~~Critical Elements in Raising a Safe and Well-adjusted Canine~~

Though we may never be able to eliminate dog bites and aggression entirely, I firmly believe that the dogs who DO become "problem animals", will do so because they do not possess all of the following:

A loving relationship with an educated and committed owner, who places great value on the dog

Proper containment

Excellent two-way communication with people

Solid human leadership

Well-developed self-control

Proper training

Good health

The ideal canine-human relationship is likely to have a number of factors in common; identifying those factors--the things that separate the successful and satisfied owners from those whose experience left something to be desired--will help to create a solid "basic recipe" or guideline for getting the results you want from your pup. Several key aspects seem to rise above the others. The issues discussed below are elements I find to be of high importance in creating the sort of safe and well-adjusted dog that everyone can live with.

The foundation of any good relationship, whether with another human or with your dog, comes from actively making the effort to build the relationship itself! Making your dog a priority, consciously interacting with him, and spending plenty of time doing enjoyable things together are crucial to creating a terrific interactive companion. (Having a cache of those "good things" to fall back on will help ensure that he still loves and respects you when bad things happen, or when you need to correct him for his mistakes.) For best results, dogs should live in the house with the family--this means the dog is always "part of the action", and is involved in the day-to-day give and take of life like any other family member. Those who don't have this advantage will need extra time spent doing things with them, as they can't be part of the family simply by lying around on the living room floor. Above all, APPRECIATE your dog for who he is, and take the time to really get to know him. Every dog deserves to be someone's treasure! Make him feel special; do things for him that he can't do for himself and that other dogs cannot offer, such as ear rubs, interactive toys and games, or long walks to explore the world. Take notice of his likes and dislikes. When two people in a relationship gradually become strangers, everything tends to fall apart...the link, and therefore the influence they have over each other, is lost. Building a true relationship with your dog will mean that you are his closest friend and advisor, and as such will have much more influence over what he does than you would if you merely served as a combination "food dispenser/absentee landlord".

Closely related to relationship-building, is commitment...the owner's belief that their dog has great value, and any problems that arise will be worked out--giving him up is not an option, for he is Family, for life. Positive thinking and high expectations tend to go a long way as well! If you set your aim high, you may not get everything you hoped for, but you'll likely get much more than someone who set the bar lower. Commitment alone is not enough, but combined with good handling and communication, it will make the difference. Don't buy into the mythology of people who tell you that dogs, or YOUR dog, or your breed "can't do obedience trials, can't be trained, can't have stolen objects taken from them, can't be approached while eating, can't be taught manners" and other silliness.
Part of any realistic commitment, however, is knowing your own limitations...it is very important for people to avoid biting off more than they are willing to chew. If you live in an apartment, and have minimal experience with dogs and little time to spend with him, don't buy a Siberian husky...if you want a perfectly obedient dog who practically trains himself, don't buy a Jack Russell terrier...if you are a meek and passive personality, don't buy an Akita! Most dogs are NOT "ideal for all people", so if you cannot offer the dog what HE requires, you may not be able to live up to your commitment, despite having the best of intentions at the start.

Good communication is indispensable. By this, I don't simply mean that the dog knows many commands, and obeys them; communication needs to be a two way street. Humans need to be aware of their dog's actions and postures at any given point in time, and know how to interpret what the dog is saying. If Dog-speak is "Greek to you", then study--learn how to understand your dog, by researching canine body language, behaviour, and psychology. Every hour you put into that pursuit will pay off, in spades.
Imagine that you are walking into a room, holding a gun. The person already in the room mistakes your intentions, and starts crying and begging for her life. Now, imagine that you cannot "read" human signals, so you mistakenly assume these behaviours mean that the person is angry and about to attack you...naturally, you defend yourself.
Although this sounds like a bizarre situation, it is one that is, unfortunately, fairly common for dogs. Fear is mistaken for aggression, friendly mouthing is mistaken for an attack. Many dogs live in a Helen-Keller-like world where they cannot express themselves, and therefore cannot be understood and responded to appropriately. Building full communication with a dog is equivalent to teaching a deaf child sign language; without any means to communicate, a deaf child may be just as "boring" or "problematic" as your dog! Naturally, no one would ever suggest isolating a human child by ignoring any attempts to communicate, but dogs are often less fortunate. Even well-meaning owners may not realize the extent to which dogs can exchange information with people, if given the chance. Remember that one of the best things you can do for an animal of any breed (or species) is to understand what it has been developed or 'wired' to do, and learn to speak its language fluently.

Dogs are constantly looking for feedback. The more intelligent the dog, the higher the odds that he is tuned in to your every breath and expression, looking for cues that he is doing a good job. (These cues are often involuntary on your part, and may send the wrong message! It is important to be aware of what you are "saying" to your dog, even when you are not speaking.) Development of a dog, human, or any other intelligent mammal is a series of IF(this)/THEN(that) reactions--the dog makes a move, then you make a move based upon what the dog did (or on other circumstances), then the dog makes a move based on what YOU did. Every interaction leaves a mark on a developing animal, and the sum of the marks is their adult temperament and/or personality. Their inherent temperament, or genetic background, will set the initial sequence of marks; this is your starting point for the relationship, so choose your dog's background carefully. Selecting a breed or type who is already "programmed" to be the sort of partner you desire, will save you much work and frustration in the long run. You may never turn a border collie into a couch potato or a pomeranian into a search-and-rescue dog--if the starting point and your desired result are too far apart, you may not get there! Careful selection of your dog is strongly recommended...and that is the great value of knowing its breed or type.

Most mammals excel at learning "cause and effect". Dogs are no exception; they are very aware of how the things they do affect their world, unless they grow up in an environment where their actions get no consistent results (or no results at all, such as a dog who waits out his life unattended at the end of a chain). Those dogs can develop a state of "learned helplessness"; they decide that nothing they do has any effect, therefore it doesn't matter what they do--and what they do from then on often turns out to be very inappropriate. If you are rehabilitating a dog like this, the first thing he needs to learn is that someone is listening, and that from now on, cause and effect will be relevant, and his actions will consistently produce the same change in his environment.

Here are some examples to test your communication: an exchanged glance, with a warm smile and loving eye contact, should cause the dog to smile also, and start the tail wagging. A look that says "You'd Better Not!" or "I'm going to come over there!" (via a hard stare and tense body language) should stop the animal in its tracks. Praise should have meaning--when praised, your dog looks at you cheerfully and knows he has done well. A corrective word, for example a sharp "AAAH!, should have meaning also, and the dog should visibly react.

Communication between humans and canines has a basic set of rules, based on body language and canine psychology; the knowledge is ours for the taking, and it works with all dogs, as well as with their ancestor, the wolf. (In fact, communication with the wolf is very obvious, effective, and clear, and has been quite useful for discovering and explaining the language and psychology of our dogs.) We do need to keep in mind that English is their Second Language; early in the relationship, it helps a lot if we are very obvious about what we want or expect from them. When praising, make it very clear that you are happy: wear a big smile, make loving eye contact, use a high & cheerful voice. When angry, scowl and glare. Use not only the word, but compatible body language...go the extra mile to learn the dog's language, and "speak" it along with the verbal commands, until the words are well understood. Dogs live primarily in a nonverbal world; they can't audibly tell you what they are feeling, so it's very important to be able to "read" their responses, and to be observant of their subtle--at least to us--signals. (You will likely find that getting into this habit will improve your relationships with other humans, as well. ;)

Leadership is equally indispensable. It's important to remember that no matter how much we love them and want to show it, dogs view the world a bit differently than we do. We prefer equality, but canines have a more linear family structure, and as a general rule they are very uncomfortable with ambiguity. They need a firm and predictable leader, whom they can rely on to direct and protect the "pack". If this leadership role goes unfilled, the dog, by his very nature, will have to step up to the plate...and dogs generally make inappropriate leaders for mixed human-canine packs. With a dog calling the shots, the pack will probably run by the default "dog rules"...and that will lead to a lot more biting and other unacceptable behaviours. In contrast, when the human is directing all the interactions, the dog will go along with it, and the playing field becomes essentially what we, as humans, expect. Leadership does not revolve around physical strength--"alpha" is simply an attitude. A true leader carries himself with the laid-back confidence of one who knows he is in charge, and doesn't need to prove it. Leaders initiate the pack's actions, followers respond to the leader's advances.

The "Nothing in Life is Free" or "No Free Lunch" program is an excellent, nonconfrontational way to convince your dog that you are the head of the household, and all good things come from you. This is a large subject in itself, but the essence of the program is that for every thing the dog wants or needs, he is required to do something for YOU to earn it. Even basic daily routines such as being fed or petted should require his cooperative response. (Common "jobs" for the dog may include "Sit", "Down", or "Give paw".) Leaving food out for him at all times is not advisable--a free-fed animal is at liberty to decide "What do I need humans for? MY meals are free, and I get them all on my own."

You'll sometimes hear people talk about their dog "testing" them, especially at adolescence or if the dog is of a particularly dominant mindset. I am a firm believer in being proactive--the HUMAN should be doing the "testing". If your dog resists or is disagreeable about the little things, such as hugging him from above, getting him to move off the couch, or requesting he "lie down", it may give you an indication that he is debating your leadership. (Of course, it could also mean that something is lacking in another area of the relationship instead, such as training or socialization.)

Training is typically a sizeable part of leadership. Dogs, like people, need daily mental activity, and they need a job to do. Training exercises supply both. All canines should be schooled in at least the basics, no matter what their breed or type. Even socialized wolves can (and should!) learn "Sit", "Down", "Off", "No", and various other commands. They also need to learn not to growl or bite over food, to tolerate any painless sort of handling and restraint, to walk on a loose leash, to wait patiently for dinner or treats, to refrain from jumping and mouthing people or pulling on clothing. Most of all, they need to learn to RESPOND to your voice and your actions. Frequent practice keeps your canine in the habit of looking to you, his human, for direction. A dog who is routinely focused on his person and in the habit of responding to her, will be much more likely to give precedence to her commands over top of whatever else may be bothering, irritating, or frightening him.

Training is simply another term for "teaching"--take the time to teach your dog about all the things in his environment, how they relate to him, and how you would like him to act in relation to those things. Teach him words--dogs are capable of learning many words and phrases, and the more you teach him, the more of a relationship you will build. Training is not something that happens only during classes, or practice...training happens every minute that you and your dog are together. Always be aware of what your dog is doing, thinking, and feeling...and be sure to reward everything you like, right as it happens! All behaviour management is pretty much the same, at its core; dogs do what works...just like all other mammals, including humans. When they try a behaviour you don't like, make sure it doesn't get the results they were hoping for...when they are being good dogs, make sure that things they really enjoy DO occur. That's your Ace in this game--and if you don't play it, you are missing the opportunity to create the dog you want. Stay aware of the things your dog wants and needs (to ensure harmony and happiness for HIM, and effectively reward the correct behaviours), all the while being the one who directs things to go that way. There are many tools and methods to achieve that end, including guiding or leading (with or without food treats), formal training, using distractions, asking for incompatible behaviours, corrections or time-outs for going in the wrong direction, setting him up to succeed (even if it means restricting his location or mobility at times)...and most especially, tons of praise and other good things for going in the right direction, and offering behaviours you are satisfied with. Remember, too, that training is a partnership. I like to have my guys accompany me on projects and errands, and tell them "come help Mama check on our foster dog" or "come help Mama pack the chicken".
Socialization comes into play here also...exposure to many different situations will help the dog learn to calmly handle what life throws at him, become more "well-rounded", and develop confidence towards new experiences...all the while learning that he can count on you to guide him.

A solid relationship, communication, leadership, and training all go hand in hand to ensure a RESPONSIVE dog, one who is mentally attuned to his owner. Subsequently, a responsive dog is well on his way to being a safe and happy dog.

Training also helps to instill self-control; without it, dogs tend to react according to however they are feeling at the moment, up to and including biting the source of their fear or frustration. A dog with self-control will realize that he has other options, such as enlisting the support of his owner, or responding to commands incompatible with the undesirable behaviour. Building self-control is a topic in itself, but consider the following scenarios:

-Your dog tries to rush out the door past you. You reach down and grab his collar, startling him. Does he nip you, or hold back his first instinct and stand still instead?
-Your puppy is about to pick up a nasty, smelly piece of roadkill. You physically restrain him. Does he fight back, or resign himself to being removed?
-You are eating dinner. Your dog hasn't eaten yet, and you are consuming your steak in front of him. Does he climb all over you in an attempt to get some, or does he lie down and wait for you to finish (and hopefully save him some)?
-Your dog has just jumped up on the counter and is eating the cat's food. You shout "No! Off." Does he continue eating until you hustle over and physically pull him off, or does he respond to your voice command?

The dogs who perform the first option in each scenario above need to learn more self-control. Although fighting back or ignoring your protests are often normal, "default" dog behaviours that a pup is born with, they can (and should!) learn to do better. While training is certainly part of the program, simply practicing things such as collar holding, bodily restraint, and having him watch you eat dinner--even if he needs to be crated or tied at first--will actually go a long way towards that end. So will getting him accustomed to various sorts of handling: play with his paws, hold his muzzle...if he is a young pup, scoop him up and hold him still on his back for a minute, gently saying "settle" if he squirms or fusses. The instant he stops fussing, he is released; soon he learns that by controlling himself and settling down, he can get what HE wants--freedom to run and play--and he can be restrained for longer periods of time without acting out. Naturally, self control is learned gradually, and builds over time; it is only fair to expect a bad reaction from a dog who is being introduced to things like restraint or unfamiliar handling for the first time. However, learning these things teaches a pup that he is in charge of his own behaviour, and subsequently the good or bad things that result from it.

It is also necessary to teach a dog "cutoff signals"--words or actions that signal him to immediately cease what he is doing. "No" would be the most common cutoff signal, although your dog is a master of observation, and he will likely figure out some cutoffs of his own, in addition to ignoring your "No" if you don't enforce it consistently. Some dogs respond to nothing more than a stern look; others may require an occasional physical correction, or 'hard stop', to prove that "No Means No", and you will back up your "No" if necessary. "No" (and variations thereof) can be a lifesaver, and a dog who thinks he has the option to ignore it at will may be dangerous to himself and others. Teaching "settle", as descibed above, has been a very valuable tool as well! Requesting incompatible behaviours, such as "Sit" for a jumping dog, will also cut off the behaviour; however, if you aren't able to be creative and come up with an incompatible and reliably known command on the spur of the moment, "settle" or "No" can be very useful indeed.

Containment is perhaps the biggest single thing you can provide, to make sure ANY dog is a safe dog. Properly contained dogs cannot harm strangers, no matter what their temperament! Dogs should never be put into a situation where they are at risk of being harmed, or forced into uncomfortable predicaments where they may react inappropriately. When the dog is left unattended outdoors, secure fencing provides the solution. We, as their protectors, owe them that much. Dogs who are left to run loose (unattended) are at great risk. Being dogs, they will often do undesirable things--from relatively minor things, such as tearing through the neighbor's trash, or scaring unsuspecting pedestrians who don't know "he's friendly", to very serious things, such as chasing children on bikes, attacking other dogs, killing smaller pets, biting strangers, or being hit by cars. Many dogs who seem perfectly innocent at home have a whole new alter-ego when out roaming the neighborhood.

Dogs who are staked out in the yard are also at risk, perhaps even more so than loose dogs: they cannot escape, and are often reduced to just ONE option to deal with their problems--fighting back. Threats may include inappropriate actions by children, people who "just have to pet him" (and are subsequently bitten), irresponsible people's roaming dogs, and even theft. A fence will not only protect the world from your dog, it will protect your dog from the world. If there is one thing I would beg every dog owner to do, it would be to safely contain their dog.

Keeping him on a good diet, and in good health will minimize the risk of medical or chemical issues coming into play. Ill, hungry, or uncomfortable dogs tend to have lower thresholds in various situations, and will be more likely to bite defensively.

Staying on top of the factors discussed above may sound excessive, and you may be thinking "we don't bother to dwell on most of that, yet our dogs turn out fine"! However, if you have a full time COMPANION dog who lives indoors and is part of the family's daily life, you are most likely doing all of the above stuff already, without even realizing it! ;-) In order for dogs to be good citizens in OUR world, they need us to lead them, and be models and guides to acceptable behaviour. The "family pet" receives that sort of guidance every day, just by being part of the family. Likewise, a dog who merely "lives there" may be lacking in many of these things...and it should not surprise anyone when he eventually bites. (Note that when I refer to a "bite", I am speaking of a bite with intent to harm; puppy mouthing, jaw clicking, accidental nips during rough play, and other innocent acts are not included in my definition of a bite.) Most dogs manage just fine with only a portion of the above elements in effect; however, the more bases you cover, the better you stack the odds in your favor. Some dogs are less forgiving or more assertive than others, and too many shortcuts may tip the scales for those particular dogs.

There will never be one perfect, step by step program that gets results for all dogs. Dogs are individuals, and--based on their inherent temperament or early life experiences--will start out on different "squares" on the playing field. You will be guiding them, move by move, towards the squares YOU want them to be in, so everyone's path will be different. However, the basics of behaviour management and modification are essentially the same, across the board.
Daily maintenance of a dog who received a great foundation as a pup is easier than laying that foundation, though it still takes time and effort. If your dog is still a pup, however, you will find it very valuable to set a good foundation in the first place.

I strongly believe that the lucky canines whose life contains all the elements discussed above, are NOT the dogs who bite.
Dogs who are neglected or sit forgotten at the end of a chain, allowed to run wild, allowed to dominate their family, or live misunderstood and isolated in an uncommunicative world of their own, are the ones we need to be concerned about. (In an ideal world, we would be concerned for the dog's sake, even more so than our own!) Unfortunately, even dogs with intelligent and well-meaning owners may occasionally bite, if the owner is not fully aware of their dog, is a poor personality or lifestyle match for that particular animal, or does not understand how dogs think and communicate. Conscious, educated ownership should be a primary goal of everyone who chooses to share their life with a dog.

I maintain that unsafe dogs (and good dogs) are made, rather than born...and that, to a large extent, Nurture overrides Nature, and virtually any pup, regardless of heritage, can be raised into a safe and successful companion animal. While knowing a dog's breed or type can be quite useful in predicting his potential personality traits or working ability, and skillful manipulation of genetics is extremely valuable in creating healthy dogs (or dogs who excel at specific tasks), it is not the end-all to a dog's behaviour.
It's not his size, or his breed--even the Original Dog, the wolf, is a safe and loving companion when raised by these guidelines above. (That journey has been undertaken many times over, by many people...and with the right environment, it is quite successful!) Whatever your dog may be, it is possible to shape him into a happy and rewarding companion...IF you are willing to put the time and effort into him. I believe we owe it to our dogs to consider all of their needs, and keep up our end of the deal we struck with canines, so many millennia ago.


Additional resources: Canine Required Reading

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