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Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about “aggressive” dogs. Maybe it’s because I’ve been getting more involved in rescue, and I have a soft spot for the tough cases. Maybe it’s because dogs are in fact, becoming more aggressive, or maybe humans are becoming less tolerant. Whatever it is, it’s been coming up a lot.
Every trainer, owner, handler, competitor, groomer, vet, tech, shelter, rescue, foster, volunteer and staffer seems to have a different idea of what aggression is and whether or not it’s acceptable or tolerable or fixable in his/her program. That, in and of itself, is not a problem. I am keenly aware of the amount of time, dedication, money and effort it takes to work with a dog that is “aggressive” or “reactive” or “fearful” or “dominant” or whatever label you want to assign to a dog that has “issues”. The problem I have with all of these different opinions is that they are just that – opinions. Every situation, every dog, every quirk, is different, and the suffering of the dog and the family is not a spectacle or a source of gossip or a battlefield or a venue to vent personal (and often public) outrage or frustration. It’s honestly just sad. That’s not to say you can’t be frustrated, I have been, many times, but lashing out at the owner isn’t helpful, so try to vent privately, not on Facebook.
Having been through these issues with three dogs now, I have been called all kinds of names. I’ve been told I was a weak leader, a poor trainer, a soft-hearted fool, an idiot. My dogs have been called out of control, dangerous, frightening. I’ve received comments that all aggressive dogs should be euthanized, that their behavior was “unacceptable” and “intolerable”. That’s fine if you think that, but these are all opinion words. They are not fact. The fact is, however, that remarks of this nature are hurtful and really not productive. They don’t help the situation, they don’t offer advice or condolence or sympathy or even constructive criticism. What these kinds of remarks do, however, is create an overwhelming sense of shame in the owner, which flows down the leash. This, in my opinion (use of “opinion” noted), is what creates a “bad” dog.
My dogs are not bad dogs. Neither are the many dogs that are the subject of this post. They are good dogs with some issues that need to be resolved. Their issues may stem from genetics, or medical problems. They may stem from early environmental problems, or poor socialization or lack of proper training or simple mishandling. They may stem from something as serious as neglect or abuse. Whatever they stem from, it is not the dog’s fault. And regardless of whether or not it was the handler’s “fault”, when the family has reached this level of desperation it’s pointless and useless and detrimental to place blame.
That being said, I think it’s best to stay away from labels like “aggressive” and “red zone” and even the somewhat kinder “reactive” when describing a dog’s behavior, especially to a rescue. I would never, ever, suggest saying your dog is “people friendly” when he in fact barks at every single passerby, but there’s no need to slap a label on his behavior either. He may indeed be aggressive, but he may not. If he isn’t, you may have doomed him. Not everyone is going to ask you what you mean by “aggressive”. When you email a rescue and say, “My dog is aggressive,” they may take you at your word and send you an email back that says sorry, but we don’t accept aggressive dogs or worse yet, give you advice to consider euthanasia instead of rehoming when other options are available.
Instead, it gives the rescue more information and more options when you describe the behavior that you’re concerned about. Say, “Well, when other dogs are about twenty feet away my dog alerts and gets stiff and then moves toward the other dogs rapidly, pulling at his leash, and barks in a high pitched way. He doesn’t listen to me when he does this.” Or, “When I have company over, my dog will stand in the kitchen and bark and bark with his hackles up, and it seems really scary, but when the person comes near, he runs into his kennel.” These descriptions may be workable with some rescues, they may not, but either way, you’ve avoided getting a possible automatic “no” by putting the label “aggressive” on your dog.
And what about before it even gets this far? Because that’s what it is all about, right? Trying to prevent dogs from needing to be rehomed in the first place? Well, maybe if people were kinder, or more understanding, there wouldn’t be such a sense of shame in the owner at the dog’s behavior. Shame and guilt are hard to bear, and many people don’t want to deal with them. A good way to get rid of shame and guilt is to get rid of the problem. Another good way is to simply pretend the problem doesn’t exist.
Shame and guilt has gotten many a trainer bitten and many a dog rehomed or euthanized, if I had to guess.
One of the primary ways to combat shame is to encourage people to stop passing judgment. I wish people could walk into a training session and say without fear, “My dog barks at everyone and he bit a bicyclist last week, and I feel badly about it, because I should have been more careful, but here I am now.” The past is the past, there’s nothing you can do to change it. You can feel guilty (I know I do about my dogs’ behavior), but don’t let shame force you into silence. A good trainer just like a good rescue won’t pass judgment, and you shouldn’t have to fear reprisal. These people are here to help you and your dog and the information you provide them is valuable. People always say not to lie to your doctor or your vet, well, don’t lie to your trainer or a rescue either. Not only is it not helping you, but it isn’t helping your dog or society at large.
If you consult a trainer and your dog has bitten – good for you! You’re on the right path, and you’re doing the right thing. Never be ashamed to look for help! But, tell your trainer everything you can about the bite(s). It will help keep the trainer safe and give insights into what is going on with your dog. It will also allow the trainer to assess if the issue is something he/she can handle (not all trainers can or want to deal with dogs that have bitten). If you get turned down by one, try again!
And of course, above all else, do whatever is necessary to keep innocent people and dogs safe. You don’t have to be ashamed that your dog is working through some issues, but you do have to be responsible. The only thing more dangerous than a dog with issues is an owner who doesn’t recognize them. When my dogs go to the vet, they wear muzzles. I’m not ashamed of them; it just is what it is. In fact, I was the one who told the vet staff that I would feel more comfortable with my dogs muzzled. I know it is unpleasant for them, and I don’t particularly like it, but it keeps people safe, which in turn, keeps my dogs safe.
So do yourself a favor – drop the labels and drop the shame. If you’re afraid to tell people your dog has issues, embrace the issues now before they get worse and go find help before it’s too late. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, there are people out there who will help you.