Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Distress of the "Aggressive" Dog

Here's something interesting.

Buddy is lying at my feet, looking dejected.

What just happened is this: the back-neighbor's handyman finally showed up (4 months late) to replace their portion of the back fence--the one with all the holes in it through which her dogs have begun fence-fighting with Petunia. Buddy mostly ignores those dogs; he might wander back for a sniff now and then but in the last year or so I've never seen him fighting with them (nor with Petunia's arch-enemy next door, for that matter).

But Buddy doe react to strange humans entering our property. He once chased a meter-man who'd jumped over the fence and into our yard. Didn't bite him but scared him and looked ready to attack. And of course Buddy did bite the man who entered my front door unexpectedly last year so I warned the neighbor's workman last August--and again last January, and again last month--that whenever he began dismantling the back fence he would need to telephone me so I could keep both dogs in the house.

He didn't.

Instead, he tore a panel off the back fence--with the neighbor's dogs still loose in their yard and without confirming where mine were. (Because Buddy is so quiet in the backyard the workman probably assumed the coast was clear.) And so Buddy charged toward the workman and started jumping up at him. It all happened behind the hedge, in the easement between our properties, but I could hear and deduce. I shouted out to the workman and he kept saying "It's OK" and so forth in that way I've come to recognize as shorthand for "It's OK, all dogs love me, I'm not worried, I'll just make friends with this dog no matter what the dog is doing."

Which is stupid as hell.

So I asked him to stop talking so I could call Buddy off the fence. Miraculously, this worked. (Am I actually learning something? Maybe about being more assertive with humans--wouldn't that be nice.) Buddy made eye contact with me behind the hedge and came out and followed me into the house and then sat down in front of me looking demoralized. Traumatized, really. The workman didn't harm him in any way that I could see or hear. I didn't even use an angry voice with Buddy. Just a serious one I've used before.

After securing Buddy I returned to the back yard and spoke with the workman again, making arrangements to keep the dogs indoors the next couple of days. He kept apologizing for the misunderstanding and I finally said, "He's a really good dog but he doesn't know you and he *will* bite you." I meant that Buddy would bite him if he seemed to be doing something dangerous to our world over here--like ripping out our fence--without a proper introduction. And I hated saying it out loud--that my dog would bite him--but I needed to make sure this guy knew that just because he's big and tall and a good guy who likes dogs doesn't mean that he can ignore my request that he allow me to secure my dogs before ripping up the back fence.)

So I said it out loud: I have a dog that seems likely to bite someone in situations like the above. And the shorthand way of saying that is that my dog will bite--which means it's not much of a stretch to call him an aggressive dog. But HERE IS WHAT IS INTERESTING TO ME: he doesn't like being aggressive. When Petunia fence-fights with the BigGuy next door she looks triumphant afterwards. She is downright proud of herself. Exhilarated. (Which is why I'm going to such pains to stop the fence-fighting.) The trainers call fence-fighting "a self-rewarding behavior."

So wouldn't you think that a human-aggressive dog would exhibit the same sort of response?

I realize there are all sorts of reasons why a dog may behave aggressively and that the fact that Buddy clearly disliked his confrontation doesn't mean he wasn't being an aggressive dog. But this incident does show me that Buddy would rather not be put in that situation--and if that's the case perhaps there truly is something I can do to shift the balance of power in our home. In other words, maybe I truly can convince Buddy that I am capable of protecting us all, and of being the one who decides when it is appropriate for him to lend a paw.