Sometimes it is the dog, not the owner.

Dr. Laurie Schulze is a visiting veterinarian who specializes in behavior consults. I have used her services myself, and have directed several clients to her. She is a compassionate professional and we had a great interview with her on Your Family Dog. She posted an article on Facebook from the website Animal Sheltering called “When love isn’t enough” about times when shelters and canine foster groups have to make the decision to euthanize a dog due to behavior problems. There are times when love isn’t enough to fix the problems that a dog has. All the best efforts of trainers and vets do not alleviate the issues, and the very hard decision to euthanize an otherwise healthy animal has to be made, not only by shelters, but by owners as well.

So, why is it that some behavior problems cannot be resolved? With enough time, money, and talent, couldn’t every behavior problem be successfully addressed? Maybe…but dogs, like kids, are not blank slates when they are born. They bring their own personalities and genetic makeup to how they interact with and interpret this experience we call life. While puppies are malleable in many ways, there may or may not be things they can tolerate, things that scare or enthrall, experiences that are joys to one dog, terrifying to another. We can ameliorate many difficult situations, teach our pups that the world is a good place to be, but some dogs have more resilience to difficulties than others, some are more inclined to use force, and some are destined to see the world as a terrifying place, no matter what we do to convince them otherwise.

Experience, unfortunately, has taught me that as much as families may love their dog, there are some dogs who cannot change enough to fit their circumstances. A dog who does not have bite inhibition; has low tolerance for stressful situations; is overly sensitive to stimuli, touch, noises, movement; startles easily; and/or reacts with barking, growling, or biting to stress; may not have the underlying temperament needed to live in a family and may not have the resiliency to adapt and change enough to be happy and safe in society. 

When evaluating a situation, I try to look at both the big picture and the individuals involved. I have to help the family as well as the dog. Each child, each pet, each person has a stake in the future of the family. My job, in part, is to help them decide whether or not this particular dog can become a well-mannered member of their familiar unit. To do this we need to look at the dynamics of the family, their willingness and ability to manage and train the dog, the responsiveness and resiliency of the dog to training, and how much time, money, and effort can be expended to resolve the situation.

Sometimes the family does not have the resources needed to rehabilitate a dog. Other times the risk of serious future incidents is too high to consider behavior modification and strict management protocols effective enough to prevent calamity. And sometimes, the dog itself does not have the internal resources necessary to be rehabilitated.  The family may have raised the dog correctly: socializing it to a variety of people, places, and things; getting it to puppy class; using positive reinforcement training methods, etc. But, the innate reactivity of Rover to stress makes it hard to manage him safely around people, especially if he is prone to biting to resolve conflict. 

Let me pose a hypothetical: Suppose you have a dog who is friendly 95% of the time*, yet is quick to amp up and has bitten when excited. Perhaps the first bite was minor, scraping the skin and drawing blood, but no puncture marks. You vow to manage her better, especially when she is excited, but quite unexpectedly, she bites and delivers a puncture to the forearm of your elderly mother. Then, one of your kids trips, and falls down next to the dog. She bites your 6 year old daughter on the leg three times, leaving 4 punctures, as well as scraping her teeth down the side of your daughter’s head. These incidents all happen within 6 weeks of one another. The dog is 1 year old.

What do you do?  If things reach this point, there are several options you can consider:

  1. Hope for the best.You can just wait to see how the situation continues to develop. After all, having bitten 3 times doesn’t absolutely mean she’ll do it again…right?
  2. Rehab and manage. This second option means strict management protocols both during and following a behavior modification program. This is not easy, nor can it offer a 100% guarantee she won’t bite again. The probability of success depends on many individualized factors including the severity of the problem, the composition of the family (number of people in the household, number and ages of children, impaired individuals, other dogs or pets, etc.) and how much time they can realistically devote to the program. Questions that need to be asked are: Did any bites require medical attention? Can you follow strict supervision protocols and be sure they are fail proof? Would you really trust her with your children again? Can you afford (financially, emotionally, and time-wise) to work with a trainer or behaviorist?
  3. Re-homing the dog. This may be an option, but under Ohio law, you must fully disclose the dog’s history to the new owners. Ask yourself, would you take on a dog that bites? Or, would you feel completely at ease passing her on to another family? What if they can’t or won’t manage her?
  4. Humane euthanasia. This way you prevent any future incidents, but you are ending the life of a young, healthy dog, which is unbelievably heartbreaking.

Are any of these options without consequence? No. Are any of them easy? No. But, ask yourself this: what if you were a parent and your child was bitten by a dog at a friend’s house. How would you feel if you found out the dog had bitten previously? Wouldn’t you be angry? Wouldn’t you be asking why the dog wasn’t better supervised, or why the dog was still there?

All this said, I am not advocating wantonly giving up on troublesome dogs. Rather, for those who are inclined to believe it is the fault of the owner for not trying hard enough or not loving the dog enough, I am urging compassion and sensitivity when looking at a situation where a family (or a shelter) is dealing with an aggressive, problematic, and/or biting dog. In all likelihood, those on the outside do not know the entire story. They do not have to live with the dog (and the consequences of its actions) on a daily basis.

Nor, have I yet to find anyone facing this dilemma who takes this lightly or without a great deal of soul-searching, pain, humiliation, fear, and uncertainty. They have probably lived with the problem for months, struggled with the solution, and are trying to do right by the dog, their family, and their community. 

And, in most cases, there are no simple, easy, unemotional, or painless solutions to the problem, nor is there any one best course of action. These families will have to live with the decision that they make for the rest of the dog’s life, and they will likely rethink and reevaluate it for the rest of their lives as well. I know, because my family has faced this decision, and even though I am a trainer, this was no easier or clearer for me than it was for any other dog owner.

Fortunately, most people do not have to face this alone, nor should they. If you have a problem that is escalating in severity or frequency start with talking to your veterinarian. Our vet was crucial in helping us to understand the problem more clearly. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a search page where you can find someone specializing in behavior to help you review your options. If you have a trainer, talk to her as well. I am also happy to talk with you, so please feel free to contact me. 

We were very lucky that none of our supporters tried to convince us of a particular course of action, but helped us to weigh the heart wrenching options as carefully as possible. As a result, this is why I face, not only the unpredictability of pet ownership, but the challenges of helping others to wade through options that seem impossible to bear.  

*95% is the most common number I hear from owners with reactive dogs, and one reason why it is so difficult to resolve the situation. Most of the time the dog is great, but what happens during that 5% is critical to determining what course of action will be taken. If the dog has a predictable trigger that can be managed and desensitized, resolution of the problem is more likely. If, however, the dog is highly unpredictable, has multiple triggers, and/or has an escalating (in severity and frequency) bite history, then the situation is much more problematic. 

Also, consider what 95% actually mean in terms of everyday interactions with your dog. Five percent of a 24 hour day means that over one full hour of time with your dog is problematic.  But it’s actually more difficult than that implies. If your dog was unpredictable for one hour at a time, this would be manageable. But in reality, of course, this hour of potentially problematic interactions is spread throughout the day. So, in terms of interactions, that means that out of every 100 interactions with your dog, 5 could be potentially harmful (An interaction could be as simple as walking by the dog). Who can supervise every interaction, every time, with every person?

 

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