Taking one look at the title, you may assume I'm here to talk about bull dogs and their related breeds. The truth is, any dog can have a bully personality, dependent on environment, conditioning, and disposition. I'm here to talk about what causes 'bully behavior' in dogs and what we can do about it.
To begin, I'd like to touch a little bit on the terms "dominance" and "aggression" in dogs. Often, these words are used to describe a dog that is just misbehaved. "Dominance" refers to a relationship between individuals, whether they be canine or otherwise. When one of these individuals consistently concedes to wishes or demands of the other, "dominance" is established in favor of the party conceded to. Unruly attitudes in canines are often mislabeled as "dominant" when really we're just dealing with unruly, or even "spoiled rotten" personalities.
In establishing who gets senior access to different resources like food, toys, attention/affection or even simply the best spot on the couch, what we commonly call "aggression" can develop between individual dogs, and between dogs and their owners. The question then follows:
When does this behavior start?
When dogs are puppies, they are often treated like tiny, furry, wet-nosed royalty. We heap affection upon them for doing absolutely nothing but being cute. We proffer food in their direction on demand. They have VIP access to the furniture. We buy them more toys than we have pairs of socks, and we've given so many different treats that their volume alone takes up the space of an entire cupboard.
As much as we want to give our dogs the best lives possible, this level of comfort and enjoyment causes most dogs to become spoiled and as a result, quite poorly behaved. In and of itself, provided we're willing to pull back on the treats and institute a regular, consistent schedule of good manners and household rules, we can get our dogs back on track in no time. Right?
Well, not always. For dogs with more rapacious personalities, this lifestyle, bereft of firm leadership and consistently reinforced rules, creates a fuzzy monster-in-disguise. This dog becomes master of literally any and all resources s/he wants, from furniture to toys, food and treats, certain rooms in the house, the people who live in the house, guests, and in extreme cases, the entire territory of the household. These dogs are tyrants in your home, wreaking havoc with their behavior and leaving you feeling out of control.
It is extremely important to note that the vast majority of what are often termed “aggressive” cases we deal with as dog trainers fall in three categories: 1) dogs that are possessive over a single resource (resource-guarding) 2) dogs that are capricious due to a lack of leadership and consistent rules (confused dogs) (3) dogs that have been physically or verbally reprimanded by an owner who, for whatever reason, was unable to provide alternative behavior and as such, the dog simply doesn't know what to do.
How do we know if I'm dealing with a bully of a dog?
The first sign will come from the dog's body language. S/he will show great confidence, and his/her physical positioning in relation to other dogs, resources, and/or people will tell the story.
You'll notice that the dog will be bark and bite/snap over resources like food, toys, locations and in the most serious cases, people (both known and unknown).
The last and biggest tell your dog will give you are rapid, unpredictable changes in behavior. This kind of indicator you simply cannot ignore. One minute your dog will be lying at your feet, happy as a clam. The next, s/he has charged your roommate and taken a three inch strip off his pant leg. These changes in behavior happen lightning-fast and often before you are able to react.
If your dog is exhibiting any of these behaviors, please consult with a professional trainer or animal behaviorist right away. The sooner you address these behaviors with your dog, the sooner you'll have the tools and skills necessary to manage and largely extinguish it. Please see why-things-seem-to-get-worse-before-they-get-better.html for information on the nature of behavioral conditioning, extinction bursts, and spontaneous recovery.
So we've established whether or not we have a simply spoiled, unruly dog on our hands, or a bully of a dog. What do we do now?
As humans, we have a wonderful faculty that we just don't utilize as much as we should: our brains. In the case of bully dogs, we use our smarts, not our physical power, to regain control of what can often be a potentially dangerous situation. It requires a wide-reaching approach that will simultaneously change the dog's entire demeanor.
To start, we'll want to regain control of all resources that trigger a battle. Food, furniture, toys, you name it, you control your dog's access to it. Only relinquish access to these items, places, and things when your dog offers a polite, wanted behavior. Ideally something you've put on cue, like "Sit", or "Down". By doing this, we'll inform our dogs that the way of things is one of "order and predictability". When our dog wants something, they just have to sit or lay down politely to receive it on our say-so. At first, you'll want to reward your dog right away for these wanted behaviors. Once your dog has the idea, offer these rewards on a variable or unpredictable schedule (not every time!), so that your dog doesn't always expect something for good behavior.
You'll be amazed at how rapidly your dog's attitude flips, particularly if you're able to make all of these changes at the same time. Once your dog gets the picture, the tremendous weight of trying to be "the boss" will be lifted, and s/he'll get back to being what s/he is - a great dog that's fun to be around, a pleasure to have in house and home, and a cherished member of the family.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.