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Episode 317 - Rocky Road

“Creating a balanced relationship and finding harmony with your dog requires mutual trust and respect — which is why not being able to trust your own dog is probably one of the most devastating feelings in the world. But is it possible to regain trust after you’ve been bitten?


Q&A with Cesar

I’ve heard you say a lot that insecurity can make a dog aggressive, but it seems like an insecure dog would be submissive. What is it about insecurity that causes aggression?

First, there’s a difference between a dog showing aggressive behavior and a truly aggressive dog. In this case, we’re dealing with a dog that isn’t really aggressive, but which is showing that kind of behavior.
Being pack animals with a leader and followers, dogs like regularity and consistency. They like to know their place in the pack and what’s expected of them. When the pack is balanced and something happens, every dog knows exactly what to do.
Think of it like a bunch of firefighters — when a professional team arrives on the scene, each member knows what their responsibility is. Someone carries the hose, someone hooks up the hydrant and pumper, someone else leads a rescue team into the flaming building if they believe people are in there, and someone directs everyone else.
Now imagine the scene if those firefighters had no assigned roles and no one directing them. It would be chaos. You could easily wind up with a hose rolled out in both directions and attached to nothing, everybody running into a burning building to be a hero when there are actually no people inside, and half a dozen people barking conflicting directions.
That’s no way to run a fire department, and it’s no way to run a pack. Not knowing his position will make a dog very insecure, especially if there is no leader and are no dogs to show him his place. Insecurity makes a dog very anxious, and that can elevate their energy level. Left without any rules, that dog is very likely to become defensive, and every dog’s main defensive weapon is in their mouth.
When a truly aggressive dog bites, it means to kill. When an insecure dog bites, it’s saying, “Please leave me alone” in the only way it knows how. Of course, that dog doesn’t need to be left alone — it needs a pack with a leader and its own clearly defined place within that pack

What do you think is the biggest issue that puppy owners really face?

Forgetting that their dog is a puppy! People will ask me all the time, why does my puppy bite me, or why does my puppy steal my shoes, or why does my puppy pee on the floor. The simple answer to all of those question is this: Because you let them.
Just like human children, we have to focus more on setting rules, boundaries, and limitations with puppies, and we cannot fail to correct them when they misbehave. The problem is that humans are programmed to feel sorry for “cute,” and puppies have been bred over thousands of years to be cute. So have many dog breeds — if humans aged the same way that toy breeds do, adults would look like they were eight years old forever.
The big problem with a puppy’s cuteness is that it masks behavioral issues. A tiny puppy attacking a toy that’s bigger than she is may look cute, but we have to see beyond that and look at the energy the dog is showing. Is that puppy growling and snapping its head back and forth and playing with intensity? Then it’s time to limit that play and bring the puppy back to a calm, submissive place or else it will associate playtime with aggression.
If we don’t make it clear when we correct a puppy that its behavior is unacceptable, then we risk turning it into a game. For example, if a puppy runs up and nips your hand and you just give it a little push away instead of redirecting it, then that puppy will come right back for your hand. Letting out a loud yelp or putting something else, like a toy, in the puppy’s mouth will distract it from your hand and redirect its focus.
The sad truth is that most dogs that are surrendered to shelters are between one year and eighteen months old — exactly the point when they go from being cute, energetic puppies to being not so cute, destructive dogs. If you want to have a balanced, well-behaved adult dog, you have to start with the puppy and not be afraid to correct it as needed.

In this episode, you help both dogs with their self-esteem, but isn’t that a human concept and doesn’t it humanize dogs?

I call it self-esteem so that people will understand, although you’re right, a dog’s self-esteem is very different than a human’s — in some ways. In others, they’re not really that different, but it’s the human who’s more like the dog and not the other way around!
For a dog, self-esteem just means that they are in their proper place in the pack and working for the pack’s survival — or what they think is for their survival in the case of modern pet dogs. When they’re fulfilled like this, you can actually see it in their body language. They walk a little taller, with their head and tail up, and they may strut a little bit. It’s what Australians call being “chuffed.”
This is why it can be so important to give your dog a job, especially if they’re from a working or herding breed. You can do it by having them wear a backpack, or running a homemade agility course, or even just playing a game of find the hidden treat — anything where they have to do something or figure something out in order to make you, the pack leader, happy.
And that’s the dog version of self-esteem.

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How to Watch

TV: "Cesar 911" appears in the U.S.A. on Nat Geo WILD. Check local listings.

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