For the past few months, Maggie, our 2-and-a-half-year-old Shar Pei-Boxer mix, has been getting really aggressive toward my boyfriend, his mom, his 2-year-old nephew and me.
Lately, she’s been growling at our nephew when he tries to hug her and at our smaller puppy when he’s merely playing with a toy. Last night she jumped on the bed and woke me. When I sat up, she started snarling at me. I took her downstairs to the cage, and she was fine until it came time to actually go into the cage. At that point, she snapped at the smaller dog and then turned toward me and snarled.
Initially, I yelled at her, but then I tried to calm her down by saying in a soothing voice, “Maggie, it’s OK. Maggie, calm down.” I reached in slowly to pet her, and she bit me and drew blood for the third or fourth time now. Until today, I blamed her for acting that way. But I realize now that it is our fault. The “punishment aggression” description covers basically everything we have done to discipline her.
I never knew that my behavior could affect a dog so much. I grew up seeing my parents discipline our dogs that way. Now I have no idea what I can do for her since her aggression is our fault. Do you have any advice? I really, really want to try to fix the situation. But I just can’t keep her around if she is going to snap at our nephew.
There’s a lot to learn from a letter like this.
The letter writer demonstrates the importance of leading by example. She learned from her parents the only methods they knew of disciplining a dog — outdated, uninformed punishing tactics that involve yelling, bullying and possibly worse. Minute by minute, her nephew was learning the same.
Her story illustrates the value of personality testing and training. Getting a feel for a dog’s personality before making him your dog empowers you to select the best fit for you, your family and your lifestyle — and enables you to judge his ability to relate to children, if necessary. Your dog’s personality also determines the necessary method of training and discipline. You don’t train or discipline a shy dog the same way you would a dominant dog. Everything is different, right down to the tone of your voice.
Many dog owners in similar situations never own up to their role. Instead, they deny a problem exists or dance around it with a litany of excuses. The writer of this letter has had a very important breakthrough. She now understands the extent that an owner’s behavior can affect a dog.
Anyone who reads this column regularly knows what’s coming: A 2-year-old cannot live safely under the same roof with a dog like Maggie. The first new household rule should be that Maggie has zero access to the nephew — not even supervised access, because it only takes a second for something to go terribly wrong.
All the adults involved in this situation have an equal and immediate obligation to Maggie to do two things: Enlist the services of a professional trainer and find her a better home. She needs an adults-only home with people who understand the importance of boundaries and consistent training — neither of which has anything to do with punishment. The training they provide starting now will increase Maggie’s chances of finding such a home exponentially.
With the writer’s realization comes a chance to do better — to the benefit of everyone, including the child, the puppy and, hopefully, Maggie.
Dog trainer Matthew “Uncle Matty” Margolis is the co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and the host of the PBS series “WOOF! It’s a Dog’s Life!” Read all of Uncle Matty’s columns at creators.com, and visit him at unclematty.com. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to Uncle Matty at PO Box 3300, Diamond Springs 95619.