Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast
My niece walking my 110 pound Rottweiler, Mickey, many years ago. Mickey would normally drag anyone walking her, but she just knew to be gentle with my niece.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Precarious Preconceptions

The other day I learned, yet again, about another incident involving an aggressive dog.  It was a dog-on-dog incident, and in the end, one dog required a trip to the emergency veterinary hospital to have her ear stitched up.  The situation was not uncommon, but it was startling in that the attack was truly unprovoked and was an ambush.

What’s most surprising is that these dogs have known each other for almost four years and have been on countless walks together.  In fact, according to those involved, the dogs had just completed an almost hour long walk during which the victim, a spayed female, had walked next to the aggressor, a neutered male of similar size, for almost the entire walk.  For the purpose of reporting this story, I’ll refer to the female dog as Moxy and the male as Jack.

The attack took place at the end of the walk.  Approaching the house where Jack lives, the owners of the dogs wanted to see what Moxy would do when she saw some inflated Halloween decorations near the front door.  The group walked up to the decorations and Moxy looked at them, a little on edge.  Jack was turned around facing Moxy, but off to her side.
In an instant, Jack latched onto Moxy’s head in a violent assault.  Moxy was blind-sided by the attack, which lasted a couple seconds before both owners could pull the dogs apart.  Moxy had a serious injury to the side of her head and ear, and she was taken to the emergency vet for treatment that required sedation and many stitches. 

Both owners were mortified by the incident, and Jack’s owner is making efforts to correct the issue.  The unfortunate aspect of this story is that it’s just another example that can be used to misconstrue how some breeds are more predisposed to aggression than others.  You see, one of the dogs was a Rottweiler, the other was a Golden Retriever.

* * *

Now be honest, when you learned the dogs’ breeds, did you automatically assume that the aggressor was the Rottweiler?  If so, then you are guilty of having precarious preconceptions about dog breeds.  Because the truth of the matter is that the aggressor was the Golden Retriever, the victim was the Rottweiler.  In fact, it was my Rottweiler, Carly, this past Saturday evening.
Carly's stitched up wounds while still under sedation.
Yes, I presented this situation in a veiled manner to prove a point.  We all are guilty of being prejudiced in one form or another.  With dogs, this prejudice is a result of our own personal experience but also, predominantly, it is skewed by the media in both news and entertainment.  How often has a news story covered a vicious dog attack and shown a stock graphic of a snarling Rottweiler or Pit-Bull only to find out the dog was some arbitrary mix? 

In over twenty years of rescue work and serving as an expert witness and instructor on canine behavior, I’ve seen aggression show up in every breed.  A friend of mine who worked in animal control for many years in a town of over 80,000 shared that retrievers were one of the main breeds implicated in dog bite incidents.  Does this mean that retrievers are naturally aggressive?  No more so than any other breed. 

The reason for the high number of bite incidents, based on my experience, is twofold:

  • First, the breed with the most bite incidents are almost always the most popular and numerous in that geographic area.
  • Second, the dogs with the aggression issues are almost always owned by people who, though aware of the problem, put in little to no effort to correct it.  

Recognizing and acknowledging those two realities, it becomes clear that aggression is not a breed issue but a human issue.

So where do we get these precarious preconceptions?  Emotions.  Media outlets are masters at playing on emotions—hooking your emotions ultimately translates into higher ratings and ad sales.
Sometimes those emotions are tied to past events.  An attack as a child by a specific breed of dog can leave a terrible emotional scar.  For me, the first time I was bitten was by a Golden Retriever when I was five.  I was playing in a friend’s front yard when the dog approached.  I did what I was taught in school.  I let him sniff my hand, and when I saw his tail wag I knew he was friendly (a fallacy that is, sadly, still taught).  When I reached to pet the dog’s head, he bit my face.  Thankfully there was no permanent damage and I don’t hold this incident against the breed.

What is interesting is that when I talk with someone who has a prejudice towards a particular breed of dog, the first thing I notice is how emotional they are about the topic. 

Now please don’t take this wrong, but I need to let you in on a little secret.  Emotions make us stupid.  More specifically, the more emotional I am, the less rational I become.  That’s just biochemistry.  Strong emotions limit our ability to access the rational part of our brains.  Thus, emotions make us stupid. 

So, if I’m chatting with someone, and the topic of Pit-Bulls comes up, and that individual becomes suddenly enraged, I know that trying to rationalize with them is a wasted effort, at least while they are so charged up.  The time to address prejudices is not when you or the other person is stuck in the heat of an emotion, but only when both parties are able to look at the facts of the matter.

A great example of this occurred in January 2009 when a state legislator tried to introduce a bill that would ban “Pit-Bull type dogs”.  As you might imagine, there were a lot of very emotional people both for and against this bill, with the majority falling in the latter category.  People in western culture are, after all, very emotional about their pets.  

With standing room only, I was one of a handful of people allowed to testify before the subcommittee.  The man who spoke before me, a representative of the Humane Society of the United States and a dear friend, gave an excellent presentation on the fallacies of identifying a dog’s breed type based on appearance.  He showed that it would be nearly impossible logistically and financially to test dogs and classify them as “Pit-Bulls”. 

When my turn came, I stood before the committee, looked at my notes, and realized that I couldn’t use them.  I understood the focus of my notes was all about breeds and the misconception that some are more aggressive than others.  Instead, I improvised and made my presentation on the true heart of the problem: the owners. 

Dog aggression is not a breed problem.  It is a human problem.  Over 30,000 years of cohabitation between humans and canines shows that dogs are amazingly forgiving and show considerable restraint with regard to aggression stemming from their natural instincts.  Over my entire life I’ve seen nearly every breed of dog show some form of extreme aggression.  The problem always goes back to the numbers of breeds in an area, the culture of the people that own them, and whether that regional culture is one that has a shared positive value for human and canine lives or not.  People who don’t value and respect the human-canine bond, well, those are the ones that create the conditions for high rates of aggression in particular breeds.  Improvising as I did at the subcommittee hearing, I tried my best to explain this issue.  Thankfully they were not emotional about the topic and listened to reason, killing the bill.

So back to the original topic.  Do you have precarious preconceptions regarding particular dog breeds?  If so, ask yourself why?  I know for me, having worked with as many dogs as I have, I can say that all dogs have the potential for aggression.  The responsibility is always on humans to be aware of that potential and make constant daily choices to mitigate the risk. 

The world is full of horrific examples of precarious preconceptions towards specific dog breeds.  Let’s all take a deep breath, let the emotional charge dissipate, and base our biggest decisions on facts.  To solve canine aggression issues, we need to look at and calmly address the base behaviors of the individual animal and not write off the breed as a whole. 

Troy Kechely is the author of two novels that portray the transformative power of animal-human connections.  To learn more about the author, and to order Stranger’s Dance and Lost Horse Park, visit


  1. I enjoyed this article very much. I have a very long diverse interest in dogs, dog work, and dog sports. I have seen hundreds of dogs decide to bite and in dissecting the events, I have come to only one conclusion. Dogs bite because they think they have to. It is an ever present option. It is the task of every owner to make responsible choices with, and for their dogs. Education is critical to safely managing the lifetime of, "that which you have tamed".
    Donna Cook, Owner of Diamond Dog, Boarding, Grooming, Training.

    1. Donna,
      I'm glad this post was enjoyed by you. As I taught for years to shelter workers, animal control, and law enforcement officers, all dogs have the potential to bite. You just have to know what button to push. The dog will always be a dog and when under stress, react with base instincts. The responsibility for managing those behaviors falls on us, the humans. Feel free to share this with anyone who might benefit from it.