Dog Aggression vs Lack of Social Skills

The transformation of Katie.
By Shirley Zindler, July 2017

As a rescue, we see a lot of dogs who lack social skills with other dogs. Some of them show what appears to be aggression, and can be dangerous to other dogs, when they aren’t truly aggressive by nature. Katie was such a dog. Katie is a black Great Dane, very tall, very underweight and a stray at a rural shelter. She was friendly with people, but wildly aggressive to other dogs. Even the sight of another dog had her barking, lunging and snarling as she tried to attack. If unable to bite the object of her fury, she would spin and bite herself. Truly a disturbing sight. If fact, Katie had been adopted out to a person who promised to keep her separate from other dogs but it didn’t work out because she got so wild at just the sight of another dog. She was returned to the shelter.

Katie was scheduled for euthanasia but the shelter reached out to see if any rescues wanted to try to try and take her first. I was so torn. Katie reminded me of my own Dane girl Tyra, who was once a snappy shelter stray scheduled for euthanasia, but turned into the best girl ever with a lot of time. But this dog was ten hours away and I couldn’t even assess her before committing to taking her. I was told that she had never harmed an animal to their knowledge but still, what if I got her and she couldn’t be rehabbed? Not all aggressive dogs can be made safe and there is a lack of good homes for dogs as it is. I lost sleep over a dog I had never met, and tossed and turned trying to decide.

Finally Katie was down to her last day. She would be euthanized the next day if not pulled then. I knew if I pulled her and she couldn’t be safe I would have to put her down anyway. But I realized that it was better to have the chance of a wonderful life than no chance at all. In Katie’s final hours, I found a transport willing to get her to me and I picked her up in a store parking lot off the freeway at midnight. In the dark parking lot she was certainly people friendly, and she jumped willingly into my car for the final journey home. So far, so good, I thought.

I had put the dogs to bed in another room where Katie wouldn’t be able to see them.  I fed her, tucked her into a colossal crate in our room and we slept without incident.

The next morning, I took all the other dogs out for a run, then back in the house where Katie couldn’t see them before taking her out. I let her explore the yard and fenced field, smelling where the other dogs had been. At one point, she saw some foster puppies in a run at a great distance and began barking, growling and lunging. There were two fences between her and them but she was determined to get at them. It wasn’t the happy, excited bark of a dog wanting to play, it was serious.

I leashed her and pulled her away and placed her in a spacious run where she couldn’t see the puppies. I then let my sweet, gentle, Doberman, Breeze, into the adjoining field. Breeze is wonderful with dogs, very forgiving and gentle and with beautiful social skills. Katie immediately began barking, lunging and snarling at Breeze and trying to get to her. When she couldn’t reach the object of her aggression, she began spinning and trying to bite herself. I leashed her, placed a basket muzzle on her and walked her into the yard where Breeze was. Katie was incredibly powerful, nearly jerking me off my feet in her single-minded attempt to get to Breeze. Wise Breeze ignored her completely as I walked her out into our fenced field.

We kept moving while Katie continuing her lunging, stiff body and guttural roar and with Breeze never acknowledging her. We continued walking, with Breeze off leash and walking nearby. It was obvious that Katie was completely clueless in how to greet another dog and likely had never had any kind of positive experiences with dogs. At one point, I allowed Katie enough of the long line to approach Breeze. Katie was still muzzled and she was shaking with stress and excitement. She made another lunge and attempt to bite through the muzzle which I checked with the long line and told her no. After another ten minutes or so, Katie approached Breeze’s rear and made a cautious sniff which I praised repeatedly.

The morning progressed with Katie meeting all the other dogs in the same manner and then I put her in her crate out of sight of the others to let her relax and decompress. We had several more short sessions throughout the day with Katie making improvement each time.

The following day was similar, with Katie muzzled and on a long line while the other dogs romped and played around her. At one point, she lunged for little pitty mix Widgie who had enough of the obnoxious stranger and came back up in her face with a roar. I redirected Katie to some toys and continued our walk.

After the first two days, Katie began making incredible progress. We removed the muzzle and allowed her more space on the long line. She began learning more appropriate interactions and we celebrated every butt sniff and praised every positive interaction.

For a while she still became overstimulated by every fast movement or noise by the other dogs and kind of had it out for Widgie. But with a great deal of work, and schooling from the pack she does great. She meets new dogs successfully almost every day and they all play off leash together both inside the house and out. We don’t leave her unsupervised if we leave home but she’s made incredible progress.  She also does great on walks with us praising and redirecting at the sight of another dog. She eventually progressed to doing great at the off leash dog beach.

Had Katie been truly aggressive, she would never have been able to progress to this point. She’s a beautiful example of how a dog with a lack of social skills may just need some time in finishing school rather than euthanasia. Katie was adopted after more than a month in foster care and her new family adores about her. She’s affectionate and fun and has a bright future. 

Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.