Last Thursday, I spoke to no less than Five owners of aggressive dogs. And that was only on Thursday.
These were not current clients of Front Range K9 Academy, but instead, were new potential clients who were seeking help for their dogs.
These dogs had a range of types of aggression from territorial, to fear, to dominant resource guarding. They ranged in breed from terrier to mastiff, with several herding and working breeds thrown in the mix as well.
There were both males and females in the group.
Some had prior training with other dog trainers or behaviorists, some did not.
Some were rescued from shelters. Some had been purchased from breeders as young pups and raised in the homes they still live in.
So from this wide variety of breeds, sexes and backgrounds, what do you think stood out?
I'll tell you. What stood out was ..... Age.
Each and everyone of the dogs was 2 years old, give or take about 6 months or so. Each had been exhibiting aggression for at least 2 months (but more likely for about 6 months or more). And each of the dogs' aggression issues were getting worse.
So what is it about 2 year old dogs? (Or really dogs ranging from about 12 months to about 3 years of age?)
Well, 2 year old dogs have several things going against them. Number one, they look like adult dogs. And they look all grown up to both people and to other dogs. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
These dogs are adolescents in every sense of the word. Their brains are not fully developed. They make really poor decisions. They are incredibly socially awkward. They are often uncomfortable in their own skins.
If you doubt this, take a trip down memory lane to your own adolescence. How uncomfortable was middle school, or junior high for you? Did your parents, peers, and teachers expect you to function as a working part of society at the tender age of 12? 14? 16? Please. Most of us didn't even have our heads screwed on straight until our twenties!
And yet, we expect our dogs to have it all together and be mentally, socially, and biologically mature by the age of 2! If we use the generic idea of 1 dog year = 7 human years, then all these 2 year old dogs are.....14! They are in junior high! (Those of you who teach junior high, or those of you with kids this age, let me just offer my condolences. You KNOW what I'm talking about.)
Further, the other dogs on the street see them coming and think they are complete freaks, because they are acting so ... well...so ...weird.
Newsflash, folks - your 2 year old dog is in a very difficult stage. Aggression, strange fears and phobias, and just general wackiness are often to be expected. What you DO about it is critical - but a bit more about that later.
Back to the challenges 2 year old dogs face. If sheer age is the number one problem, improper socialization is the number two problem with most of these cases.
Many, many, many of these dogs are either under socialized or over socialized as pups. Because of these inappropriate socialization sessions, these dogs are prime suspects for being out-of-place socially as they hit their 'teen' age times.
Again, I'll use the human example to illustrate this point: Humans who've had poor social experiences as children are most likely less socially adept as teens (or even as adults), as well!
So, what can we do about all these coo-coo, teenage, 2 year old dogs?
As it turns out, there is a lot to be done. First and foremost, of course, is properly socializing your dog when it is still a young pup - before it hits the terrible two's.
Proper socialization does NOT mean your dogs gets to play with every dog it meets. Nor does it get to jump all over every human it meets like a little attention-hungry vampire. If you need more info on this - check out our 2009 article on puppy socialization.
But what about those shelter dogs who missed out on good socialization. Is there any hope? Absolutely. Training a dog through the terrible two's is a challenge. But it can be done. Teaching (and enforcing) proper manners, reliable obedience, and distraction-proofing can go a long way in dealing with the issues that arise at this age.
Some dogs need extra help with becoming desensitized around other dogs or people. Decreasing their anxiety can help them get through this developmental period. Seek help from a professional behaviorist in the art of positive desensitization - it can do wonders!
However, shrugging one's shoulders and saying "Ah, well...it's just the terrible two's" is NOT the answer.
Practice makes perfect. And if your dog is practicing aggression or other extreme behaviors at this age, they WILL get better and better at the aggressive behavior. Doing nothing about it is a recipe for the problem getting worse.
For those of you with 2 year old dogs who are not having social issues - count your blessings. For those of you who do have dogs with the terrible two's - take a deep breath, keep training, and seek professional help for any behaviors that are aggressive, or fear-based.
That's it from this end of the leash.
Jennifer Hime is the head trainer & behaviorist at Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO. She can be contacted at www.k9counselor.com