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Dog's aggressive behavior frightens owner

| Sunday, March 28, 2004

Dear Dog Talk: My sister referred me to your site in hope that you could help my situation. My dog's name is PJ. He is part German shepherd and part Labrador retriever. I didn't see his parents, but this is what I've been told.

I got PJ when he was 4 weeks old. His tail looks like it was either cut or broken off. My veterinarian said there is scar tissue around the end and that something obviously happened to it, but he didn't know specifically what.

PJ is now 20 months old, and I'm having such problems with him. He is extremely aggressive and has seriously bitten me twice. I just got him neutered and hoped that I would see some improvement in his behavior. He growls at me, then runs into his house and gets really vicious. He growls and barks, but he doesn't charge me. He hasn't always done this. It seems like in the past three or four months there has been an unfortunate change. I am frightened of him, and I'm contemplating having him "put down." I'm extremely desperate for some advice or suggestions and only want to use euthanasia as a last resort. He is so young and has just been neutered. Can you please give me some advice•

Dear Aggressive Dog Owner: Neutering sometimes helps dominance aggression with male dogs. It generally takes a few months for the benefits of the surgery to take effect. However, it sounds like PJ may have problems that go beyond "normal" dominance aggression.

PJ was taken away from his mother and littermates way too young. To be properly socialized, puppies need to interact with mother and littermates at least until they are 49 days (7 weeks) old. In many parts of the United States, it is state law that puppies cannot be sold or given away until they are at least 8 weeks old. I have heard from a lot of breeders who, for various good reasons, don't place their puppies until they are well beyond 8 weeks old.

Puppies that miss this critical period of socialization with their mothers and in the puppy pack develop a whole litany of personality traits that often result in behavioral problems. These puppies can be extremely shy and fearful with a potential for fear biting. They can be extremely dominant, never having learned how and when to be submissive. Dogs like this can be truly dangerous. Improperly socialized puppies also can be overtly submissive. They will urinate uncontrollably whenever people or other dogs greet them.

It is not possible through a letter for me to accurately diagnose your dog's personality. Even if I were there to evaluate PJ, I do not have the ability to stop his extremely aggressive behavior. Both a veterinary canine behaviorist and a dog trainer who is an expert in dealing with aggression problems should evaluate PJ. I am neither.

The reason that this behavior has surfaced in the last few months is because PJ is starting to develop his adult personality. Behavior that is subtle in young dogs, and sometime not seen at all by the untrained eye, becomes pronounced when dogs become adult. There is a possibility that it may become worse, too.

You are facing a tough situation. Putting a dog down, particularly a young dog, is always very difficult. However, your safety and the safety of people around you must be your first priority. Good luck; I wish you the best.

Dear Dog Talk: I read your column each week in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I have been meaning to comment on a column from awhile ago about the young dog that kept beating his tail on things. Many years ago a friend had a Great Dane pup that eventually broke its tail that way. The veterinarian called it "happy puppy disease." The dog's tail had to be cropped. I have always remembered this and thought it was interesting. I thought you'd think so too.

My own dog is a gorgeous 15-year-old black Labrador mix that I rescued as a puppy (with several littermates) from alongside a road. My Sundance is a big slice of heaven! Great to hear about your new pup Sophie (or is it Sophia?). Good luck with her. And thanks for the great column!

Dear Dog Tales: I have mixed emotions about your veterinarian's name for this problem. With a broken and bloody tail that eventually had to be cropped, "sad tail disease" might be more appropriate. However, thanks for taking the time to write and share the story. I'll bet Sundance is sweet and gorgeous! I hope that I'm saying the same thing about Miss Sophie in 15 years. Right now she is fresh and gorgeous. I hope that you continue enjoying the "Dog Talk" column.

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