This is going to be a long entry, so I’m breaking it up into two parts. This first part consists of explanations and definitions, as well as common problems and trouble shooting, and commands your dog must know. The second part will consist of every day care for a dog with congenital issues.
First, some definitions. Anything “congenital” means the dog was born with it. Congenital heart failure means there was a defect in the heart when the dog was born, and now it’s finally causing heart failure. Congenital IBD would be a dog born with irritable bowel syndrome (which I’ve never heard of in congenital form, but I’m sure exists.)
When referring to mental, behavioral, or emotional problems, congenital usually means that something in the dog’s brain is hardwired wrong, or the chemistry is unbalanced due to genetic factors. It doesn’t mean the dog is hopeless, anymore than I am with my ADD, clinical depression, panic disorder, and anxiety disorder. (ADD means the biology of my brain is actually different than those without ADD/ADHD, while the rest are currently believed to be chemistry imbalance issues.) Some types of seizures can cause brain damage, leading to, essentially, a congenital disorder, as can brain injury or trauma.
Because we don’t typically do autopsies on dog’s brains, they can’t tell us really what’s happening in there, and MRIs, CT scans, and fMRIs are only started to be used and are cost prohibitive, we know even less about what’s happening in dog brains than we do in human brains. Right now, the big signal that a problem is congenital rather than learned is the age of the dog when the problem crops up. If someone tells me their puppy is depressed, anxious, manic (a form of high-energy anxiety, technically called “hyper-arousal”), or aggressive before 6 months of age, that’s going to raise red flags. (You’ll be glad to know that the vast majority of the time the behavior is still within the norm, if not what an owner has dealt with before!)
Congenital problems are VERY rare. Of the hundreds of dogs I see, perhaps 1% of them have congenital problems, while the rest simply need structure, better coping skills, or a little work. Congenital aggression is the one most commonly seen, simply because it’s the most threatening one. Someone with a dog whose congenital issues lean toward anxiety is more likely not to notice, not to realize they can get help for it, or treat it themselves/with their vet with varying degrees of success. Once a dog starts attacking or biting people or dogs, though, that’s when someone like me is typically called in.
There isn’t a lot of research on dogs with congenital issues, so what I talk about here is gleaned from experience, instead. Please note: if you suspect you have a dog with congenital issues, seek professional help. Don’t read this and try things out.
Since the most common thing I see is congenital aggression, we’re going to talk about that. Common themes in dogs with CA are reacting aggressively without much warning, aggression dramatically more intense than expected or warranted, aggression that gets exponentially worse when met with a consequence (even a “no!” or a squirt bottle), aggression that doesn’t back down, aggression toward unexpected triggers, and extreme anxiety/depression/apology from the dog once the moment is over.
This sounds like a pretty terrifying thing, and it is. What’s more, it’s just as terrifying to the dog. Because these dogs almost always start cowering after the fact, sometimes so much as to run away or pee themselves, even when no one has ever done anything to them, I think of these moments as dog panic attacks. The dogs act as if they, themselves, are afraid of what just happened to them, and they cannot control it in the moment.
“Why would anyone keep a dog like this?” I hear you cry.
Because these dogs, like all dogs, are sweet, cuddly, lovable, face-licking, tail wagging members of someone’s family. If this happens once every six months, and the rest of the time your dog is wonderful, you aren’t going to say, “This dog deserves to die.” For many people, it’s like having a kid with an emotional disorder who, unexpectedly, strikes out at classmates, friends, and family. You don’t give up on the kid, especially if the rest of the time the kid is a dog providing unconditional love.
On the other hand, some people do put these dogs down. The dogs are too aggressive or dangerous, or the dogs are miserable. That is never the wrong answer, either. I had to make that call with Champ, when he became both dangerous and miserable, and sometimes it’s the right call to make.
Either way, you’re doing the right thing.
Now that we’ve covered “Why wouldn’t you put that dog down?!” as well as, “How could anyone put a dog down for any reason?!”, hopefully we can move on. (Any comments disparaging the choices people make will be deleted. These are hard enough things to deal with without strangers who are unaware of the full situation layering on shame.)
Here’s the thing: you can’t change the dog’s wiring. You might be able to help his brain chemistry. While you NEVER want to use a sedative on a dog with aggression issues (it can mute their warning signs without muting the aggression, which means an attack will come out of seemingly nowhere), there are medications currently that can help. That’s too long a topic to handle here, but you should talk to your vet.
When dealing with a CA dog, not starting a fight is important. I’m usually a big believer in rewarding good behavior and having consequences for bad behavior (often a squirt bottle, noise maker, or body blocking), but when a consequence could lead to uncontrolled aggression and/or a fight, it’s best to leave it out.
CA dogs need more command training. Since we can’t have a consequence for a naughty behavior, we need to have an alternative instead.
So, if your CA dog’s trigger is your sock, and you come out of the kitchen to see that he has your sock under the table, and you know that if you try to walk past, much less take it away, he’ll go into attack mode, then you need an alternate command. “Come!” is a great one. “Sit,” and “Stay” are musts. Will she be able to hold those commands if she sees you head for “her” sock? Maybe not, so you want to be able to have your dog stay around a corner, out of sight. In the above scenario, you walk away from the sock, back into the kitchen. Grab several dog treats. Call, “Come!” Add your sit when your dog arrives, giving a treat each time. Tell them to stay, leave the kitchen, pick up the sock and put it away, and then release your dog. She’ll probably go examine where “her” sock was and, because these dogs seem to be more obsessive than others, be reactive around the space for a few minutes while she looks for it. This is the time to just give her her space, or distract her with a toy or fun, reward-based command practice until she forgets her previous prize.
Some CA dogs are possessive (and then aggressive) around items, as above. Others can be possessive around space. A dog who doesn’t want anyone near their bed, for instance, and will lunge at anyone who gets close to it, needs different treatment. Sometimes adding multiple beds will help, so they don’t feel the need to guard one; there’s always another. Other times tossing the current bed and getting a whole new one, in a different spot, helps more. If the latter, start right from the beginning sitting in the bed with your dog; bring it into the house, do NOT draw your dog’s attention to it, put it down, and sit in it. When your dog comes over to examine it, praise and love on them and let them join you (in your lap, if needed). From then on, sit in it periodically so it remains a “shared” bed.
If the problem is guarding a space/location in the house, the best way to fix it is to re-allocate the space. If it’s a corner, put a potted plant there. The center of the room? Toss your laundry there for a few days, preferably when no guests are coming over! Anything to change the scenery and make your dog think twice. Even if you can only do this for a few days, it will help break their obsession and lessen their need to defend that space.
Another technique for guarding items, spaces, and food is to change the dog’s emotional state around it. If your dog frequently guards the space under the table and attacks from beneath, then walk near enough so he doesn’t attack, toss a treat without speaking or looking, and keep going. Do it again. Then again. And again. Most dogs take no time at all to be excited to see someone approaching the table, because they know a treat is incoming. Decrease the space needed, and keep doing it.
A CA dog isn’t “most dogs,” but treats for non-reaction will still change their emotions around people approaching. They will probably need more frequent reminders and longer training sessions to write over their brain glitching, but it can be done.
Two other commands I frequently use in a situation where the dog is either guarding a specific location or simply guarding themselves (such as a dog who doesn’t want to be moved once they’ve laid down) are “come,” used just as above with an item, and “go on,” so that if the dog is sitting, say, on my lap and I’m worried, I can order them away. Teaching “go on” is pretty simple; hold a treat so your dog knows you have it, toss it away with a pointing arm gesture, and say, “Go on.” Your dog will dive for it. A few repetitions of that, and they’re diving for the area you gestured toward pretty quickly. Reinforce occasionally with food.
The other useful command for any situation is to teach your dog a “bed” or “place” command. If they’re aggressive over food and you drop something, a quick, “Place!” will have them dashing off, to be rewarded in a moment — after you’ve picked up your egg roll. If your dog, quicker than you, managed to grab the egg roll and is now in his place eating it, then your “come,” “sit,” and “stay” commands might just save the day. Even tricks to distract your dog and get them thinking about something else can be helpful.
I once worked with a dog who refused to let me out of the bathroom after I’d gone in, the very first day we met. His owners were too afraid to try and make him move, knowing that touching him could trigger a fight response. With the cheeriest voice I could summon, I said, “Hi, big guy! Sit!”
A little confused, he did. I tossed him a treat. He stood up to eat it, and I asked him to sit again in the same, cheery voice. After he’d sat and been rewarded a few times, he was no longer defending from me, but instead interested in listening to me. I’d changed the situation. I was then able to walk forward, give him a big pet, and we left the bathroom hall together, calmly. If he hadn’t known how to sit, that could have gone very differently.
It’s tempting to feel hurt, angry, or frustrated when your dog switches into one of these modes. Don’t. This is your dog’s brain glitching; they are not making a conscious choice to be aggressive, any more than I make a conscious choice to have a panic attack in the middle of Target. They’re probably locked in the back of their minds thinking, “Something’s wrong with me, and I don’t know what or understand what’s happening!” Take a breath and give them compassion. Always feed back love; feeding back fear or aggression will only tell them something’s wrong, which will create further stress and more brain glitching.
Hopefully, this gives you someplace to start. Next: helping them manage stress, reduce glitches, and stay safe.