by Dr. Phil Zeltzman and Dr. Patty Khuly


You might find this odd, but there’s a whole world of denial out there with respect to aggression in dogs.


These are the pet owners who ignore the growls and snarls, live with the snaps, or suffer near-misses... and for what? Because they can’t face the reality of what their pet’s aggression might say about their ownership skills? Likely. Because it is a way to reinforce their ego? Their self-worth? Maybe. Surely there are more constructive ways to do that, though.


I, for one, have an aggressive animal for whom I make zero excuses. I’m working on it... gently. I also recognize that many of you have also made the choice to work with your pets on this issue. And that’s how it should be.


Not so with the vast majority of canine aggression owners, it would seem. And that’s a big deal not only for the individual dogs whose pathologies are swept under the rug and remain unresolved, but also for those of us who have to work with these often unworkable animals in our daily lives.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year. One in five dog bites is serious enough that it requires medical attention. Click here to see what the AVMA has to say on the subject.


It’s a risky business, veterinary medicine. But it’s a fact of life for us.


That’s why Dr. Phil Zeltzman, veterinary surgeon and newsletter author extraordinaire (available for free at, wants to raise the profile of this issue.


Because I love working with Dr. Zeltzman — and because more dogs deserve to get the help they need — he and I have collaborated on a compilation of top ten reasons owners cite when their pets display aggression at the vet’s office.


Here they are:


1. He's never bitten anybody.


This is the most popular excuse we receive — supposedly by way of allaying any silly fears we might have about a growling pet’s raised hackles, stiff tail, and impending lunge.


2. She never did this with my previous vet.


It’s obvious that every hospital and every individual circumstance will have its different effects on a dog. But here the implication is that we’re doing something to trigger this “very strange” behavior in their pet — as if it’s truly never happened before. In most cases we don’t buy it for a second.


3. He's never growled before.


Sure, it’s possible. After all, a veterinary hospital is a strange and forbidding place... and there’s always a first time. Fear aggression is the number one version of aggression we see in dogs. But again, the owner’s point is that their dog is not aggressive at all, and that they are genuinely surprised that their dog would ever display any sign of aggression.


That’s what scares us. Because as top trainers like to say, “All dogs are fine... until they’re not.” Ultimately, every owner needs to recognize their dog’s capacity to do harm.


4. She was abused as a puppy.


A Dr. K sidebar: I’ve had two aggressive dogs in my life. Both arrived at my place as pups. One was so fearful she’d cower over any loud noise... from day one. We used counter-conditioning techniques to keep her reactions at a minimum, but we always knew she had it in her to snap when freaked.


Was she abused? Ummm... highly unlikely. Are some dogs abused? Of course. But it’s no excuse for living with aggression — not without taking steps to relieve the dog’s fears.


5. He's just playing with you!


Hmmm...  after all our years in this biz we think we can tell when a dog is playing and when he’s not. Don’t insult our intelligence. Accept our help instead.


6. People think she's aggressive because she's big/wrinkly/black/looks like a Rottweiler/or [insert-adjective-here].


Yes, it’s true. Big black dogs inspire fear. We get that. But as veterinarians, we’re not usually biased against color or breed. We’ve got enough examples of friendly dogs of all breeds, colors, and sizes to rest our case on that front.


Instead, we’re usually reacting to clear warnings: stiff tail (with or without a wag), raised hackles, a cowering stance with other evidence of fear aggression, or an outright, leash-straining lunge, etc.


7. He doesn't like men.


Dr. Zeltzman says he’s only heard “he doesn’t like women” a couple of times in his career, whereas “he doesn’t like men” is a common utterance. And I agree with this observation.


While it’s indeed true that some pets are wary of male humans (either because of auditory cues, past experience, size, or lack of familiarity), the vast majority of these dogs can be helped — and should be.


8. She’s just mouthy.


Yeah, mouthy is one thing. But when she grabs our entire hand in her mouth just as we try to clip her nails... you’ve got a problem.


9. He’s just a talker.


Growly dogs and barkers are warning those who approach. Why would you not take that seriously as a sign of aggression?


10. She's just not that into you.


Yeah, of course. We’re the veterinarians. Most dogs don’t especially like us when we’re in our whites, even those who walk in with friendly looks on their faces and happy tail wags in tow. But that’s an explanation for her aggression... not an excuse to dismiss it.




Beyond what happens at the vet’s place, what scares us is that one day your dog could very well attack another pet. Veterinarians in general practice, veterinary surgeons, and ER vets see bite wounds on a regular basis. Well, guess what? 99% of canine biters are attached to pet owners who are in complete denial.


Even worse, one day your dog could attack a person, or a kid — yours or somebody else’s. Maybe all of the above sounds tongue-in-cheek, but here’s where the fun has to stop.


Physicians and ER doctors often see kids that have been seriously injured or disfigured because somewhere, someday, a dog owner decided to dismiss their dog’s problem as being funny or otherwise benign.


Then there's the impact on the individual dog to consider: How do you suppose these dogs who live with aggression feel? They're not happy dogs in most cases. They're stressed. And what do you suppose happens to them once they've acted out on a human? They're often killed, by law.


So what should you do once you’ve decided to accept reality?


1. Talk to your veterinarian. 


Some veterinarians are eager to help with behavioral issues, with or without drugs.


2. Talk to a trainer or a behaviorist. 


That’s their job and specialty. There are countless methods, which may or may not include whispering… “as seen on TV.”


Ultimately, help is out there. After all, we’re not talking cancer here, we’re talking about a condition that can be dramatically improved in the vast majority of cases. But that can't happen unless dog owners start dispensing with their denial. Let's hope this post helps.



Image: Jenn and Tony Bot / Flickr


Last reviewed on August 3, 2015