A Dog with Aggression or a Dangerous Dog?

Professionals in the field of applied canine behavior are often tasked with evaluating a dog and classifying the dog’s behavior. If we approach this from the mindset, ‘is it possible that this dog will display aggression and bite another dog or person in the future’, then every dog would be deemed dangerous as it is possible that any dog given the right set of circumstances will bite. Very often the difference has to do with the owner. A dog with mild aggression and an irresponsible owner can be deemed dangerous after an incident, where a dog with severe aggression is not simply for the fact that no court case has occurred. We have often had clients that sustain daily injuries from their dog but as it is not reported, the dog is not designated as dangerous. 

While each jurisdiction might have their own definition of what makes a dog a dangerous dog, the designation is usually secondary to an incident with the court looking for the behaviorist to give a professional assessment on the probability of a future incident. Under these guidelines, we will often recommend designating a dog ‘dangerous’ from a legal perspective but this does not necessarily mean the dog is unsafe to work with; just as a dog not involved in a court case might be too aggressive for the owner’s to safely work. 

When determining if a dog is workable, many factors must be considered. A few are: 

1. Will the initial work be conducted by the behaviorist or by the owners? 
For example, a dog with moderate to severe possessive aggression might be workable if staying in house with the behaviorist reducing the intensity and reaction to mild before continuing with the owners, but the same dog would not be safe for the owner’s to initially implement the modification program. 

2. If the behaviorist is conducting the work 
a. Is the aggression predictable? 

b. Is the behaviorist able to identify the signs of escalation before aggression? 
c. Is the work area set up to safely work with the behavioral reaction? 
i. This must include the behaviorist, staff, other clients and the public. 
d. Ego’s aside, does the behaviorist have the skill to handle the problem without putting themselves or the dog at risk of physical or emotional injury? 
e. Are you reasonably confident that you can significantly reduce the behavior within the time frame given by the owner? 
f. Will the owners be able to safely continue the work after the dog is returned? 
g. Is conducting the work in the dog’s best interest? 

3. If session will be conducted with the owners doing the work, can an effective modification program be safely implemented with a reasonable degree of success? 
a. What is the client’s home environment? 
i. A couple in their 20’s living alone might be able to safely implement a very systematic, gradual modification program but if they have young children the same modification program might not be safe. ii. Are the owner’s mentally and physically capable of it? For example, we had a client that wanted to work with their dog but they were caring for a family member that suffered from dementia and would leave the outside door open, letting their dog out. While the couple desperately wanted to work with their dog, it simply was not safe for the public to do so. 
b. Can they safely practice the designed modification program without putting anyone else at risk? 

4. How intense or deeply rooted is the behavior? 
a. For example, a dog that reacts with contact bites when removing food but once the trigger (food) is removed the behavior stops. That dog is often easier and safer to resolve than a dog that postures over the food and fixates on the human even after the trigger (food) is removed / picked up. 

5. What is the reaction to the behavior when triggered? 
a. A dog reacting with multiple low intensity contact bites with no forward / offensive locomotion versus a dog that goes into a predatory state with forward / offensive locomotion. 

6. What is the duration of the behavior? 
a. After the trigger is removed, how long does the dog stay in a heightened state? 

7. Are there medical issues that need to be ruled out (i.e. hypothyroidism, injury / pain, CBC needed)? 

8. Does the dog have secondary issues or triggers? 
During the evaluation phase, even after a detailed intake form and detailed interview, the behaviorist should always perform a complete evaluation (ASPCA’s SAFER evaluation is a good start). An owner might be embarrassed to disclose every behavior or might not consider a reaction significant or unusual. 
a. How stable is the dog? 
b. Absent the chief complaint, what other behavioral issues exist? 

9. Can the dog be redirected? 
a. Can the dog be redirected early in the escalation? 
b. Does the dog have the ability to learn a new behavioral reaction or does he/she require pharmacological intervention prior to starting a modification program? 

After concluding a complete evaluation and determine the type of aggressions the dog is display, and ideally the underlying cause (the initial association and how it manifested), the behaviorist should be able to begin designing an appropriate modification plan. With the gathered data an educated guess can be made regarding the expected progress over a specified time period; however, it should also be made clear to the client that an animal’s behavior can never be guaranteed and the progress can vary. At this point, the behaviorist must determine if it is probable and realistic to safely work with the dog. As many of the factors are subjective and can vary depending upon the skill, education and experience of the behaviorist, the decision cannot be an emotional one. The behaviorist must always maintain the highest ethics and consider all the information. With modern technology, video clips can be emailed to colleagues or video conferences can be conducted if a second opinion is needed. The behaviorist cannot help anyone if they are injured by a dog and while everyone in the field wants the best for each dog; our first responsibility must be to ensure the reasonable safety of their owner and the public. 

Sincerely, Shari & Daniel Forst, 
BCCABC Canine Case Squad Florida, NY USA
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