Born Bad?


Recently, we had to make a very difficult decision concerning our two-year-old German Shepherd, Shadow. He was diagnosed by an animal behaviorist as territorial aggressive, and we were advised that he would become more aggressive as time passed. We were also told that there is no method or medication that can be given to control this behavior it is in the genetics.

Also, since our decision, several people have advised us that all German Shepherds are unpredictable and may turn at some point in their lives. Is this true?

-Name withheld by request

Pat Miller, WDJ’s Dog Training Editor, answers this question for us. Miller, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, offers private and group dog training classes from her base in Fairplay, Maryland. For contact information, click here.

Miller responds:

I’m sorry that, in my opinion, you have received some bad information. There are lots of things that can be done to modify aggressive behavior, territorial or otherwise. Positive training protocols that use counter-conditioning and desensitization are frequently successful in reprogramming a dog’s brain to respond positively rather than negatively to the stimulus that causes the aggression in Shadow’s case, someone intruding in his territory.

It is not always an easy thing to accomplish, however. A successful aggression modification program requires exquisite management on the part of the dog owner to prevent the dog from putting human life and safety at risk while the owner works with a competent positive trainer or behaviorist; a long term and serious commitment to the training program; and a willingness and ability to make environmental changes to prevent the dog’s ongoing exposure to the offensive stimulus. In other words, you can’t leave a territorially aggressive dog loose, in a fenced yard where he is subjected to teasing and tormenting, running at large on your property or in the neighborhood, or tied on a chain, and expect the behavior to improve.

I take it that you decided to have Shadow euthanized. In an aggression case, whatever the classification or classifications of aggression, the prognosis depends in large part on the owner’s willingness and ability to comply with the training protocol, how intense the aggressive response is, how successful the behavior strategy (aggression) has been for the dog in the past, and how much practice he has had how many incidents have occurred, and for how long.

Prevention, not treatment
Medications can be useful in some cases, but should be used as part of an ongoing behavior modification program; they don’t change behavior all by themselves. Working with a trainer for the long period of time required for success can be costly. If there are young children in the home it is not appropriate to put them at risk. It may well be that your set of circumstances were such that it would not have been possible to implement a successful behavior modification program. If that’s the case, then, in my opinion, euthanasia may well have been the most responsible and appropriate decision.

The tendency toward aggression is not necessarily genetic, although genetics can impart a predisposition toward aggressiveness. However, environment also plays a very important role. A dog that is from a 10-generation family tree of friendly dogs can be made aggressive through poor handling and/or a lack of socialization, and a pup born with genetics for more aggressive behavior can, if properly raised, be quite friendly and safe.

The best way to cure aggression is prevention lots of early socialization and good management of the environment so the dog is not put in a position where he feels compelled to have to defend his territory. (See Canine Social Misfits, February 2000.)

As for your question about whether all German Shepherds are unpredictable and will turn on you at some point, I can only say…absurd! There are probably hundreds of thousands of trustworthy, non-aggressive German Shepherds in the world. I have had the privilege of knowing and loving several myself. Anyone who would believe or say otherwise is badly misinformed.

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.