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The Ethical Handling of Dogs with Behavior Challenges

Dog resting on cot

I am working with a dog who was afraid to come out of his yard or step into the street. He even stopped accompanying his owner to the mailbox, which he did every day. Instead, he would stand there frozen in the driveway, shaking.

We met at the gate of his yard and anxiousness was palpable. My job was actually not to find out why but to figure out how to help him. Sometimes the “why” makes itself clear and sometimes you never figure it out. We are taught to work on the problem as it is presented. In this case, we were able to uncover a direct cause.

This dog was previously able to go for walks and was being walked with another resident dog. The two would become so boisterous when seeing other dogs that the owners had almost given up. Their first call went to a different kind of a trainer with a different approach to changing behavior.

The other "trainer" took the dog out for a walk and when he saw another dog approaching, he began to bark. The man shoved the dog to the pavement and pinned him down to the street. The dog, now under attack by a stranger, started to behave in a defensive manner. He tried to free himself from the threat by writhing on the ground. As the trainer continued to hold the dog down, eliminating his ability to flee, the dog began to snarl and attempted to bite. He was trying desperately to escape. The dog was let up after almost a minute of continuous struggle and he stood, head down, tense, and shaking.

The owners were heartbroken and incredibly upset by the events. The session ended there and they moved on to find someone else to help. I was fortunate enough to be their next call but now also had the unfortunate job of having to undo a new issue - being on the street was now unsafe.

At our first session, the owners recounted their experience with the person they hired initially and I saw their faces cringe as they spoke. We discussed the fall out and what lay ahead for him - and them. I applaud these owners for how they chose to move forward. They understood the work it may take to rebuild the dog’s confidence.

We began to work with this dog around the yard, rewarding him for any movement he chose toward the driveway, mailbox, and/or street. It became his choice, not ours, on his timeline, not ours. Animals must feel safe in order to learn. They must feel like they have some control over their environment. Soon he began to walk toward the road, more relaxed each time. After a couple of weeks, he calmly led his owner down the driveway and back onto the street.

Due to owners' original report of reactivity, we taught him to walk on a Gentle Leader. I also instructed the owners to walk the dogs separately. It soon became apparent that this dog's reactivity had been triggered by the other dog. Removing that dog and doing some work with proximity, extinguished the unwanted behavior - something the other trainer never mentioned to them.

This video is of his tail after his second walk around the neighborhood:

This post Is not to debate training techniques. It is about how sensitive dogs are and what can happen when we try to change them through force, fear, and physical domination. I have heard that this trainer is a "really great guy" and in some circles, a hero. He may be. But pinning a dog to the ground by its neck is an inappropriate way to address behavior issues and will leave you with more problems than what you started with. In this case, this dog who struggled with reactivity ended up with that plus a deep fear of leaving the yard.

Personally, I question the ethics of anyone who charges money to hurt or intimidate a dog. Just because you can scare them enough to suppress an unwanted behavior does not mean it's ok. Especially when there are other tools available that will change the behavior while protecting the emotional health of your dog.

Though you maybe enamored by someone's reputation or stature in the community, it may not mean your dog is safe in their hands. If you invite someone into your home to interact with your dog, no matter who they are or what you have heard, please ask at least these 2 questions: "What will you do if my dog does something right? What will you do to my dog if he does something wrong?" If you don't get a straight answer with actual verbs, or you feel the least bit uneasy about the reponses, take your time. Do more research, talk to more professionals. FInd someone who can speak about how dogs learn, and the science behind it. (Yes, there is science behind it.)

For more of an in depth look at how to select a training or behavior professional, I suggest reading “Fetching the Perfect Dog Trainer,” by Katenna Jones.

Even if you choose to work with someone other than myself and you have questions, I would be happy to speak with you. My priority is the behavioral and emotional well-being of your dog.

Let's work together and help them be the best they can be by protecting them from force, fear, and being dominant (otherwise labeled "pack Leader.") You don't need to show them who's boss. You need to show them who understands.

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