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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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.

 

 


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


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.


Wag This Way: Left or Right Offers Insight

November 4, 2013

tail wagI just got back from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers conference, where one of the seminars I presented centered on the lesser known aspects of canine body language. Among other things, I discussed a study from Bari University in Italy about tail wagging.

The study involved 30 mixed breed dogs between the ages of one and six. There were 15 intact males and 15 non-oestrus females. These were family pets, by the way, whose owners had agreed to participate. The dogs were put into narrow box-like structures with cameras that would track not only which direction their tail wagged, but the precise amplitude. There was a slat at the front of the box through which the dog could see out. (Imagine one of those movies where the character knocks on a door in a seedy neighborhood and the doorkeeper slides the slat open to ask for the password.)

Each dog was presented with a stimulus for one minute, rested 90 seconds, and then saw another stimulus. (The test lasted 25 days with 10 sessions per day.) There were four different stimuli: the owner, an unfamiliar person, a cat, and a dominant unfamiliar dog, who happened to be a large Belgian Malinois. The results were interesting, to say the least. The dogs’ tails wagged to the right for the owner (that’s the dog’s right, by the way), the unfamiliar person, and the cat. Predictably, the widest wag was for the owners, the next widest for the unfamiliar person, and the narrowest for the cat. But when presented with the Malinois, the dogs’ tails wagged to the left.

Why would that be? We know that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. The anterior of the left hemisphere is associated with feelings of love, attraction, and safety, so it makes sense that a dog’s tail would wag to the right for their owner and others for whom the dog felt positive feelings. The right anterior hemisphere, however, is associated with fear and withdrawl, among other things. When the dogs saw the dominant Malinois, those left directional tail wags were telling a tale, and it wasn’t a happy one.

The study is fascinating enough on its own, but now the researchers have published a new study in the journal Current Biology. Building on the directional wag theory, they wondered whether other dogs would be affected by a dog’s tail wagging to the right or to the left. Would they know the dog was feeling friendly, or not wanting to be approached? As it turns out, yes, they did! They found that dogs who viewed a dog wagging to the right (the warm, fuzzy, left-hemisphere activated response) would show a relaxed response. In dogs who saw a left side wag (produced by the negative/withdrawl brain function), though, there was increased anxiety and even an increased cardiac response.

The research team posits that the directional tail wags might effectively be used to advantage during vet visits or that dummies could be used to elicit positive responses from dogs. Interestingly, during the seminar where I mentioned the tail wag study, I also discussed what I call the Robodog Study, where a robotic dog was used to gauge the response of other dogs to a short or long, wagging or still tail. Canine body language is such a fascinating subject, and these studies only touch on, well, the tail end of it. You can check out the DVD of my full day seminar Talk to the Paw: Understanding What Dogs are Saying—and What We’re Saying to Them here. In the meantime, watch your dog’s tail when he meets new people and other dogs; you just might learn a little bit more about his likes and fears!


Is Your Dog Who You Thought He’d Be?

October 14, 2013

under tree limb portrait small copyLast night, in a jet lag induced bout of sleeplessness, I watched a Sex and the City marathon. Somewhere in the midst of this guilty pleasure, Carrie or one of the other girls (I can’t be sure—it was 3 a.m.) opined that we might all be better off if we didn’t bring so many expectations into our relationships. Naturally, this made me think of dogs.

In some cases, strict requirements are understandable. Nancy, a trainer, got a dog specifically to do agility. An experienced competitor, she has a high skill level and knows what types of dogs excel at the sport. Not only did the dog have to be nimble and built for speed, but he also had to have certain traits including the ability to focus and the strong motivation that’s often referred to as drive. On the other hand, Sue, a retired woman in her late sixties, spends most of her time at home and wanted a dog for company. She didn’t care much what the dog looked like, or even the breed or age. She just wanted a smallish dog who would cuddle with her at night and not need too much exercise during the day. Nancy’s final choice of a young, intense border collie would not have made Sue any happier than Sue’s eventual adoptee, a sweet, calm, mixed breed senior, would have made Nancy.

For Nancy and Sue, the dogs really did need to meet specific expectations. But most adopters, whether an individual or a family, are simply looking for a dog to fit into their homes and lives without too much trouble. They typically envision an affectionate dog who’s fairly easy to train, won’t make major demands on their lifestyle, and is friendly with the family and visitors. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, really, who goes looking for a dog with baggage? Who wants a long-term project? Regardless, sometimes that’s exactly what happens.

My own dogs are both shelter rescues we adopted a few months apart. You might think I wouldn’t care much whether a dog has major issues, since as a trainer and behavior specialist, I know how to fix them. Wrong! Even professionals need a break now and then. My last two dogs were much loved but had their own issues—one with fear and the other, aggression—and I longed for an easier dog. As it turned out, Sierra, who came to us at around age two, had a wicked case of separation anxiety. Bodhi, who was allegedly two but turned out to be closer to one, was steeped in the hormones and outrageous behavior of adolescence. He was a handful and a half; rowdy, destructive, reactive toward other dogs, no manners…I could go on. Suffice it to say that despite careful screening (I still believe that he walked quietly past other dogs during his in-shelter temperament test chanting, I will hold it together until I get adopted, I will…) neither dog turned out to be quite what I was expecting. Working through their issues was challenging at times, but eventually, things resolved. Are they absolutely perfect now? Nope. Who is? Still, I wouldn’t trade either of them for the world.

So what can you do if your dog turns out to be very different than what you were hoping? First, unless you’re an experienced trainer yourself, hire one. (The Association of Professional Dog Trainers’ website is a great place to start your search.) Unless there’s an issue such as major aggression toward a child or some other deal-breaker, be patient and work at it. In the end, sometimes the best course is to change what you can, and then accept and appreciate the being for who he is. I’m sure Carrie Bradshaw would agree.


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