Border Collie Aggression

I am a new owner (2 months) of a wonderful BC puppy. He's 16 weeks old now and just the smartest thing going. I became nervous from reading about aggression. My pup doesn't show any aggressive signs at all at the present. Will this just "appear" at a later date? Does this extremely intense and aggressive behavior reveal itself when the animal is young?

Aggression, like any other behavior, is a complex trait and it is not easy to point to a singular cause or path of development. Don't assume that if your dog is aggressive, it is caused by "X". That's why evaluations are done as a whole, not simply by describing a single instance. Patterns of behavior, background, socialization, early puppyhood, etc.

Aggression, like other behaviors, is controlled by genes and the environment (the old "nature" vs. "nurture"). Temperament of a dog is founded upon the genetic makeup of a pup, as traits of personality are inherited from the parent lines. This is why it is so important to consider temperament when breeding dogs. Some dogs are just genetically predisposed to aggression or other temperament problems. If the parents were aggressive, the odds are much higher that the pups will be aggressive (though not guaranteed). Often this can be overcome through lots of hard work and socialization but the point is - why start from a disadvantage? Some dogs have wonderful genetic temperament lines and no matter how much you screw up their development, they come out of it with wonderful personalities. You'd be amazed at what some of our rescue dogs come from in their background (no socialization with humans or dogs, being beaten, being psychologically tortured, etc.) and yet, through it all, end up as wonderfully tempered dogs in spite of their upbringing, not because of it.

Other dogs may have the best upbringing in the world and yet end up aggressive, again in spite of their owner's best intentions. There are even some dogs (though in my opinion it is very rare) that are so genetically predisposed to aggression and violence, that it's not worth the effort to rehabilitate them. So not only should you be asking to see the parents' OFA and CERF certificates but you should also ask to play with the dogs. Even tempered dogs generally produce even tempered pups. Don't accept a pup from parents that are aggressive - even slightly aggressive.

Then there is the environmental aspect of aggressive behavior. Some dogs are aggressive because of improper or poor socialization. This is one of the easiest ways to get yourself in trouble with a dog. Pups must remain with their littermates and mothers until around 8 weeks of age. This exposure is critical to their development and allows them to learn the rules of "doggie society", which makes for dogs that are good with other dogs. It is important to continue dog socialization beyond the age of 4 months to maintain, further develop, and foster these types of interactions - socialization is a lifetime process - but those first weeks are so very necessary. Even though the pups may be physically capable of leaving their mothers at a much earlier age, they are not socially prepared. Weaning is not the only indicator of preparedness.

The other critical period for pups is between the ages of 2 and 4 months. This is when the all-important human socialization comes about. It is during this time when pups are learning that humans are fellow "packmembers" and are developing their rules of the road in dealing with humans. Puppies not exposed to human interaction during this period grow up distrusting humans and seeing them as potential threats, not equivalent species. They must be exposed to lots of humans as well, so they learn to generalize the idea to all humans, not just their immediate housemembers. Again, some dogs can be terribly socialized and come through it fine but it is the exception, not the rule. Abuse during this critical period is the most devastating factor in a dog's human socialization and often any attempts to rectify this beyond the age of 4 months are futile. This is why you should NEVER EVER strike a puppy for any reason (not that you should do it to older dogs either) but one swat at this point may come back to haunt you for the rest of the dog's life. It must be only love and more love, with the occassional growl and direct stare. Punishment in any form at this point is unnecessary and most likely destructive. Aggression at this point may not be evident in any manner but will surface later on, when the dog is physically capable of backing up its distrust in humans.

You probably won't see any aggression at this point in a puppy's life (2-4 months) because the puppy is just too small to make it count at all. But several months later, when the dog reaches a more impressive size, the nightmares of improper socialization and poor genetic temperaments begin. Choices made early on will affect your relationship with your dog far into the future. Choice of the dog's breeding (which lines it came from, the temperament of those lines, etc., etc.) and early puppy socialization (when the puppy was removed from the litter, treatment of the pup, etc.) will surface anywhere from 6 months to 2 years later. This is, by the way, when most dogs are turned over to rescue. This is also when the dog is sorting out the pack hierarchy and any allowances for improper hierarchies must be corrected or else they will come back to bite you (literally) later on. The pack hierarchy must be: adult humans -> children -> dog. No deviations from this order must be accepted. It is far easier to modify a snooty pup's attempt to eleveate their hierachial position over someone than to correct it when the dog is full-grown. If the hierarchy isn't in this order when the dog reaches a bigger physical size, you're in for some troublesome episodes. You don't need to beat a puppy to make it understand its place - it's the small things that count. Don't walk around your puppy lying on the floor - nudge them out of the way and make them move. Move your dog out of the way when you go to get on the couch. Don't let the puppy storm through doors ahead of you. The list is endless. These are easy (and very subtle) ways of establishing dominance over a dog - even your children should practice them. It'll save you from major coup attempts at some later point - when it is a far riskier venture for you or your kids.

So, yes, you do need to worry about aggression early in a pup's life though not in the direct aggressive manner. You won't get a young pup attacking you (except in play) and you might not see any hint of it early on. But what you are doing during this period is setting the stage for the later acts. Pick a pup from genetically sound lines (both physically and temperament-wise), take the pup at around 8 weeks of age and no sooner (even if the breeder insists the pups are "ready to go" - besides, it's probably illegal), socialize the pup around lots of humans for the next 2 months, establish dominance hierarchies early on and in a subtle manner, and expose the dog to other dogs after the age of 4 months. Do this and you'll save yourself some major headaches later on and you'll have a BC that everyone wants to have.

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Page last updated April 1, 1997. All material Copyright © 2004 Border Collie Rescue, Inc. and Dr. Nicholas B. Carter
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