reproduced by kind permission of Camilla Gray-Nelson
Weekly we meet with dog owners full of angst. As trainers and dog behaviour consultants, we have disillusioned dog owners come to us with regularity, their dreams of raising a perfect puppy or giving a better life to a rescue dog going awry. Usually it’s something simple (pulling on the leash, jumping on visitors, digging in the yard, barking, housetraining issues, etc.) Those things are easily fixed through training and we relish the opportunity to help in that regard.
Sometimes, however, the problems are more serious: the adolescent puppy starts growling at the children, or the rescue dog bites a friend who comes to visit. In one of my recent cases, the dog started hiding under the sofa and submissively urinating whenever the family came home or reached to pet her.
Our job, as trainers and behaviour consultants, is to help make things right – for the dog. In cases where simple training and boundaries will help control unwanted behaviours and make a dog feel more secure, we can guide the owners through that process. But in cases that involve fear or aggression, we’re not dealing with a training issue; we’re dealing with an unhappy dog – and often, an owner in denial.
I am fond of reminding my clients, “A happy dog doesn’t growl or bite”. For me, the most important part of an aggression consultation is figuring out why the client’s dog is unhappy and whether or not the owner is able or willing to adequately minimise the stress of their dog’s environment. Is the dog perturbed about strangers coming onto his property, yet he lives in a busy household with visitors coming and going constantly? Does he dislike the company of other dogs, yet was brought into a household with existing canine family members? Is he frightened of children, but shares a house with four of them under the age of twelve? When the dog’s stressor IS his environment, we must focus the conversation on the wellbeing of the dog and the nature of the owner’s commitment to him.
We all hear clients say, “I can’t fail this dog.” “I’m not going to give up.” “I made a commitment and I’m not a quitter.” When a client starts down this path, yet I know the odds of a good outcome are slim to none, I remind them – this is not about them or how good a person they are. This is about what;s best for the dog. Clinging stubbornly to a “commitment” that makes them feel better but continues to make their dog miserable is no virtue. If we care about a dog, sometimes the greatest gift we can give him is a different environment, better suited to his personality and his needs – not our own. A dog that has bitten a friend or family member should be evaluated carefully. That dog may not be pet material and throwing more training at the problem will not “fix” it. Biting is not a training issue; it’s a personality issue. At the very least, a dog that has revealed a willingness to bite should not be in a home with small children or one with a traffic pattern like Grand Central Station where careful management and control are impossible. He would be safer and happier in a quiet, predictable environment with proper containment and an owner familiar with managing this behaviour. A dog that’s afraid of his family should be allowed to live with a different one.
And then there is the weak and passive owner who is either unwilling or physically unable to control and take charge of his or her strong, dominant dog. Short of a personality transplant, that relationship is probably doomed to failure, because as we all know, controlling a dog is not about training, it’s about follow-through.
When we are called in to help or give our professional opinion, we must be careful never t6o point a finger at the desperate dog owner and suggest that it’s “all their fault”. Often, it’s not. Nature makes a dog’s personality and determines his tendencies; the owner and the trainer are just supporting actors! A shy puppy will be a shy dog. How shy will be determined by his experiences, including training. A six-month old puppy that guards his food bowl will likely guard even more resources as an adult dog. how seriously and how far he takes his guarding behaviour may be affected and controlled by training and good follow-through on the part of the owner – but maybe not.
Granted, the subject of rehoming a dog is a difficult and delicate conversation for us to initiate and for our clients to hear, but a conversation that occasionally must happen – for the good of the dog, the client and the community. Over the years I have found that focusing on the “happiness of the dog” (instead of the shortcomings of the owner) helps reduce feelings of guilt and the pride that keeps an owner stuck in a sad, hopeless (and sometimes dangerous) relationship.
As trainers, we will continue to encourage our clients to be committed to their dogs and to give them the best and the most they possibly can. The vast majority of dog-owning families succeed in developing a safe and successful relationship with their canine family members – many times thanks to us, their trainers! But the sad truth is that there will always be a small percentage of cases where a new home is the right home – for the dog.
Camilla Gray-Nelson is the President and Director of Training at Dairydell Canine. She has trained, bred and shown dogs since 1989, and hold professional memberships in both IACP and NADOI.