Is No Kill No Good?

January 24, 2017

aggressive dog HP blogIt happened again. A dog that was known to have aggression issues attacked a person, severely mauling the woman. In this case the dog was in a city animal shelter, and the person attacked, Priscilla Romero, was a kennel worker with 10 years experience. Now, before you go dismissing the incident as an acceptable risk of the job, think about this: the dog, a pit bull, had a known history of aggression. Prior entries in the computerized behavioral records stated that the dog had previously bitten but did not break skin. Another entry cautioned, “Be cautious of this dog—dog will growl, bare teeth and tries to bite as I’m trying to open the kennel door to pick up empty food bowl.” Romero was rushed to the hospital in critical condition and may need numerous reconstructive surgeries.

The article goes on to describe other incidents where dogs who were known to act aggressively were offered to the public for adoption. But the problem is far from being limited to one or a network of shelters. There have been numerous incidents where dogs adopted from various shelters or rescues have bitten a person or injured or killed the other dog in the home. The “no kill” policy of some organizations, stretched beyond what “no kill” was meant to be (no euthanasia unless a dog is dangerous or seriously ill), allowed those dogs to be adopted in the first place.

I spent a lot of time in the ’90s at L.A.’s West Valley shelter, first as a volunteer and then volunteer coordinator, often spending 30-40 hours a week there. I was also an emergency hire for the East Valley shelter. And I’m the first to say that it can be difficult to judge a dog’s behavior in a kennel environment, especially since many are fearful when first impounded. These dogs are in a new environment surrounded by unfamiliar smells and sounds, not knowing what to expect, and unfamiliar people are entering their space. Showing teeth or even growling while backing away under those conditions are not, in my opinion, unforgivable sins indicating euthanasia. The dog should be given a chance to acclimate and settle in before being assessed for temperament, especially since a previous owner’s description of behavior might not be accurate. However. There are dogs who come in with known bite histories, who show aggression toward kennel or rescue workers, and who are still adopted out. Why? So the organization can proudly boast about how they’re “no kill?” Again, this is not what no kill was meant to be.

While the dog who is still up for adoption after biting, injuring or worse is awaiting a home, he is taking up the space of a perfectly nice dog, or more likely many adoptable dogs, who will be euthanized because the rescue or shelter has no space. How does that benefit dogs? And what about the dog with known aggression issues who is adopted into a home? Whose fault is it if the dog injures or even kills a person or another dog? The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of whoever knew about those issues and still made the decision to send a potential deadly weapon out into the public. If more rescues and shelters were held legally accountable, I wonder how many aggressive dogs would be adopted out.

The other issue is that dogs who are difficult to adopt out because of aggression or unstable temperament sit in shelters or rescues for months and sometimes even years, and many are miserable. There is a vast difference between a legitimate rescue keeping a dog long-term while providing physical and mental stimulation, affection and training, etc. until the dog can find a home, which is laudable, and keeping a dog who could pose a danger locked up until…what? Until the dog degenerates mentally and physically? Until he can go back out into the general public and yet again pose a danger?

As a trainer, behavior specialist, passionate dog lover, and someone who co-ran a rescue, I am the last person who would ever recommend euthanasia for a dog without there being a solid reason. But there has to be a balance between our compassion for dogs and common sense when it comes to dogs who are truly dangerous. Some organizations properly use the term “no kill” to mean “unless the dog is truly dangerous or ill.” It’s the misuse and misinterpretation of the term that’s problematic, along with the fact that the general public assumes that “no kill” means no dog is ever euthanized, period. So rather than having the knee-jerk reaction of “how wonderful!” when we hear that an organization is “no kill,” let’s dig deeper and consider what the term really means for that particular group, those dogs, and the safety of the general public.
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Can Every Dog Be Rehabilitated?

May 19, 2016

aggressive dog HP blogI recently came across an article in which a dog who was known to be “nervous, growling, and didn’t like children” was sent away for training. While in the trainer’s care, the dog mauled her. According to the lawsuit, “With the pit bull still attached to her left breast, Ms. Rickles backed into a laundry room where the dog released his grip, enabling Ms. Rickles to close the door. The pit bull then broke through the door and attacked Ms. Rickles a third time, latching onto her left arm and breaking it in two places.” After this horrific incident, you might assume the dog would have been euthanized. Indeed, a Texas judge did sentence the dog to death. However, the dog’s owner pleaded for the dog’s life, and it was agreed that the dog would go to the training facility of a well-known trainer who would “take the pit bull and rehabilitate it” and not release it until it was “fully deemed a safe member of society.”

Unfortunately, the training facility allegedly released the dog into someone’s care prematurely. A woman who was visiting her friend at that home got mauled. According to the lawsuit, the dog ended up inflicting “disfiguring wounds, deep muscle and tendon lacerations.” Incidentally, the training center was the Dog Psychology Center (Cesar Millan’s facility), but how you or I feel about Cesar is not the point. The real question is, can a dog who has demonstrated severe aggression ever be rehabilitated to the point of living safely among people?

Apparently a lot of rescues seem to feel the answer is yes, judging by the number of training calls I get from people who have adopted aggressive dogs. Just last week a woman called who had adopted a Bichon who had bitten three people. Two of the bites were disclosed by the rescue organization, and the third happened to her once the dog was at her home. I’m not familiar with the rescue group and don’t know whether any behavior modification was attempted, but I have seen all too many dogs over the years who were known for having aggression issues be adopted out.

Most rescues are overcrowded, and although there are some where trainers do behavioral rehabilitation, theose are few and far between. I’m not suggesting that a dog who displays aggressive tendencies to any degree should be euthanized—far from it. I’ve personally worked with many, many aggression cases ranging from mild to severe over the years, and helped the dogs and their owners go on to live long, happy lives together. But would I knowingly adopt out a dog with serious aggression issues? Never.

Even outside of a rescue/adoption situation the real question is, can every dog be rehabilitated? My personal belief is the answer is no, no more than every violent criminal can be. Many dogs who are capable of inflicting irreparable damage live in homes and are friendly with their owners, who have learned to never allow the dog access to other people. This is called management, not training, and is often a last resort. Management is of course never 100% and things happen, but it’s often the only choice left.

If a dog causes extreme harm, such as the case with Gus, that dog should be euthanized. Period. As one of the biggest dog lovers you’ll ever meet, who also has a lot of empathy for owners, I do not say that lightly. But human safety must be the first priority. And any trainer who believes they can fix any dog no matter what has an overabundance of hubris and a serious lack of understanding of dog behavior. Let’s give dogs the benefit of the doubt where appropriate, and do everything we can to help them behave better and improve their chances of having a long, loving life. But let’s be realistic as well, for the highest good of everyone concerned.
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Redirected Aggression in Dogs

March 30, 2015

husky attacksAs any police officer can tell you, domestic violence calls can be tricky. The officer arrives at the home where a couple’s heated argument has progressed to violence. But although the two have been screaming at and even hitting each other, when the officer arrives, a strange phenomenon occurs. The target of the violence suddenly shifts to the officer.

Now consider two dogs who are fighting in the home. What started out as a skirmish has escalated to the point that the owner feels the need to step in. She approaches and tries to grab one of the dogs by the collar. The dog whips around and bites her on the arm. What’s going on here?

Both scenarios are examples of redirected aggression. Emotional arousal becomes so intense that it needs a release, and the target shifts from the original opponent to the source of interference. That’s one reason so many people are bitten when trying to break up a dogfight. It’s something most of us learn the hard way, and I’m no exception; I could show you scars.

Redirection doesn’t only happen to third parties, though. It can erupt between two dogs when caused by another. For example, a Labrador Retriever and a German shepherd are at the dog park, happily romping and playing together. A Boxer comes along and approaches the pair. Suddenly, bodies become stiff. Tension is in the air. Just as the Boxer and the Shepherd are cautiously checking each other out, the Lab slaps a paw over the German Shepherd’s shoulder as if to say, “What’s up? I thought we were playing!” The Shepherd turns and lashes out at the Lab. Again, the tension needs a target, and in this case, instead of being focused on the cause of the tension, it’s redirected to what drew the attention away, much as a lightning rod diverts lightning from a structure.

A common scenario for redirected aggression is when two or more dogs are behind a barrier, such as a chain link fence. Someone passes by the yard with another dog. The enclosed dogs begin to bark and jump at the chain link. They can’t get to the dog, so they become agitated. Frustration builds. When it reaches a boiling point, the dogs may redirect on each other. Barrier frustration can easily turn to redirected aggression in other scenarios, too: picture two dogs who both want to go out to the yard because they see a squirrel. They jump, whimper, and claw at the sliding glass door that leads to the yard. Frustration builds, and soon they turn on each other.

Anytime there is over-arousal, aggression can follow, and it will find the most convenient target. So what can you do to avoid redirected aggression? Be aware of the potential. Try to avoid putting your dogs in situations where redirected aggression might occur. If you see a situation building, interfere before it’s escalated too far. Teach a solid attention cue, meaning your dog stops whatever he’s doing to look at you when you call his name. Don’t jump in to the middle of a dogfight and expect not to be bitten. (How to properly break up a dog fight is a whole other blog.) Don’t approach dogs behind a barrier if they seem agitated; if they are calm but then become agitated, leave. In many cases, redirected aggression can be avoided. The more we understand about how dogs think and react, and the more vigilant we are about recognizing their body language and actions, the safer we can all be.

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You Say Patootie…

March 5, 2014

!dogwalkI received a phone call yesterday from a woman in need of training for her dog. She had three dogs—two males and a female—and it seems that the female was “a real Snooty Patootie Pants.” My response, after stifling a burst of laughter, was to ask her to kindly define “Snooty Patootie Pants.” I mean, it’s not exactly a standard term in the Dog Trainer’s Dictionary. I’ve heard this highly descriptive type of term before. One woman’s dog was a “nervous Narvis.” Another’s had “anger management issues.” And one caller kept going on about her dog: “He’s so selfish. It’s always all about him,” prompting me to finally ask with a laugh whether we were still talking about the dog.

These descriptions are funny and charming, but it really is important when discussing dog behavior that we have consistent definitions. This becomes especially crucial when discussing aggression issues. I can’t tell you how many owners I’ve heard describe their dogs as “aggressive,” where it meant anything from the dog being a typical nippy puppy, to being overly enthusiastic in play, to simply jumping on people. None of these constitutes aggression! Can you imagine someone returning a dog like this to the shelter and telling them the dog is aggressive? You know what happens next. (Although I would love to see the shelter worker’s face when the person told them the dog has “anger management issues.”)

While it’s true that dogs certainly have emotions, some of us tend to anthropomorphize, which can lead a discussion into muddy waters. Although the general meaning is understood when someone says a dog is “anxious,” it doesn’t really give enough information. What we really need is not an interpretation of a dog’s state of mind, but a simple recounting of what the dog does. Perhaps one anxious dog hides in a crate all day and cringes when people go to pet him. Another might run from the room when a particular sound plays on the television. As for aggressive dogs, again, what does the dog do? Is he lunging and barking when passing other dogs on a walk? Does he bite visitors at the front door? (Tip for owners: trainers really, really like to know about that last one.) A clear description of a dog’s behavior allows us to get a better picture of what’s going on so that an appropriate treatment plan can be formulated. And that way, in the end, we can help the dog—even if she is a Snooty Patootie Pants.


Beyond Typical Resource Guarding

January 30, 2014

bully stick 3 smallerWe’ve all heard about dogs who guard their food, or perhaps treats or toys. But there are some dogs from whom resource guarding goes beyond the norm, and seems to be an art form. Here are just a few examples:

1. Guarding people. Most dogs in this category guard their owners. At the dog park, I’ve watched dogs spend the entire time running at and fending off dogs who come anywhere in the vicinity of the owner. The owner believes he or she is doing a good thing by bringing the dog to the park for exercise and socialization. In reality, the dog is in a constant state of stressful arousal. After all, when vigilantly guarding a valued resource, who could relax? Unfortunately, some owners find this sort of behavior admirable, in a “Look, my dog is protecting me” kind of way.

I can always count on Sierra to add something strange and different to typical behavior. When I first got Sierra, I’d allow her to go greet dogs and owners in the dog park if there were only one or two inside. Here’s a typical scenario: There’s a nice Australian shepherd mix, and her owner, who is sitting on a bench. I open the gate. Sierra immediately runs up to the owner, hops up beside him, and begins her wiggly, flirtatious, pet-me routine. Fair enough. But, when the Aussie approaches Sierra guards the dog from her own owner! Needless to say, this is not something I let to continue to happen, but it certainly was interesting.

2. Guarding Other Dogs. Imagine two dogs romping happily. A third dog approaches, and suddenly a skirmish breaks out, as one of the previously romping dogs drives the interloper away. “Isn’t that nice? He’s protecting his friend,” says the owner. Not so much. If the dog could speak, he’d be saying, “Go find your own friend. This one is mine!” This dynamic isn’t uncommon when two dogs who live together come to the park, where one turns on the other to guard a valued newcomer from the housemate.

3. Guarding Locations. This isn’t all that uncommon. When there are two or more dogs in the house, often one will lie across a doorway that leads to a room or to the outdoors, in order to controlling access to the area. Before the other dog can pass, he’s got to get past the Club Canine bouncer. Some dogs will even do this with their owners. In those cases, many owners will step over their dogs, while others will get the dog out of the way by calling the dog to them. I recommend the latter, or simply teaching a “Move!” cue.

4. Guarding from Afar. This is one that sometimes goes unnoticed or is misunderstood by owners. In this case, the valued item is not even in the dog’s possession. Some dogs, for example, will stand near the kitchen table while the owners are eating, glaring at the other dog. They might well have never been fed from the table; it’s as though they’re just waiting for a tasty morsel to fall. And if it does, whose will it be? Yep.

5. Just Plain Weirdness. There are dogs who will guard their own leashes. I’ve known dogs who have resource guarded dust balls. (Good thing they don’t live at my house.) But the prize for the oddest guarding behavior goes to…Sierra! In the mornings when I make my green smoothie drink, I give them Bodhi and Sierra each a small piece of banana before it goes into the blender. Each dog will quickly eat their portion. Sierra will then walk up to Bodhi and begin to lick the remnants of banana from his lips and, if he opens up, the inside of his mouth. If he doesn’t allow it, she may growl. Yes, friends, Sierra is actually guarding the food that is in Bodhi’s mouth from him. That’s a new one on me.

Your turn: What sorts of odd things do your dogs guard?


Is Lip Licking Beagle a Threat to Baby?

January 13, 2014

beagle licks lipsA veterinarian recently told me an interesting story. A woman who had brought her beagle in for vaccinations mentioned that she was very concerned about the dog’s behavior. There was a baby in the family, and it seemed that the beagle would lick his lips whenever he was in close proximity to the infant. The dog also growled when the infant made certain sounds or movements. Did this lip licking, the woman wanted to know, mean that the beagle wanted to eat the baby?

The woman’s concern is understandable. But the good news is, it’s very unlikely that the dog was looking to have the baby for lunch. Lip licking is a common, subtle stress signal in dogs. It’s often seen in anxiety-producing situations such as sitting in the vet’s waiting room, being in a training class where harsh corrections are used, or even being hugged. (There are some dogs who like or tolerate being hugged, but many don’t like it.) In this situation, it’s likely that the beagle was simply anxious around the baby. The growling further reinforces the likelihood that the beagle was stressed, since growling is a dog’s way of warning us that he’s uncomfortable. (See my previous post Why Growling is Good.)

Other subtle stress signals to watch for are yawning, scratching, sniffing the ground, scratching, turning away of the head and/or body, or averting the eyes. Of course, any of these signals, including lip licking, can be seen at other times as well; canine body language must be observed as a whole, and in context. It’s ironic that understanding these signals is absolutely crucial for dog owners, and yet they’re not commonly taught or discussed. In a situation such as the beagle-baby one, had the owner’s mind not been put at ease, the dog might have lost his home.

While lip licking and other stress signals do not indicate aggression, keep in mind that a scared dog, if pushed too far, can become dangerous. If you see any of these signals in your own dog, try to figure out why he might be nervous. If possible, remove the dog from the situation, and, at another time, work on reducing the dog’s stress in those situations. Paying attention to these subtle signals can alert us to the difference between a dog wanting to eat a child and wanting to simply be left alone—and that’s a life-changing difference for everyone involved.


Why Growling is Good

October 22, 2013

Bodhi growls at Sierra crop small copyA woman I sometimes chat with during my morning dog outings asked my opinion about an encounter she recently had. She’d been been walking her four-year-old mixed breed dog around a local park when she crossed paths with a man whose dog was off leash. As the owners walked toward each other on the narrow trail, the foot loose and fancy-free puppy ran up to the adult dog. With the usual lack of canine cluelessness that accompanies early dogdom, the pup leaped at the dog relentlessly in an attempt to initiate play. The woman’s dog, while not aggressive, did not want to be bothered. He growled. The puppy didn’t back off, and again tried to engage the older dog. The dog growled louder. The man made no attempt to put his dog on leash. The woman, feeling embarrassed that her dog had growled, ended up apologizing to the man and walking her dog away.

The adult dog’s hackles might not have been up during the encounter, but mine certainly were. The woman’s dog had done nothing wrong. She had nothing to apologize for! Growling is a perfectly acceptable canine warning. It’s a dog’s way of saying, “Hey, I don’t like that,” “Don’t come any closer!” or “Please stop what you’re doing.” Being on leash, the adult dog didn’t have the option to leave. He could certainly have snapped at the puppy, or worse. But instead, he gave an appropriate warning. That the puppy didn’t buy a vowel, get a clue, and understand what was being spelled out was a problem, so the dog growled louder. Hopefully that puppy will learn to back off when adult dogs warn him away, before his puppy license expires and an adult dog cleans his clock. And hopefully the man will learn to leash his dog when encountering others.

Understanding that a growl is a threat is hard-wired in humans, so it’s reasonable and even advantageous that we become upset when we hear one. But a growl from a dog is actually a good thing. I’m not suggesting that it’s a good thing for a dog to growl at his owner, but growling is a non-aggressive form of communication. Think about it. If someone kept shoving into you on line at the post office, you’d eventually say something like, “Excuse you!” But what if you didn’t have a way to warn the person that you were getting irritated? Eventually, you’d have to resort to either leaving, or physically getting your point across. Whether a dog is growling at another dog or a person, it’s simply a warning. If the dog wanted to attack, he would have. Growling is meant to avert aggression, not cause it. But people misunderstand, and punish dogs for growling. A dog then learns that growling leads to being punished and, unfortunately, once his early warning system has been removed, the dog is likely to begin biting with no warning. As a trainer, I’ve seen many dogs like that over the years and believe me, they’re no fun to rehabilitate.

If a dog is growling at you, whether the dog belongs to you or someone else, the best course of action at the moment is to defuse the situation. After all, the dog’s arousal level is already elevated. You don’t want to shout or worse, get physical, as those things could lead to a bite. Instead, glance down and to the side (this tells the dog you’re not a threat while allowing you to keep him in your peripheral vision) and back away slowly. Don’t turn your back on the dog if you can help it, as some dogs are more prone to attack from the rear. If the dog in question is your own, address the situation that caused the growling—for example, food guarding—at another time when your dog is calm, with the assistance of a professional trainer if necessary. Remember, growling is simply communication. If we take a moment to assess why a dog is growling instead of automatically taking the attitude that he’s behaving inappropriately, we will react appropriately ourselves.
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