|My rather innocent looking Rottweilers, Taz and Mickey.
It is said that hindsight is always the clearest and that is true in this case. That period was a harsh learning curve for me and almost ended my ownership of Rottweilers. Still, by addressing the problem, rather than giving up, I not only kept both dogs for their full lives, but I also learned skills that helped me become an expert witness on canine aggression and bite behavior. It is fair to say that period in my life was so close to being a disaster for both me and my dogs, and I now want to ensure that others don’t experience the same.As part of Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue, myself and other trainers regularly offer free training advice to people who are struggling with their dog’s behaviors. This advice is oftentimes the last resort before the dog has to be put down or placed for adoption. Consults are usually performed by phone call or email, so what help we can offer is limited but we do the best we can, and I like to think that it has helped to keep a lot of dogs within their families and in society’s good graces.
The most common issues we receive requests for help on are cases in which the dog is being overly protective of territory and/or pack members, which includes the humans. Without question, the majority of these incidents occur in dogs between the ages of one and three, or as we in the rescue business say, the terrible twos (in reference to the two-year stretch where negative behaviors are most likely to materialize). Unlike a human toddler, these terrible twos are not about saying ‘no’ to everything; these are more in line with the tumultuous, and often rebellious, teen years in humans. You see, given the manner in which dogs age, their teenage years fall within that one to three-year range. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t exactly a shining angel of good behavior when I was a teen. Like most, I was rebellious and sometimes a bit violent. Though not positive behaviors, these are expected and predictable behaviors as this is the period in development in which the person or dog is trying to figure out where they stand in the world or in their pack --yes, humans operate on a pack system, much like dogs, but that is a topic for another blog. With Rottweilers, in particular, this behavior often manifests itself in alpha behaviors which include territorial protection, possession aggression, pack member protection, and various dominance based behaviors. The behavior of pack member protection, alone, has been the basis of three phone calls I’ve received in the last two months. Each call was from a person who had owned dogs previously or had owned a Rottweiler that was ‘perfect’ but now had a 100+ pound male Rottweiler who was becoming very aggressive towards guests and strangers. Each dog had been neutered and had some rudimentary obedience training but was now becoming a liability to the home.
In each of these phone calls, I first listened to the full explanation of the dog’s history and behavior, including the triggers for the negative behaviors. After confirming that what the dog was doing was not extreme, I said one thing before addressing training recommendations.
“Your dog is normal, and though the behavior looks bad it can be fixed.”
That one statement sets the tone for all that follows. You see, back in 1996 when I was thinking my dogs were demon-possessed monsters beyond my control, I would have loved to have someone explain to me that what my dogs were doing was, indeed, normal, not acceptable but normal. I had to learn that fact on my own over many years of study, so I want people to know that pivotal truth right from the start. Each time I said that line, I could hear the relief in the caller. You see, by the time we are called for help, we’re typically the last resort before either placing the dog in rescue or euthanizing it. It is an encouragement for clients to hear that what their dog is displaying is not unusual behavior, but instead correctable behavior, and it is an encouragement I wish I had received back in 1996.
After issuing this reassurance, I delve into the basics of pack structure and how the dog is testing where they are within the pack structure. Some breeds are more forgiving in this process, and their teenage rebellion is limited to mild stubbornness. For Rottweilers, though, the rebellion can appear a bit more intense. The reason for this is simple: Rottweilers don’t believe in a power vacuum. Either you are in charge or they are. Problems erupt when the dog doesn’t see anyone in the pack as being alpha. For a Rottweiler, this won’t do, and given their dominant nature they will assume the leadership position. This is where the aggressive behavior takes root. Alpha is the defender of the pack. My job as a trainer is to help the human take back their leadership role. Once the transfer of power occurs, it is amazing how quickly the behavior of the dog improves. Dogs simply like to know where they are in the pack, and it is our job to establish the hierarchy.
During the calls, I do emphasis that this isn’t a quick fix and will take time and consistent, effective training. I often recommend that they enroll the dog in a good obedience course with an instructor that understands difficult dogs, such as my friends Ron Murray, Angie McDunn, Davina Schoen, and Ben Donoghue. The good news is that if the owners can stay true to the training and get the dog past three years of age, then their hardest work will be done, just as in raising a teenager. As my dad told my stepmom when they were dealing with some teen issues with my step-brother, “We just need to keep him alive until he reaches eighteen.”
This may seem a simplistic view but it is accurate. As parents of a teen one must do their best, through guidance and discipline, to help their child through the tumultuous teen years. It is the same with a dog, and especially so with a Rottweiler. Thankfully, the teenage years of a Rottweiler are mostly limited to the terrible two -year stretch. It takes a lot of work but it is so worth it in the end.
In closing, I do want to clarify that once you’re through the terrible twos, the training doesn’t end. Remember, Rottweilers don’t believe in a power vacuum, either you are in charge or they are. They are one of those breeds that will look at you daily and ask “Are you alpha?”
So, just as I told each of those callers, when dealing with unwanted behaviors in their dog, put on your ‘Alpha Bitch’ t-shirt and take charge. Don’t be harsh or cruel, but be consistent in setting rules and enforcing them. The dog wants this; it wants the structure of a stable pack and it is up to us to provide it if we want ourselves and our dogs to survive the terrible twos.