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

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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Breed Specific Prejudices—Among Trainers

October 5, 2009

I got a call the other day from a potential training client. When I asked what kind of dog she had, the woman replied, “A five month old pit bull.”

“We’re very pit-friendly!” I said immediately. Why, you might wonder, did I feel the need to share that? Because of all the calls I’ve taken from potential clients who said other trainers refused to work with their dogs based on breed. This unwillingness to work with a specific breed is not limited to pit bulls, although I’ve heard it most often in that regard. Once a caller informed me that a local trainer she’d spoken to refused to work with Siberian huskies. I have a hard time fathoming why. Of course, if a trainer has been badly bitten or otherwise traumatized by a specific type of dog, he or she might have a conditioned response and be unwilling to work with it again. And if we’re being honest, many trainers have a specific breed or two they simply dislike or are actually afraid of. But even in those cases it’s better to explain why the job is being turned down than to leave the owner feeling something is wrong with her dog.

The more common reasons a trainer might refuse to work with a particular breed are due to preconceived notions about behavior and potential danger. It’s true that pit bulls do have more potential for damage, than, say, bichons. I know a trainer whose leg was mauled pretty badly by a pit. But I also know of many pit bulls who are perfectly lovely, sweet dogs who tolerate the typical fur-pulling and pat-pat-head-smacking by kids much more graciously than the majority of pocket pets I’ve met. Sure, pit bulls can have dog-dog aggression issues, but a well-bred pit bull with a solid temperament is one of the most people-loving dogs you’ll find.

Of course, it’s not just trainers who have this prejudice. When I volunteered for the Los Angeles city shelter system in the 90s, part of my duties included assisting the public in choosing a dog. Time after time the same scenario played out: a mother and child would be playing with and cooing over an adorable pit bull in a pen. The mom would finally turn and ask the dog’s breed. I’d answer “pit bull.” Mom would immediately take a giant step back, pushing the child behind her as though the dog was about to sprout horns, pull the bars apart, proclaim, “I am pit!” and maul them both. “It’s the same dog you were petting a minute ago” didn’t seem to make much difference. Cage cards say things like “Staff X” (Staffordshire Terrier Mix) for a reason—it’s less potentially off-putting than the dreaded “pit bull” label. But the dog is what it is, and I don’t believe in trying to fool people.

The public’s perception of pit bulls and certain other breeds is understandable. After all, you don’t often hear stories on the news like “Angry Chihuahua bites toddler!” Not that it doesn’t happen—you just won’t hear about it. I’m guessing small dogs are under-represented in breed bite statistics as well, because many people find it embarrassing to even report the bite.

When trainers feed into these existing misperceptions, though, it only fuels the fire. As professionals, trainers have the right to refuse service to anyone they like. But we owe it to owners not to make them feel as though there is something wrong or lesser about their chosen breed, and therefore their particular dog, who they obviously care enough about to seek professional help. Trainers are on the front lines of education, which is why it is so important for us to be educated. We have the capacity to help or hinder, and to indirectly contribute to or fight breed specific legislation based on the public perceptions we engender. Realizing that each breed is made up of individuals is the least we can do to promote a “deed not breed” philosophy.

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