The Terrible Weight of Responsibility

May 9, 2019

Sad, abandoned dog in the middle of the road /high contrast imagThe voice on the other end of the phone was difficult to understand, because the woman was struggling to speak through her tears. This was technically a training call, but it was really a desperate cry for help. The caller did not live in my training area. Still, I felt so sorry for her that we spoke for quite a while. Her 3-year-old dog, a Golden Retriever, had bitten three people. Two were young teenagers. Each child needed more than 10 stitches. In one case, the dog had bolted through the front door when it had been left open; in the other, the child had gone to pet the dog. The woman has two children herself, a 20-year-old and a 9-year-old. Although she was lucky as far as the parents of the injured kids not suing, this was a grim situation and she knew it.

I know some of you are thinking, Why was a bite allowed to happen more than once? I’m guessing it had to do with less than perfect management, a hope that the first bite was an isolated incident, and the family’s love for the dog despite what had happened. The 20-year-old sleeps with the dog every night, is extremely closely bonded with him, and has told her mom that she doesn’t know how she’ll go on if the dog is euthanized.

The dog had a rough start in life: parvo as a pup, along with seizures. The family paid quite a bit to nurse him through it all. Did the illnesses leave lasting neurological damage? No one knows. We do know the dog has inflicted multiple bite wounds and caused serious injury. I did suggest getting the dog a complete veterinary workup, on the off chance that there was a physiological reason for the behavior. While I would never tell someone sight unseen to euthanize their dog, I asked how the woman would feel if, knowing what she does, the dog mauled or even killed a child. How would she live with herself? We both knew there was no way the dog could be rehomed. The family could work with a trainer, but regardless, this is a dangerous dog who would always need to be managed carefully. The other option, full-time management, would entail muzzles, crates, and constant worry and oversight. Besides the stress it would create for the dog and the family, management is seldom 100% reliable, especially when there are kids involved. At this point, the young son has no friends because no one can come to the house. This is a dog who could live another 10 years. Should the child be forced to grow up that way?

I’ve trained a lot of dogs over the last 25 years. The Golden Retrievers I’ve worked with who were aggressive tended to be intensely so. Perhaps it’s because the normal Golden temperament seems to be the sky is blue, the birds are singing…  In my experience, when dogs of this breed go wrong, they go really wrong. In this particular case, options were very limited because of the extent of the dog’s aggression, along with the family having a young child in the home. I believe the woman will end up euthanizing the dog. By the end of our conversation she had stopped crying, and said she felt better for having talked it over. My heart goes out to her and her family. It’s a terrible situation. Unfortunately, sometimes we must bear the terrible weight of responsibility in order to do the right thing for everyone involved.
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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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New Study Reveals Shelter Workers Often Mislabel Dogs as Pit Bulls

February 18, 2016

Bulldog
A new DNA study led by Dr. Julie Levy, a professor of shelter medicine at UF College of Veterinary Medicine, has shown that many dogs who have been identified by shelter staff as “pit bulls” are actually mislabeled. “Pit bull” has long been the label given to any dog who has American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or Staffordshire Bull Terrier heritage.

In the study, DNA samples were taken from 120 dogs who had been assessed by 16 shelter staffers at four shelters, including four veterinarians. The results showed that dogs with pit bull heritage were correctly identified 33-75% of the time, while dogs who had none of the DNA were mislabeled as pit bulls 0-48% of the time. The study also showed that even though the staffers all had at least three years of experience, there was marked disagreement among them in their assessments.

Correctly identifying a dog’s breed heritage is tricky, and having seen DNA test results for many dogs, I can tell you they are often surprising based on the visual presentation of the dog. The thing is, if a poodle is assessed incorrectly in a shelter, that misidentification is not going to cost the dog his life. Years ago, while volunteering at a busy Los Angeles city shelter, I encountered a woman with her young child perusing the row of pens. They seemed to be enamored of one beautiful, frisky dog who was wagging his tail so hard his entire butt wiggled. He was happily licking the smiling child’s hands through the bars. When the woman asked what breed the dog was, I told her it was an American Staffordshire Terrier. With a look of concern, she asked, “Is that a pit bull?” I smiled and said yes. Aghast, she immediately stepped back from the bars, pushing her child behind her. They moved on, and that friendly, wonderful, adoptable dog was left to face the odds.

Having co-run Villalobos Rescue Center many years ago, which is now the largest pit bull rescue in the country, I can tell you that while many people absolutely adore pit bulls and know them to be the loyal, loving, tolerant companions they often are, just as many have a knee jerk reaction to hearing the very name. News stories of pit bull attacks only fuel the fire. Of course, an aggressive pit bull can do a lot of damage; you don’t often hear the headline, “Tiny Chihuahua bites man on leg!” In the pit bull’s case, the fact that the aggressive dog belonged to an irresponsible owner, or worse, was encouraged to be aggressive by the owner, never seems to be the thing people remember.

You truly can’t judge an individual dog by their breed. I’m not suggesting that shelter staffers purposely not label a pit bull as what it is, but that when that assessment is made, based on the fact that it could mean a potential death sentence, another educated staff member should lay eyes on the dog. Temperament tests are being done in more and more shelters and, assuming they are conducted correctly by experienced personnel, should be the standard of judgment regarding adoptability. The other piece is educating the public. Because so many shelters are flooded with pit bulls, and the euthanasia rate is incredibly high, having posters at shelters explaining “What is a pit bull?” and what to expect from their behavior, including facts and fallacies, would be a great start. In the meantime, let’s look beyond looks and judge dogs by the deed, not the breed.

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For Nicole’s books, blog and seminar DVDs, visit http://www.nicolewilde.com.


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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Don’t miss my Burbank, CA seminars April 18 & 19! Topics are Helping Fearful Dogs, Separation Anxiety, & Dog-Dog Play.


Aggressive Dog? No Problem!

September 17, 2014

GrinThis morning, I visited amazon online. Naturally, amazon suggests things I might like to purchase. Usually I breeze past them. Elegant gold women’s watch? Not my style. Cat tree? Hmm. I’m pretty sure my invisible cat is happy enough without one. What did catch my eye was a book about dog aggression. This book promised, right in the title, to eliminate the problem… in just seven days!

Now, I haven’t read the book, and this rant…er, post…is directed in general at the idea of “curing” aggression immediately. In short, it’s ridiculous. Oh, I suppose you could do something so painful or scary to a dog whenever he shows aggressive behavior that he stops right away. I mean, come on, if you hit me over the head with a mallet every time I bit my nails, I’d stop doing it. And it would look as though the problem was fixed. But although the punishment stopped the behavior at that moment, it didn’t remove the underlying cause. What if I were biting my nails at the time because I’m nervous around horses, and we were near one? Did the mallet whack cause me to become less afraid of horses? No, but it probably made me more afraid of you. It also gave me another bad association with horses. See where this is going?

Humane, scientifically sound methods for handling dog aggression are not flashy. They don’t come with wild promises, bells or whistles. Proper behavior modification can take time and patience. What it doesn’t do is scare the dog, break the trust between dog and owner, or make the problem worse. The dog learns over time that whatever was causing him to be afraid and therefore reactive (the vast majority of dog aggression is fear-based) is really nothing to be afraid of. Once the underlying reason for the aggression is gone, so is the behavior. Rather than slapping a Band-aid on the symptom, there is a real, long-lasting cure.

Well, I’d best get back to amazon and try to remember what I was there for in the first place. Maybe I’ll find a book on fixing my memory in 7 days.
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You can find my books, seminar DVDs and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com


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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My full day seminar “Talk to the Paw! Understanding What Dogs are Saying–and What We’re Saying to Them” is now available on DVD! Click here to check it out!.


Is Reacting Really Reactive?

August 20, 2013

Sierra snarl smallThis past Saturday, I took Bodhi and Sierra for an early morning walk. As we navigated the hills and pathways of our local park, we passed a few regulars. It was encouraging to see how far their dogs had come. There was the woman with two Chihuahua mixes, one of whom used to lunge and snarl each time we passed. Between her good handling skills and my own dogs’ improved behavior, encounters are now much less stressful. Another positive pass-by with a gentleman and his poodle mix, and I was feeling pretty good—that is, until we passed the man with the Akita.

The Akita was on leash, and the pair was headed in our direction. There was plenty of room for us to pass each other on the paved walkway. The man veered toward one side, while Sierra, Bodhi and I kept to the other. Things were going well until Sierra lunged and barked at the dog. Now, I’ve worked long and hard to modify this habit, and for the most part, Sierra’s done very well. So when she erupted, no one was more surprised than me—except, perhaps, the Akita. The dog reacted in kind, and the man instantly gave the dog a hard correction by roughly jerking the choke chain. I cringed as the dog did the same, and I told the man, “You know, it really wasn’t his fault. I’m sorry, but it was actually my dog’s fault.” He mumbled something under his breath about it not being okay that his dog had behaved like that, and continued on his way.

Was it really so wrong for the Akita to react to a dog who was lunging and barking at him? What if a total stranger ran up to you and yelled in your face? Should you be expected to stand there and behave politely? Of course not. And yet some of us hold dogs to the impossible standard of never barking, never lunging, never…being dogs. Our knee-jerk reaction to barking and growling is understandable. It’s jarring, it can be frightening, and it can certainly portend trouble. But those behaviors are also perfectly natural, and in some cases, totally appropriate.

I remember more than a few training appointments over the years where a mother would complain that each time her child entered a room, the dog would slink away. It turned out in all of those cases that the child had been doing something the dog had found unpleasant. Hugging or petting in a less than gentle way was often the issue. Little girls in particular love to hug dogs, while dogs view hugging as restraint. So what’s a dog to do? He could growl a warning, which in dog-ese is perfectly polite, but would likely elicit an, “Oh, no! The dog is growling at my child!” True, growling at a child is cause for alarm, but that’s frequently where the thought process ends. The next step, which is to figure out why it happened, is frequently overlooked. Alternately, the hugged/offended dog could do the least violent thing by simply leaving the area. But active avoidance doesn’t seem to be an acceptable reaction to many people, either, as they want the dog and child to interact.

I’ve also been called in to a number of training appointments where the issue was aggression between two dogs who lived in the home. It was interesting to see the number of cases where it was assumed that one dog was starting the skirmishes when, in fact, it was the other. The first dog would give a hard stare or other signal that went unnoticed by the owners—all they’d see was the second dog reacting, which was interpreted as starting a fight. Again, the dog was simply reacting appropriately, given the situation.

Whether it’s reacting to another dog’s actions or those of a human, dogs use what they’ve got: body language and vocalizations and, sometimes, their teeth. If we can calmly assess a situation where a dog is being “reactive,” we will be much better able to respond appropriately and address the root cause of the dog’s behavior, rather than overreacting ourselves.

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