“If”, and Your Aggressive Dog

 ”If I win this war, you will be slaves forever.”
- Letter from Phillip of Macedon to Sparta, and Sparta’s subsequent one-word response

So I’ve recently, finally turned my husband on to the beauty that is ancient history. Gloriously full of so many lessons.  All it took, was my throwing the quote above at him one day in a last-ditch attempt to hook him onto the enormity of Laconic wit.  I finally did it.  Not in time to name my daughter Sparta, like I originally wanted, but I’ll settle for a dog named Sparta.

Brittany Graham Photography

THIS IS SPARTA!!!!!                                                                                  Brittany Graham Photography

As I’ve previously mentioned in other posts, I don’t think there is a single situation, a single historical reference or a single experience that can not hold some type of lesson.  Knowledge is all around us, it’s up to us to pluck it from life and add it to our own personal reality.  So, to that end here we go.  The most ambitious Darwin Dogs post ever: a mash-up of what Greek history has taught me about the “aggressive” nature of some dogs, using actual quotes (mostly from Herodotus’ Histories).  (Even more ambitious than my Yoda-quote post, if I do say so myself!)  Okay ready? Here we go!

“No one is so senseless as to choose, of his own will, war rather than peace…” 
― Herodotus, The Histories


Ah….this is one of the best quotes to bear in mind when working with an “aggressive” or dog-reactive dog.  Your dog isn’t choosing this behavior- your dog has been thrust upon this behavior.  No animal (including humans) rationally chooses confrontation and possible injury or death!  That goes for dogs as well.  People contact me quite frequently regarding what they describe as “aggressive” behavior from their dog, when what the usual scenario turns out to be is that the dog is put in what it determines is a life/death situation, which must be answered with aggression.  Their fight/flight response has been triggered, and due to circumstances, they have been forced to choose fight.

And that adage about the dog attacking without warning? Rubbish.  Dogs will always give warning, because in their mind, they really don’t want a confrontation.  Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t hear/see the warning, because it’s not always a growl.  Usually it is given through silent body language.

“In soft regions are born soft men.”


I will always firmly maintain that dogs are not fully domesticated, at least not in the sense that we think of it.  Dogs don’t need humans.  Yes, they live much more comfortable, happy lives while in the care of a human, where their needs for shelter, food and water are taken care of, but in the scheme of things, if released in to wild with another dog (2 or more dogs equals a pack, how dogs are designed to survive), they have a very good shot at living and procreating.  We saw this during the Sochi Olympics; packs of feral dogs living in the town.  It’s going on in Calcutta, and even in the U.S.  A feral population of dogs who are surviving and reproducing.  While their conditions are wretched, they have maintained their population growth.  Because their instincts are still based on living outside.  They are still able to survive using skills they haven’t yet lost, even though “domestication”.  (The feral dog packs in Detroit were family pets until quite recently.)

So what to take from this?  Your sweet little fluffy ball of fur you have sleeping quietly by your feet, or playing a game of fetch in the backyard?  He’s still an animal, and one who is equipped, mentally and physically, to deal with all threats that come his way.  Because think about it; there are a lot of threats out there.  Survival:  it’s not just a switch you can flip off for all dogs.  Respect where they’re coming from, and you have a good chance of helping them to a better place.

Force has no place where there is need of skill.

Yeah..., um, no.

Dude, really…there’s a door 3 feet to your left.

Prong collars.  Shock collars.  Dangling dog from the end of a leash, like in this story.   You can’t muscle your way through your dog’s aggression.  It’s not about who is stronger – it’s about who is Pilot in this situation.  In my house, Orion (5 lbs.) is Pilot over Sparta (100lbs). People who are have courageous, brave and calm leaders have courageous, brave, calm followers.  Think Martin Luther King, Jr.  The epitome of a calm, confident leader.  Not the Kool-Aid Man.

You know that saying about dogs and their owners?  It’s not entirely false.  We feed off of each other.  Make sure you are feeding your dog calm confidence, not raging emotion.  Answering your dog’s questions is the way, not punishing them for asking a question. 

“Men trust their ears less than their eyes.” 
― Herodotus

In the words of Beethoven: "Huh?"

In the words of Beethoven: “Huh?”

This past summer I did a blog post about Sparta and I having a particularly trying walk.  There was another dog off-leash, running back and forth.  Sparta had a lot of questions about that dog, all of which needed to be answered.  When you have an “aggressive” dog, it is imperative that you have enough money in your Piloting Piggy Bank to answer all those questions. Every question you answer for your dog takes money out of their bank and puts it into yours, and remember, whomever has the most money is Pilot.

So for example, when Sparta was under a year, she tore her ACL.  It was the most wretched experience of my life.  I let my dog outside to go to the bathroom, and five minutes later I let a dog back in who was limping (still have no idea how she did it).  So obviously I took her to the vet’s office, where they laid her on her side, and then started wrenching her leg back and forth to see how bad the tear was.  Now, in that situation, I allowed the vet to Pilot me.  I was terrified by what he was doing to my dog, but he had enough money in his Piloting Piggy Bank (built up over the years of treating my animals) that I trusted what he was doing with minimal questions.  Sparta was a different story.  She immediately popped up, frightened by the pain the vet was causing her.  She looked at me with a dreadful question in her eyes:

“Is that man allowed to HURT me?”

Yes, Sparta, I’m sorry, he is.

She accepted the answer because of all the money I had in my piggy bank.  I had never steered her wrong before, and she knew that I wasn’t about to start now.  Basically, I had to Pilot her past what she was feeling and instead trust what I was telling her.  Now, that was a HUGE question I was answering for her.  Fortunately, I had been Piloting her ever since I had her, taking nickels and dimes out of her piggy bank for the simplest of questions, the ones that were easy to answer.  Consider it a rainy-day slush fund, for when your dog is laying prone on a table with some man hurting her.  Because trust me, that was the most “money” I have ever had to spend out of my Piloting Piggy Bank at one given time.

So when you’re Piloting your “aggressive” dog, remember, you are asking them to go against what they are seeing, and trust what you are telling them.  That is an amazingly difficult thing to do, and always respect the faith they have in you when they do it.

  ”If I win this war, you will be slaves forever.”

The original quote at the start of this post.  The perfect response to a possible act of aggression.  And when all is said and done, isn’t that what your dog is doing?  Reacting to what they believe is an act of aggression upon them first?  Who started it, anyway? Does it really matter whose dog looked as the other one wrong first? Who growled first?  Who lunged first?  No.  Because in the end, what we need is that “if”.  What if questions were answered?  What if you had enough money in your Piloting Piggy Bank to answer those questions?  What if this time, things ended differently?  Because “What if?” is the first question to a whole new world of answers.



Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio


4 thoughts on ““If”, and Your Aggressive Dog

  1. Boy, you are on the money! Great article! Interesting how things/thoughts/philosophies and actions do not really change over the centuries. Man or animal. Loved the history lesson as well as the piloting advice.
    And at such an early hour? I am impressed!

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