservient to The Provider. These small things are very important and will make all the difference in how you and your new dog get along.
Be loving. Give the dog the best you can offer, but be consistent with the rules and ask for some small point of obedience before giving the feeding dish, treats, or lavish attention. Establish pack order. Your dog will love you all the more because she knows you are her pack leader and she can count on you.