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I am back at the hotel in Warwick, Rhode Island. The Aggression in Dogs Conference ended this afternoon and I’m contemplating everything we’ve seen and heard this weekend. The more I learn about training and dog behavior, the more it becomes clear to me what our role as trainers and animal care professionals should be.

Aggression is a symptom of a larger problem in the human-canine relationship. Aggression is a behavior, not a personality trait. It is a way of dealing with a situation when all other options have failed or we don’t know how else to respond.

We got to see some fascinating footage at the conference of street dogs, dogs that do not belong to anyone in particular, they are not pets, but they live around humans and are interacting with them. Often people living in their territory, like shopkeepers or tourist will feed them. It seems that these dogs are very skilled at observing and communicating and therefore conflicts with other dogs rarely get out of hand.

When we look at the history of dogs, we know that they were social animals, hunting in groups, that started to live around human settlements. Their lives become more intertwined with humans, who started to influence their breeding to reinforce and take advantage of certain traits of the dogs that would be of benefit in guarding, hunting, herding and plenty of other tasks.

But we don’t live like that anymore. We have daytime jobs, our dogs are kept inside our houses. After work we want to relax and we expect our dogs to do the same thing. The dogs are often not offered an outlet for their natural behaviors.

We all have certain preconceived notions of what a dog is, how he should behave, what he should do for us. He shouldn’t be barking, he should be friendly to everyone he meets, human or canine. He should listen to us and do as we say. He shouldn’t pull on a leash, he shouldn’t jump on us. He should come when called. But why should dogs listen to us? Do we know what the dog is feeling, how he perceives his surroundings? Do we recognize what he is communicating? Do we know his needs?

What do we know about our dog’s breed background? Is your dog a guard dog, a herding dog, a hunting dog? Can we offer the dog specific activities or enrichment to fulfill his specific needs?

As animal care professionals, our mission is to help educate, to show that dogs are intelligent, conscious beings, that dogs have emotions. To help owners cement a healthy relationship, we have to educate about the physical, mental and emotional needs of dogs; educate about where dogs came from and therefor how to see the world and what is meaningful to them; to offer humane and respectful training with realistic expectations and show how through enrichment and fun activities people can help prevent, stress, boredom and frustration. By knowing your dog and being their guardian, you can make sure that he is not exposed to things that are uncomfortable or scary, by having realistic expectations you can make sure you set your dog up for success. All these things go a long way in preventing aggression. We can create a more harmonious world for humans and dogs.

Dirk Broersma