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 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.


For Dogs, Learning is 24/7

February 25, 2014

treats please small cropHow much time do you spend each day training your dog? If you answered “30 minutes,” “An hour,” or even “Three 10-minute sessions,” you’re wrong. Oh, I believe that you’re working on specific skills during those periods—but the truth is that you’re training your dog 24 hours a day, every day.

Dogs are masters of prognostication. They might not be able to tell you the winning lottery numbers, but they sure know that when you grab that long thing with the metal clip on the end, a door will open and a walk will follow. If my dogs could speak, they’d tell you—once they got done ordering out for pizza and beer—that the television remote being clicked on means that Mom is going to be on the couch watching that strange box with the moving pictures, so we might as well go lie on our dog beds for a while. They also know that when Mom leaves with those letters and boxes in the morning she usually returns quickly, and that if Mom and Dad leave the house after 6:00 at night, there’s a good chance they won’t be home until after dark. Dogs are such excellent observers that they can even predict with great accuracy how long we’ll be away based on the type of footwear or clothing we’re wearing.

Learning also happens organically, for the simple reason that dogs learn to repeat actions that are rewarded. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat across a kitchen table from a dog owner as they’ve told me how they don’t want their dog up on their lap when they’re sitting at the table; as they’re tell me this, the dog has his paws on the lap, and they’re stroking the dog’s fur.

My own dogs, Sierra and Bodhi, have learned a fun and interesting thing. It began back when we only had Sierra. At some point she had lowered the front part of her body in a sort of bowing stretch as she was greeting me; I petted her while she was in that position, scritch-scratching from her head all the way down to her tail. She loved it, and began to repeat the behavior. Since I continued to reward it, it became her default way of greeting me in the mornings. When we got Bodhi, he learned the behavior from observing her. Of course, it was soon reinforced by being petted. Now when I wake up in the morning, I’m greeted by two bowing dogs. Ah, finally! Concrete proof that I’m the pack leader!

Just remember, even when you don’t think you’re training, your dogs are learning. What have your dogs learned without formal training?
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Check out Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com and her photography at http://www.nicolewildephotography.com.


Leadership: One Size Does Not Fit All

March 6, 2013

training near post office small

Flip through the pages of any traditional book on dog behavior, and you’re likely to find advice about how to be the “boss” or “alpha”—the Big Kahuna. Never feed your dog before you sit down to your own meal. Make sure you go through doorways first. Don’t ever walk around your dog. Never let your dog up on places you sit, like your couch or bed. You might be surprised to know that I couldn’t care less about any of those rules.

Many trainers advise owners to employ some version of a leadership program, meaning the dog has to earn things in their everyday lives. There’s nothing wrong with that, and although I have long advised clients to employ some manner of a learn to earn program, especially if their dogs are overly pushy, I’m not one to be overly strict in that regard with my own dogs. Don’t get me wrong; I firmly believe you should be able to ask your dog to move aside, get off the couch, and do any number of other things when asked. It makes sense to me personally to have my dogs sit before meals, especially because Bodhi can be physically pushy and impatient. It’s a good thing for him to practice waiting, and for me not to spill the food all over the place! When I take my dogs out for a walk, they both need to sit and wait at the door while I open the door, look out on the porch, and then back to them to give the release word. During the summers, rattlesnakes have been known to slither up on to our porch; this is not only a manners issue for us, but a safety one, too.

But what about the other aspects of a traditional leadership program? My dogs are allowed up on our couches—that is, when the couches are covered by the colorful blankets we use to keep them dog hair free. (Well, mostly—is anything ever really dog hair free?) If one of my dogs is lying across a doorway, depending on whether they’re in deep sleep, how convenient it is for me to step over them, and whether they’ve been extra pushy lately, I might just let them sleep or lie there, or I might ask them verbally to move out of the way. As for who eats first, I once heard from someone who owned a wolfdog that he always spit in the dog’s dish before he put the food down, so the dog would know who was boss. I can only wonder what the dog actually thought. My dogs eat somewhere in the neighborhood of the same two times during the day, but if I have something pressing to do, they may have to wait. Learning frustration tolerance is a good thing, and hey, if I’m controlling all the good stuff, I obviously am in charge, without having to be heavy-handed about it.

I once heard someone (I believe it was English behaviorist John Rogerson), say that the specific rules aren’t as important as the fact that there are rules. I wholeheartedly agree. Take a moment to think about whether the rules that you’ve learned “must” be taught actually make sense for you and your own dogs. Now think about the rules you have that might not be important for someone else. When it comes to leadership, one size does not fit all.   


Limitations

February 12, 2013

Bodhi park recall field closer edit small

Yesterday morning I took Bodhi to the park. Frost covered the ground, and we only encountered two other diehard walkers the entire hour we were there. I took the opportunity to practice off-leash work in various locations, and Bodhi did wonderfully well. In fact, it was difficult at times to get him to leave my side. “Okay!” I’d give the release word, along with the gesture that lets him know he’s free to go and romp. He’d just look at me. “Frolic!” I demanded. Nothing. Oh well. If that’s the worst problem, it’s fine with me!

This morning, on the other hand, I took Sierra with me. There were two differences: no frost on the ground (although it was still damned cold), and she was on a long line. Why? Because whatever she’s got going genetically predisposes her to have a super high prey drive, and when that’s in full-on mode, she’s also got selective hearing. Sure, we’ve practiced off-leash recalls in safe, enclosed areas, and we’ve done them with her on the long-line as well. We’ve practiced when there are distractions around, and for the most part she does incredibly well in all of those situations. So why not go the next step and allow her off-leash freedom? Because I know who she is. And I don’t have such a massive ego that I feel I can change a dog’s genetics, bend any dog’s temperament to my will, or solve every problem out there.

Unfortunately, there are trainers who promise to fix any problem, guaranteed. That crossed my mind the other day when I received a call from a woman in a very difficult situation. The family has four dogs, and two are fighting. The fighting dogs are each seven years old and had grown up together. One was a doxie and the other, a German Shepherd. The fights began a few months ago and became progressively worse. A few days ago, the woman came home to find the doxie covered in blood from a badly torn ear. There had never been issues between the two before, there was no valuable resource being guarded as far as she could tell (including them), and nothing had changed in the home. I suggested she get the dogs to a vet for a full blood workup, including a full thyroid panel, before beginning training. If a thyroid imbalance, liver problem, or other medical issue is causing the sudden aggression, there’s no reason to spend money on a trainer. If it isn’t physiologically-based, then yes, I told her, we would certainly be happy to come out and assess the situation.

I’m glad the woman found us instead of a trainer who would promise to “fix” the situation no matter what, because the fact is, there are some situations that are not fixable to the point that everyone can remain safe (especially if there are children in a home). Can you imagine a psychologist promising to make you like anyone, even someone you’ve taken a serious dislike to? Why do we think we can do that for dogs? Would any trainer make Sierra 100% reliable off-leash, ever? I think not, regardless of what tools and training methods were used. As a trainer, I can get her to a high degree of reliability, but as a dog-mom, I’m sure as hell not taking any chances; why would I?

It’s nice to believe that each and every dog-related situation can be solved, and that every behavior can be modified in every case. But this is the real world. Trainers can be an incredible amount of help in most cases, but there are some limitations. Being able to recognize and accept those limitations and advise owners on a realistic, appropriate course of action is part of the difference between a good trainer and an excellent one.


Holy Coyote!

December 13, 2012

“You don’t have to tell them everything.” That was the advice I got today when I told a well-meaning person about writing the blog I’m about to share…and I can see why she said it. But as much as I’m not proud of what happened a few days ago, it’s only fair to share it here, after the last post about how well Bodhi was doing off-leash at the park.

Two mornings ago, Bodhi and I were taking our usual COD (Crack Of Dawn) walk around the hills and pathways of our local park. I’d been allowing him off-leash for brief incriments in areas where I could see that no other people or dogs were around. He was doing great! He’d trot off maybe 20-30 feet away, leave pee-mail on a poor, unsuspecting bush, then come back to my side. We practiced recalls and “walk with me” as we went. He was doing so well two mornings ago, in fact, that I was able to recall him from a full charge after a bunny that crossed our path!

Although I was feeling pretty pleased with the both of us, I still kept Bodhi leashed in certain areas. It wasn’t just the people and other dogs I was concerned about—it was the coyotes that roam the hillsides. My husband, who takes one dog running in the mornings while I take the other to the park, had warned, “He’ll chase a coyote, be careful.” I didn’t doubt it. And so I waited until we’d left the hillsides where the coyotes hang out and we were headed onto the flat dirt track, a main area of the park that’s out in the open. I unclipped Bodhi’s leash and kept walking. A split-second later, he’d turned to look at something behind us in the distance, and disappeared! I don’t know how it’s possible to live with a dog for two years and never have seen him running at full speed, but that’s exactly what happened. Bodhi was suddenly a blur of black tearing across the field after a coyote, who was racing toward the hillside. My first thought was about how coyotes have been known to lure dogs into the hillsides, where their coyote gang is waiting. I ran after Bodhi, calling to him as I went.

Have I mentioned that by “the field” what I really mean is a huge dirt lot filled with nothing but sticker bushes? Nevertheless, I raced after Bodhi as fast as I could, calling to him over and over in what I hoped was still a happy, encouraging voice. All too quickly, he and the coyote disappeared around a bend in the hillside. There was nothing to do but keep running toward them and calling Bodhi’s name. Other than my voice, the morning was silent—too silent. They seemed to stretch on forever, those moments of chasing Bodhi while trying to catch my breath long enough to call him again.

In reality, it was probably less than a minute between the time he dashed off and the time he finally reappeared, trotting back toward me. My relief at seeing him was quickly replaced by worry at noticing that he was limping. Had he been attacked? Did we need to rush to the vet? Visions of having to carry Bodhi across a field of sticker bushes danced through my mind as he reached me. Since I’d been calling him, and he did show up, I managed to give Bodhi a jackpot of hot dogs and happy praise.

Then I inspected his leg. It quickly became apparent that the limping was caused by a number of stickers that had embedded themselves in his paw pads. Relieved that it wasn’t worse, I took my gloves off and carefully removed the stickers one by one—how do they always seem to manage to pierce human skin so easily? Soon Bodhi was happily walking along by my side as I led him between the bushes back on to the main trail. And yes, I leashed him.

And so, this isn’t the blog I wanted to write today. “Bodhi recalls off chasing a bunny!” would have sounded so much nicer. But it’s what happened. I’m not happy about it, and clearly I will need to be more careful in that entire section of the park. A long line is going to be Bodhi’s friend once again. That’s okay. Better safe than sorry, and believe me, had it turned out badly, that would have been the kind of sorry that would have haunted me the rest of my life. So, it isn’t pretty, but it’s the truth. Things happen, and sometimes all we can do is to learn from them and be more vigilant the next time.


Do Some Dogs Need a Heavier Hand?

November 20, 2012

It never fails—someone always says it. In an recent online discussion about a trainer known for using less-than-gentle methods, someone made a comment that sounded a lot like this: “Positive training is fine for smaller dogs and puppies, and maybe even some adults, but there are some dogs that need a heavier hand.” Really? Because that sounds an awful lot like justification for jerking, yanking, shocking, and other things done to dogs in the name of training.

I’ve heard the excuse for heavy-handedness put like this: “They’re red zone dogs” (somehow that term always makes me visualize dogs with red, flashing sirens over their heads) or something similar. The term is meant to indicate dogs who are severely aggressive, and often the trainer has been brought in as last-ditch effort before the dog is euthanized. In my years of working in canine training and behavior, I’ve worked with many of what would be termed “red zone” dogs. Lest you think I don’t fully comprehend the extreme aggresion the term is meant to denote, one example from my own clientele is the 140-pound Alsatian who had put a hole through his owner’s hand. His owner, a 6-foot-tall police officer, had adopted the dog as an adult. The first week, the man went to grab a toy on the carpet at the same time as the dog did, which resulted in the hole in the palm through which daylight was clearly visible. The dog was also very aggressive toward strangers, and had severe barrier frustration aggression. I’m happy to report that with a course of kind, gentle training and behavior modification, and some beautiful follow-through on the part of the clients, all lived carefully but happily ever after. I could go on about sucessful outcomes with dogs who multiply puncture-wounded multiple people, and how gentle methods were successful…but you get the idea. And plenty of other trainers could share similar stories.

Whenever I hear the argument for certain dogs needing a heavier hand, I think about the wolves I’ve worked with over the years. Wolves are incredibly intelligent, and they learn very quickly. They do not, however, respond to things in the same way dogs do. An attempt to physically overpower them would not go well for the human—so how could anyone possibly work with them? Gently, and with respect. It’s done at Wolf Park all the time.

It’s true that some dogs are naturally softer than others as far as temperament, and they’re more tractable when it comes to training and behavior modification. There are also some very pushy, obnoxious dogs out there (have you met my dog Bodhi?), and yes, even aggressive and severely aggressive dogs. But when we put those dogs in a box and slap a label on it (Red Zone! Beware!), we do them a disservice. That label implies, at least to some, that desperate situations call for desperate measures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Attempting to establish dominance over the dog is the first thing many trainers attempt when working with these high-risk types. I suppose the theory is that the dog will then be biddable; after all, how can you work with a dog who might go after you? But this theory misses the point. It’s not about force to begin with—it’s about gaining the dog’s trust. Think about it: Why is the dog behaving aggressively? In the vast majority of cases, it’s because he or she does not feel comfortable, and is taking the offence to keep the big, scary thing at bay. Sure, there are also dogs who are flat-out territorial or otherwise aggressive without it being fear-based, but even then, gaining trust in a non-confrontational way goes so much further than simply establishing dominance. And let’s say the trainer can “dominate” the dog. Where does that leave the family members who have to live with the dog every day? I’ve seen way too many clients who were advised to use harsh, punitive methods on aggressive dogs, and it backfired. One of my clients had been advised by a previous trainer to put her American Bulldog on his back and sit on him whenever he became aggressive. The woman had been bitten in the face, and as a result, was seeking a better way.

I don’t care if a dog is 150 pounds or 10 pounds, and whether the issue is leash manners or biting visitors. There are no dogs who need a heavier hand—there are only trainers who need more knowledge and a lighter touch.


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