When a Two-Dog Home Turns Into Sophie’s Choice

May 28, 2014


Many of us whose family includes two dogs have set it up that way because we believe dogs enjoy canine companionship. When they’re left alone, they’re home together. And whether we’re there or not, each has a friend to wrestle and play with, to lay around with—a hang-out buddy. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, the dogs don’t get along. What begins as snarking over food or other resources (even the owner’s affection can be a resource) may eventually turn into serious fights where veterinary attention is required. Some situations even turn deadly.

In the movie Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep has an impossible decision to make. She must give up one of her children, knowing that it most likely means death for that child. While the owner of two fighting dogs’ situation is not quite that dire, it is an extremely difficult decision. First, a behavior specialist should be brought in to make an assessment. Very often an owner believes that one dog is attacking the other without provocation, when in reality, the dog being attacked started it with a hard stare, curl of the upper lip, or  other signal too subtle to notice unless one is looking for it. In some situations, it’s possible that the owner can be taught to notice signaling and body language, and the dogs can be taught solid obedience skills to the point that the situation is manageable. Sometimes a professional can modify the dogs’ behavior. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some homes turn into canine war zones. Some people will choose to “crate and rotate” or something similar, but it’s a personal decision, as it requires the utmost constant vigilance and care—and it is exhausting. Sometimes it’s more clear cut, where there is an unacceptable level of danger regardless, especially if there are young children involved.

Because giving up a dog is a highly emotional decision, many will put off even thinking about it until it’s too late and major damage—physical and possibly mental/emotional as well—has been done. I often tell owners in those situations two things: One, think of it from the point of view of the dog who is being attacked. How would you feel if you were living in a home with someone who you knew meant to cause you harm, and perhaps even kill you? You would be in a state of constant stress. A dog who experiences chronic stress is at risk for gastric ulcers, atrophy of the lymphatic glands, and a compromised immune system. The latter, of course, opens the door for all sorts of illness and disease. So, even if your other dog doesn’t cause major obvious physical injury, damage is still being done on a daily basis. The other thing I pose to owners is in the form of a question: How would you feel if you knew this situation was potentially very dangerous but did nothing, and then the worst happened? How would you live with yourself?

Often the owner wants to keep the “nice” dog. Who wouldn’t? But the last time I heard someone say, “I’m looking to adopt a dog who might injure my other dog” was…never. Rescues are constantly overflowing, and certainly don’t want to take in a dog who is potentially dog-aggressive. Now, in some cases where two dogs don’t get along (female littermates, anyone?), the dog might be perfectly fine in another home with a different dog. But in cases where the dog is seriously dog-aggressive, choices are very limited, and that dog’s best option is to stay in the home he has.

It’s hard to make the decision to rehome a dog who hasn’t done anything wrong, especially when there is a strong emotional attachment. Unfortunately, part of being a responsible owner is having to make the tough decisions that are for our dogs’ own good, even if it causes us pain. But in the end, the pain we feel now is nothing compared to the benefits of creating a safe, loving road for the rehomed dog’s life to take, and keeping everyone safe. For more information on help for dog-dog aggression in the home, check out my book Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home.
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and blog at www.nicolewilde.com. Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified by email of new posts. You can also sign up for my Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You’ll get free tips on training and behavior weekly! You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.



Knowing When to Break the Rules

May 20, 2014

Bodhi middle hill croppedIn photography, there’s something called the Rule of Thirds. It has to do with composition. If you digitally overlay a tic-tac-toe grid on your photo, ideally, your subject should be positioned where lines intersect, or at least in the top, bottom, left, or right thirds. Placing a subject smack dab in the middle generally looks more like a snapshot than a work of art. The great thing, though, is that once you’re experienced with a rule, you can decide when to break it.

So what’s this got to do with dogs or training? Everything. Trainers learn early on about learning theory and how to teach basic obedience skills. As they progress, they get a feel for what to do when a dog doesn’t respond in typical fashion during a training exercise or when applying a behavior protocol. This is the when the hard science and skill begin to turn into an art form. A truly great trainer can fluidly move from one technique to another based on moment-by-moment observation of a dog’s body language and behavior, essentially customizing the interaction for that particular dog. A great trainer—or owner—also knows when to throw out the rules completely.

There are plenty of canine-related directives out there. Some of the older ones don’t have much logic in this day and age. For example, the one about the dog always walking on the person’s left harkens back to the military, where the soldier’s gun was carried on the right and the dog was on the left. As I’ve stated before, if you’re carrying a gun down the street, you’ve got bigger problems than which side your dog is walking on. Besides, I want to be able to ask my dog to walk on either side, depending on the environment and what suits me at the time.

A well-established rule is that once you give a dog an instructional cue, he absolutely must comply. Now, there’s a lot to be said for that, and in general, I agree. But the other morning on a walk with Bodhi, I wanted to take a photo of him against a backdrop of wildflowers. I pointed to a spot and asked him to sit, which, being the fabulous model that he is, he did. I then asked him to lie down. He just sat there looking at me. Trust me, the boy knows his down cue–but, as evidenced by his clear desire to remain sitting, he did not want to do it. Of course, I could have easily forced him. But instead, I looked around at the ground and saw that there were some of those horrible little stickers and bushy things that can attach themselves to dogs. Bodhi is quite aware of those things, as he’s gotten them stuck in his paw pads before. Clearly, he was apprehensive about lying down in them, and rightly so. In this case, it was good that I “broke the rule” and realized that I should have been more observant of the environment.

Certain rules persist, whether they make logical sense or not. Shouldn’t you always eat before your dog? That is the rule, after all. But in real life, isn’t it better to eat either before or after your dog, depending on what’s convenient for you? And believe me, if your relationship is well balanced, your dog is not going to infer from those times he doe eat first that he’s just been crowned Leader of the Pack. You have the opposable thumbs and make the decisions, after all, so you’re in charge. Hey, don’t get me wrong; rules are great, and they’re necessary. It’s best to establish them, but it’s also wise to take a step back and consider breaking them when the situation calls for it.
To check out my books, DVDs, and seminar schedule, visit http://www.nicolewilde. com. The next stop for seminars will be in England in June.

Come Together

May 12, 2014

living room lazing smallI recently taught a weekend seminar in the Dallas Fort Worth area. The hosts were great, the venue was nice, and it was a great experience all around. Before the presentations began, someone pulled me aside and asked whether I was aware that there was a contingency of trainers present who were known to use shock collars. During the first morning break, another person posed a similar question. My response to both of them could be best summed up by the not very eloquent, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

First off, the fact that someone’s training methods are different than mine doesn’t bother me. This is the real world, and guess what, we’re all different in many ways. Does that mean that I advocate using those methods? Nope. It’s no secret that I would best be described as more of a “positive” trainer, whatever that means. (I mean, really, have you ever heard someone call themself a negative trainer?) I don’t use choke chains or shock collars. But as long as someone is not out there abusing dogs (helicoptering, hanging, etc.), they’re more than welcome at my seminars, whether they use those tools or not. (And, I give any host credit for reaching out to a community that might be a bit outside their own.)

Look, judgment is everywhere, and debates about things we’re passionate about are bound to get heated. But I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of us who train dogs are in it because we truly love dogs and want to help them. (It’s surely not a profession one goes into for the money!) I only wish we could treat each other with the same respect we afford dogs, and with the same professionalism with which we treat clients. Of course we’re not going to agree on everything. But snarky comments on Facebook or gossipy comments in person only reflect badly on the person making those comments. It’s easy to sit with a clique of friends and throw verbal stones; it’s harder to open one’s mind and let the negativity go, and possibly learn something.

Fortunately, the folks in the group that attended my seminar were respectful, asked good questions, and made valid, useful comments. I was happy to have them there, along with the rest of the awesome attendees. And I received a few private messages after I’d returned home from some in “that group” thanking me for the seminar. One person said it was appreciated that I didn’t get into the politics of dog training. (Actually tools didn’t even come up since the topics were separation anxiety and dog-dog play.) It was nice, positive feedback that confirmed that being negative and judgmental does nobody any good. Sure, we’re not likely to agree on training methods anytime soon. But couldn’t we start from the common ground that we’re here to help dogs, and be open to discussion, sharing knowledge, and treating each other respectfully? Come on, people, come together!

%d bloggers like this: