Honestly Is The Best Policy
One of the most common behavioral issues that a trainer is called about is aggression. Aggression with regards to its causation and repair is a highly controversial and hotly debate subject in the dog training world.
Today, I was reminded of this when I received this article in my email today, via a Robin Macfarlane’s News Letter...
Robin MacFarlane wrote :
I've always been a proponent of the saying "Honesty is the best policy". However, this career has given me plenty of opportunity to realize that honesty isn't always easy or well accepted.
There are days I have to deliver a message that someone is not going to want to hear. Words like; "this dog is dangerous" "this dog is a liability" or "the only option I see is euthanasia" do not come without great consideration and they carry a heavy weight with them.
But there are times those words must be spoken. The challenge is helping a loving and attached person see the same reality that I am seeing.
Rose colored glasses are nice to look through. They add a lovely hue to the surroundings but they are not so good for clarity. When it comes to our dogs sometimes it is easier to find excuses to leave the glasses on than it is to see the stark image that might be right in front of us.
I recently received an e-mail that described a dog who has a multiple bite history. The newest owner described an adult dog who wasn't a stranger to using his teeth when presented with a situation he didn't like. The owner also expressed a belief that the dog "may" have been abused. I paraphrased the situation on a Facebook post and it received considerable attention so I thought it valuable to share here on the newsletter as well.
Here are the thoughts I shared on the TMD Facebook page:
if you send me an e-mail that says something like: I've rescued a 3 year old dog. He was living with a neighbor who didn't pay much attention to him. I "believe" he was abused...he has bit me several times, but not hard bites, just scratches. I tried to take away a piece of garbage he had and he came at me. He's a beautiful dog. I feel so sorry for him, he must have been abused...I love him and cuddle with him, he gets a couch to himself and I feed him as much as he wants...why does he treat me this way?
I will put it to you this way: I have rescued a 30 year old man. He was living with his mother. I "believe" he must have had a hard life. He has pulled a gun on me several times, but no direct shots, just grazed the skin. I asked him to move off of the couch so I could clean and he came at me. I just feel so sorry for his having a hard life. I tell him how great he is and feed him and he's just so handsome! I can't understand why he treats me this way.
We will need to get on the same page that sympathy over perceived abuse will not fix the problem. Unacceptable behavior may have been learned, but it can be unlearned through work, structure and rules.
If you can change your mindset about what rescuing should really mean...then we will begin the journey together of rehabbing an attitude of entitlement into one of becoming a productive and well mannered member of society.
The truth isn't always easy, but looking at situations with a skewed perception helps no one, least of all the dog. Rehabilitation of dogs who bite is often times a possibility BUT it is never going to be easy or without significant risk.
Most importantly, while empathy for a dog's "past" is a reality we must all deal with, sympathy and excuses for his present behavior will never solve the problem.
If need be able to take the glasses off and get to work.
I agree with Robin with regards to the majority of her message. I believe that being extremely emphatic does not rehabilitate a dog. It often can make a dog worse. There was part of her message that I do take offense to though. I have cringe at the advice given by any trainer where they state that, "the only option I see is euthanasia”
I think it is highly inappropriate for a dog trainer to tell a client to kill their family member. That decision should always be left up to the family. Everyone has different tolerances for risk. The trainer is there to perhaps offer advice on risk and improve the situation by any means possible without eliminating the dog. If they can't help they should simply say that and move on. By the same token I think it is highly unethical for a trainer to take large sums of money, in a situation where they know they have almost no chance of making a difference.
Having commented on inappropriate statements, I think it is very acceptable for a trainer to say, "In my opinion this dog may never be perfect", or perhaps "In my opinion this dog might always have some aggression issues." There also isn't anything wrong with making the comment of, "That this dog will require extreme levels of management and I currently don't see that in place. I see the potential for a very negative event." The trainer should avoid ultimate decision statements like the plague.
To make matters worse, trainers often have huge egos. Many figure, if they can't fix it no one can! Holy crap let some air out of that swollen head. I see that attitude regularly. I am sure lots of dogs have been killed because the person was lead to believe that their dog could neither be helped nor managed. Matter of fact there is a whole community that routinely gives advice to euthanize dogs because their adherence to an artificial rule book keeps them from being effective.
Matter of fact Tyler Muto wrote a great article on the subject...
This article was met with a ton of controversy by those that didn't want to hear the truth. I am sure this post will draw a fair bit of criticism also.
Please note that Tyler's blog post received 17,000 views on this site alone. Hopefully a few dogs were saved because some realized that they had been duped into believing a lie previously.
I have always believed that some dogs will always have a chaotic, unbalanced lifestyle with some owners and yet could have a very peaceful and harmonious life with others. So in other words, that negative behavior although more than likely genetically driven possibly might be amplified by the owner’s actions. The problem dog could potentially thrive in the right home.
The Balanced Trainers forum has a very diverse membership. There are those that love Cesar Millan, some that hate him and others like me that love the good parts and hate the bad. :-)
I often give the name of “The Farmer Method" to a Cesar-like approach. http://www.balancedtrainers.com/articles/methods/farmer
The farmer approach involves using very few tools and very assertive physical type corrections in response to bad behavior. A farmer isn't going to stand in a field with a clicker all day. Nor will you hear him regurgitate psycho-babble in a politician's stump speech like manner. If the dog is bad, he might simply whack the dog on the nose with his leather work gloves. The dog learns that when the farmer says something he means it. The farmer's interest always lies in keeping the dog alive for as long as possible because training a new one will mean time and time means money. The dog gets to live a productive life on the farm. I don't see how anyone could be critical of this. I am sure the whack on the nose didn't cause irreparable psychological damage or a shattered relationship.
Even some very skilled Balanced Trainers will scream about Cesar Millan. Their biggest claim is that his skills won't transfer over to clients. This if you actually think about it, in many cases is once again an extremely arrogant statement. To support their inflated egos, they would proudly tell the client that THEY could live with the dog but others couldn't. So the assumption being made here is that all the people born before or after them, do not have the mental fortitude to deal with a sharp dog. Yes... ma'am / sir when you born a dog trainer they shattered the mold and threw it away! Puh-lease!!! I would argue that some people that currently don't have the knowledge to live with a sharp dog have the will and assertiveness in them to learn to take a different path. Sometimes they just need to be shown the way. Many trainers need to wake up and realize that they weren't born that super special. Get over yourself already!
If you are like this man, you are very special...
Being able to teach biddable dogs to sit and telling clients with sharp dogs to euthanize them makes you ANYTHING but special. You are at best very ordinary.
So let’s now travel outside of the box. The trainer gives the advice to euthanize the dog because there is no way possible that the person could live with the dog safely. Well let’s consider that many people in the United States live with exotics. Actually the use of the term “many people” is an understatement. There are more big cats kept in the captivity in the US than exist in the wild. So if people can live with Lions, Tigers, Wolves and Bears, do you really think that an ultra-motivated owner can’t live with a 50 lb dog that takes an occasional cheap shot? Yes some people are killed by their exotics but that isn’t happening at an epidemic rate either.
So I couldn’t end this post without providing at least one example. There was a dog that I worked with some time back that very much required the Cesar / Farmer method. This dog was being fostered and had bitten in the neighborhood of a half dozen people. One such person was a potential new owner where the adoption lasted less than 2 hours. In agreement with Robin’s newsletter this dog bit the person that was nicest and showed the most empathy; that being the female foster owner.
This is the dog (foster owner in video)…
As you can see this dog had a reasonable amount of obedience but yet he continued to bite people. Obviously the typical balanced trainer and pure positive trainers approach didn’t work with a dog like this. A Cesar or Farmer like approach worked extremely well with this dog. This dog never once attempted to bite me even though I tried almost everything to push his buttons. This was done to show the couple that there was hope for this dog, if they could find someone assertive enough.
Eventually the foster family decided they could no longer take the risk, when their son was born. I highly empathized with them. This dog had less than 24 hours to live when I ended up finding an acquaintance that wanted him because he had seen the obedience video. Rescues have argued with me in the past that obedience training provides little in getting a dog adopted. In this case the youtube video saved the dogs life. The new owner was warned of the bite history.
This dogs triggers were often sticking your arm in a crate or food. So I had the foster owners lock me in the dog crate with him and a bowl of cheese.
I felt that it was essential that I prove my point, that a different attitude with a dog can make all the difference in the world.
I checked in today, 5 months later, with the owner of this dog. They said that he has made a wonderful addition to their family. I am left wondering how many trainers would have given the advice to kill this dog. To all of the trainers that would have suggested killing this dog because after all, few could live with the dog if they barely could, please consider that the gentleman and his wife that adopted this dog aren't dog trainers. They know very little about training dogs. They do understand assertiveness. Yep....so again if you think that you are special, remember...no training was given to the new owner and the dog is living in harmony. To be fair, I did give them instructions on what it would take to live with this dog. However there was no taking of 2nd mortgages to be able to afford 50 hours of psycho babble nonsense from a gifted "walk on water", omnipotent dog trainer.
I used the word KILL earlier because the dog was not suffering so therefore the word euthanize cannot appropriately be applied.
I have lived with a very sharp dog in the past myself.
My lovely wife is the person in the picture.
He only lived to be 5 due to Bone Cancer. He was far more a challenge than the dog that was previously mentioned. Despite having lost a significant quantity of blood to this dog, I can honestly say that I would not have changed a thing. It has been 2 years now since his passing, and I still mourn the loss of him. I am grateful for the level of understanding that he taught me, which now aids me in helping other troubled dogs. I wouldn’t trade the days that I spent with him for anything. My only regret is that he is no longer with me.
Please understand that I am not making any claims that I am some great trainer to be able to live with a 145 lb dog with aggression issues. Nor am I claiming that I was gifted other than in 1 department; that department being motivation. I was simply motivated to do what I could to keep my best friend with me, as long as possible. Despite the fact that I lost blood to this dog, my wife never lost a single drop. So if you are skeptical as to whether management can be successful let that be a very small amount of anectdotal evidence.
I conclude this post by saying, that I think that people need to make very careful choices and take extra care any time children are involved. They need to take the same amount of responsibility if there is the possibility of neighbors being hurt. I will say that part of a trainers responsibility is communicating potential risk. It is still not their job to make any final decisions.
I look forward to the day where trainers become more humble. Just because you have trained 1000 dogs and have been doing it 10 years doesn’t make you a great trainer.
Practice does not make Perfect. Perfect Practice makes Perfect. Volume is irrelevant in many cases.