Q: Our small mixed breed dog Molly is always trying to dominate us. Every time we try to pick her up she puts us in our place by trying to snap. It seems like everything has to be on her terms. She’s a rescue dog, and we think she acts like this because she was abused.
A: Your question raises several issues addressed by board certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta, a nationally recognized speaker on problem behaviors.
Dr. Radosta has tackled the preponderance of animal behavior misinformation delivered by everyone from Dr. Google to Dr. TV personality and the intractable myths that often result. Your question addresses two of these myths:
1: Aggressive pets are trying to dominate us. This is not usually true. Aggression is much more likely the result of fear or anxiety than the desire to dominate anyone. Nonetheless, people seem to prefer to believe that aggressive or difficult pets are attempting to control their environments rather than reacting to its stresses. The observation of wolf hierarchies –– which has been shown not to be an apt model –– largely informs this canine worldview.
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Sadly, this misconception about dogs –– widely disseminated by certain popular media personalities –– has led to the more widespread use of punishment-based training techniques that can lead to even more serious behavior problems than they address.
2: Physical abuse is the root cause of fear and aggression in pets. Sure, it’s possible. But our research shows that abuse tends to result from neglect rather than from physical violence. In particular, this neglect stems from a puppy’s need for socialization at a young age and an epidemic of inadequate socialization during a pup’s crucial window of social development.
The problem with myths like these is that pet owners who buy into them tend to remain ignorant of the possibility that their actions may be inadvertently making the problem worse. Nor does their denial allow them to acknowledge that the problem can be treated.
Hopefully, this column will arm you with information you can take to your veterinarian so Molly can either receive the care she needs or be referred to a credentialed veterinary behavior professional.
Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is drpattykhuly.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.