“My dog bit my father and broke skin. He’s also bitten a relative who came to visit. My father thinks the dog should be put down. What should we do?” This was the gist of a recent inquiry I received. It’s not unusual for me to receive advice-seeking messages, as I’m an author who writes about dog behavior. I help where I can. But this particular type of question is something that not only can I not answer in the way the person wants, but it’s one that I believe no trainer can or should take on.
It’s not that I don’t empathize with those who are living with dangerous dogs. Of course I do; helping people and dogs is the motivation behind everything I do. But these are potentially life and death situations for a dog. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of options for dogs who bite. Most rescues won’t take aggressive dogs, and surrendering a dangerous dog to a shelter for someone else to adopt is irresponsible. Management is a possibility if owners are willing to put in the work and if the family members and lifestyle allow for it. But beyond that, sadly, in many cases the choice to euthanize the dog is made.
But how can any trainer or behavior specialist assess a situation involving aggression without seeing the dog? I’m not talking about an obvious case such as where a dog has severely mauled a young child. Those are rare and at the far end of the spectrum. And I’m not talking about giving general training advice, or even advice about mild aggression. I’m talking about potential life or death cases such as the one mentioned here. How would I know, for example, if the dog bit the father because the father was reprimanding the dog for something by using physical punishment, and the dog acted in self-defense? And what about the visitor who was bitten? Did the person’s body language somehow scare the dog, who happened to be in a position where he couldn’t escape? Even if the dog was completely at fault and bit without provocation, I know nothing beyond what the person is relating. My response to her was that I could not in good conscience give advice about a serious aggression issue without having worked with the dog myself, and that it would not only be unethical, but it would not be doing the dog any favors to do so. I offered to find them a trainer in their area who could work with them in person.
You would think this would all be common sense, but I’ve had more than a few phone calls over the years from desperate owners whose dogs are showing aggression, who have been advised by a trainer sight-unseen to euthanize the dog. To cavalierly suggest that someone end their dog’s life based on a brief phone consult is not only irresponsible, it’s despicable. Perhaps the trainer simply did not want to take on a case that involved such an aggressive dog; that’s understandable. But there are those of us who do deal with severe aggression issues. At least refer the person to someone who does! As for the owner, they’re calling for help. Even in those rare cases where a dog is truly dangerous and there are no viable options other than euthanasia, most owners will sleep much easier at night knowing they did all they could for their dog before coming to that incredibly difficult decision. Having someone assess the situation in person is a necessary part of a comprehensive evaluation. Doesn’t every dog deserve at least that much?
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