Why Aggression in Bulldogs And Other Flat-Face, Brachycephalic Breeds (French Bulldogs, Pugs, Etc.)

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Have you ever raced up to a bully breed only to have it stiffen up, turn away or lunge at you. Love a bully but wonder why they suddenly adopted stranger danger and visitor violence at about a year of age?  I have some insights that might help.  First I'd like you to meet a friend of mine.  His name is Sal.

Monday morning came, and I couldn’t wait to see Sal!  

Sal is one of my square-faced, saddle back puppy clients - a sweet, chubby faced bulldog who I almost packed up in my training bag when it came time to leave. 

But wait! Seven months had passed since our puppy series ended.

Sal isn't a pudgy, roly-poly pup anymore. Sal is a big adolescent boy. And true to adolescents of all species, it not a pretty time. Although he is as cute as ever!

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While all young dogs do something naughty, tree the neighbor's cat, dig up the flower garden, or eat the couch, Sal had just started to lunge and bark at people who approached him. Aggression in the dog world is a four letter word.  

Hmmm, I thought. What's happening here? I had them detail the episodes on the Who’s Your Doggy online form.

Sal's parent's reported that up until two weeks ago Sal was his happy go lucky self. Although he'd been a shy puppy, he was more confident thanks to his cheerful puppy outings. 

Then, two weeks ago, on his 13-month-old birthday, he flew into a rage and lunged at a parking attendant who reached out to pet him. This seemed to signal a turning point, and since then Sal is on guard while on walks outside his NYC apartment and less engaging when people ask to meet him. He lunged at three more people who approached to greet him.

To his family, friends and familiar fans, Sal's reaction is out of character and worrisome. "What gives, Sarah - can you help us?" they wrote.  

"Yes, I can," I promised. "Thankfully it's neither an unusual or complex behavior." I had a good feeling of what was going on. "It's the Adolescence Brain Scramble Syndrome, where personality and breed specific tendencies collide. You're doing the right thing in getting a handle on it immediately.” I reassured them.  

Before the day was out Sal's family had filled out the paperwork  and pre-paid for a consultation and my week-long Day Training program. They were facing their troubles head on!  

So, here is what I discovered during our first consultation. (Stay tuned for Sal's progress as I continue to film his rehabilitation and recovery!)

1) Sal had been a shy puppy. We worked on  to help him feel more excited in public situations. Sal and his family loved my approach. Sal continues to play with everyone at the dog park and is overjoyed to play with his ball and tug toy with whoever walks in the door.

2) While I recommended puppy school to socialize Sal on a leash, his family got busy and put it off. They figured (as many puppy lovers do) that since they had invested in my lessons and socialized him in the neighborhood, that was good enough. (In a moment, however, you'll see how that weighs into the problem.)

3) At home, Sal enjoys free reign and endless love! Nothing is off limits in Sal's well stocked, over-sized "dog" house. Sounds great, right?  Who could ask for anything more? But dogs are a lot like kids: both need to learn patience, respect, and boundaries. Without those Golden Rules, dogs (like kids) can be annoying.

Poor Sal! No one had taken the time to teach him to be a respectable boy. Fortunately, it wasn't too late!

4) The one thing I had known before I made my house call, I knew without being told as it's so common, is that all the incidents happened while Sal was on a leash. Leashes bring out the worst in dogs. 

During Sal's puppy training series we worked hands-off and leash free. He was the poster child for my Head Start Puppy Program, targeted at puppies from 8 weeks to 4 month-old: enthusiastically responding to each word we taught him from Sit & Come, to Belly Up & Wipe Your Paws.

By 4-months of age, a puppy should be leash trained and learn to walk calmly without pulling. If a leash is only used when leading a dog from point a-to-point-b, dogs like Sal can get testy when suddenly forced to walk against their will.  

Imagine how you'd feel if I secured a leash to your shirt collar or necklace and dragged you around with me?  

I suggested we put the leash on Sal and watch his reaction.  

BAM!! Just what I thought - Sal's stubby tail, dropped, his ears pinned back and he began to jump and bite at our hands and the leash.

"See" I exclaimed," that's the reaction I hoped for! The leash upsets him. His brain floods with cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline floods his system (liken it to someone holding you tight). The problem starts here - on a leash, he feels like a prisoner (my words and imagery here, not science based in any way).”

Now for the ultimate clincher- the reason why Sal has started lunging at people. 

5) Two Very Important Facts of Flat Faced Breeds and the real reason so many brachycephalic dogs show aggression during adolescence. It has a lot to do with strained vision, from the chronic eye conditions that can lead to constant pain and irritation as well as the wide placement of the eyes on their head.  (Resource: http://www.ufaw.org.uk/dogs/english-bulldog-brachycephalic-ocular-syndrome)

a) Sal would shy away from head pats. Few dogs like people’s head-cracking shows of affection, but many dogs learn to accept it.  Not Sal.  He jumped up during greetings to avoid it or ducked away from eagerly outstretched hands.  A lot people are stupid, though.  Instead of respecting a dog’s posture they stomp forward like Frankenstein, both hands outstretched in their determination to make physical contact (even when a dog is clearly trying to avoid them)! 

b) The reason he shies away, however, goes deeper than just a bad experience or two. Sal, like all other flat faced dogs, has wide-spaced eyes, more like horses. Although their eyes focus together, what is known a binocular vision) they have a narrow field of vision leading to a larger blind spot directly in front of their face.  Imagine that!  Put yourself in their paws. 

Suddenly Sal's parent's faces lit up :it's the ah-ha moments every trainer lives for! So that's the reason Sal doesn't welcome outstretched hands! He can't see them.  

Mix Sal's visual stress, with a strained leash hold, with a total stranger approaching at full speed and you can understand Sal's reaction  

I'm still working with Sal, using my signature Sarah solutions that are more fast paced and exciting than you might imagine. Promise me you'll tune in next week for part two of Sal & his terribly annoying Blind Spot!  And meanwhile, share your stories and join in the conversation!  


Sarah Hodgson