If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say that, I’d be able to retire.
Much of the time I spend with clients includes talking about why dogs are so sweet sometimes, and then aggressive and fearful other times. In the industry, we call it “The 99% Rule”, because we all get those phone calls where the pet parent says “99% of the time my dog is so sweet!”, but then bites people who enter the front door, or reach out to pet them, or walk by when the dog is on leash, or when she is getting her nails cut, etc.
There is perfectly good explanation for this phenomenon, and if you understand this, you will be much more successful in treatment… the word? “Context”.
Context is a term we use a lot in dog training because behavior is always specific to the ‘context’ or environment the dog is in at that very moment. In my Behavior & Manners class, I always explain that ‘sit’ at home is different than ‘sit’ on the street, or at class, or at the vet. When a dog learns to ‘sit’ at home, there are certain environmental stimuli and distractions (or lack of). When you add in a high-stress context or one in which your dog will have a higher rate of adrenaline, ‘sit’ will be a completely different behavior to him.
The same holds true for aggressive behaviors.
In the context of your home environment there are probably not a lot of stressors, so your dog will not be afraid or defensive. If your dog is completely calm in the living room, but the minute the doorbell rings, goes in to a frenzy, then the context has changed. It is crucial in treatment to understand that behavior is ALWAYS context-specific, and just because your dog ‘behaves’ in certain environments, doesn’t mean he is going to be the same dog in a different environment, with different stressors.
This is why people and dogs get bitten, and why ‘management’ is so important.
If you know your dog has the potential to be aggressive in certain environments (the vets office, on a hiking trail, when people come over) or if you know your dog is unpredictable, it is up to YOU to set your dog up to succeed and manage her so she doesn’t have the opportunity to become stressed, thus becoming aggressive. Dogs do not bite ‘out of the blue’. I’ve said this a million times- Dogs give tons of warning and stress signals that people miss, yet pet parents still put their dogs in situations that set their dogs up to fail.
Here is an example:
I just got off the phone with an extremely nice woman (I’ll call her Susan) with an 18-month old German Shepherd. Literally, as I was writing this blog she called- that’s how often this scenario presents itself. Her dog goes to doggie daycare and does well with other dogs in that environment. However, her dog is leash aggressive with other dogs, and is very afraid of dogs, when Susan is walking her or has her out-and-about. Her first question to me, as I was explaining the treatment process was “So, how come my dog plays well and loves other dogs at daycare, but is the exact opposite when she’s with me on leash? Why doesn’t she love all dogs all the time?” Susan had a hard time wrapping her brain around the concept that her dog is different at daycare than she is with her. She truly thinks her dog’s behavior should be the same all the time…
The explanation? Her German Shepherd’s behavior is ‘context-specific’. The off-leash dogs at daycare are completely different than dogs on the street, or when she’s attached to a leash, or when she’s with her mom. Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum- it happens because of what is going on at that moment, in that place, in whatever level of adrenaline, with whatever stimuli is going on around the dog.
Treatment begins with the understanding that behavior will be different in all types of situations- just like it is with humans. And once you take the 'context' into consideration, then you can always set your dog up to succeed in order to reduce the stress within the context, and teach your dog what you want him to do, instead of what you don’t want him to do. It really is that simple.