Why I Won’t Lie to Your Spouse

I recently had the strangest interaction with a potential client. After hearing about how their dog was exhibiting biting and growling behavior with his spouse and child I ask where the dog had come from and was not surprised to hear that he had been acquired in Amish Country. Like most dogs from the puppy mills in this area, the potential client had not been able to interact with either parent when they picked the dog up. I gently explained that this gave me some pause because there is often a genetic component to aggression and I wanted him to understand that there may need to be a permanent management plan in place for the entirety of the dogs life.

He seemed to understand my point and we talked about the types of management we may put into place and general ideas of how training would progress depending upon the behavioral issues I saw upon arrival. We scheduled our first lesson and things seemed good to go, until we started to get off the phone and he made a request that I not say anything about the genetic aspects of behavior in front of his wife. This made me stop in my tracks. I explained to him that I would not be willing to lie to his wife about the dog but I would try to explain things the best way I could.

A few hours later I received a text canceling our appointment and I had to laugh to keep from crying.

I have come across this type of request only a few times in my almost 20 years of training, but each time it always seems to involve a dog with a bite history. One partner is trying to convince the other to keep the dog and is worried that the information will be the straw that breaks the camels back so they want me to tiptoe around the issue and only talk about it with them. Ethically, I just can’t do that to the dog OR the human!

Anyone who knows me knows I love interesting and challenging behavioral cases. I have loved and lived with dogs who would have been deemed unadoptable in many shelters but I understood the assignment, as the youths would say. I knew going into the situation what living with these dogs would look like, how much of an impact they would have on my daily schedule, the risks they pose for my children and partner, and how they would affect my other pets. I have the opportunity to review all the information available to me and decide if that is a commitment I am willing to take on.

Some times in my life I have not been able to do so. Sometimes it was too dangerous to take on a large bitey dog with my daughter just learning to walk and struggling with boundaries. Sometimes I knew that taking on a dog reactive pup would be unfair to my existing dog who had just learned to trust other four legged creatures and could suffer a major set back if a newcomer attacked. Sometimes I just knew that I did not have the emotional bandwidth to give a troubled dog the time and energy it needed in order to have a shot at a better life. All of those are valid choices I made for my family based upon all the available information.

Dog owners deserve to have that information as well. As a trainer who has built her career around rehabilitating gently used pets and helping their adopters meet their needs I strongly believe that we, in the animal welfare industry, have put to much emphasis on the lifetime commitment owners make to a pet and not enough emphasis on the commitment to give the animals a good life. If an adopter takes on a dog who has genetic based aggression and will require constant management as an informed choice, that is one thing. But sometimes a young family finds a sweet pup at the shelter that the staff assures them is “just scared” and this pup ends up being a terrible fit for their household. The parents both work long hours, the kids are a little more rambunctious than the dog would prefer, and the bitey growlies start to make an appearance.

Could the dog be rehabilitated? Yes, there is definitely a chance! But not everyone adopts a dog to become a dog trainer. In too many of these cases the dog ends up simply being locked away from the family most of the day for everyone’s safety. These people truly love their dog and often try many things before ever calling a professional. The owners feel too guilty to give them up, but they are just not capable of spending hours each week slowly acclimating the dog to all the things it finds scary or taking walks in the middle of the night when no neighbors are out so the pup can get its exercise without going over threshold. The owner who is determined to keep the dog suffers terrible guilt, the dog suffers from lack of appropriate enrichment, and often the relationships in the house are strained by frustration & resentment for the owner who didn’t know what they were in for. It is a quick spiral into misery for everyone involved. It is a HUGE undertaking to properly care for a dog with behavioral needs for the rest of its life and it is simply not fair to force or trick someone into taking this on.

Sometimes the best way to show a lifetime commitment to a dog is by making sure it can find a home where someone can give it the type of specialized care it needs. We forget that, just like in human relationships, love is not all you need. Sometimes the dog needs time, resources, and support that you were simply not prepared for and if after talking to all responsible members of your household you decide you are not able to meet these needs, there is no shame in seeking help to place the dog in a more appropriate home. The earlier the dog receives intervention the better their prognosis is for rehabilitation and at no point is the dog going to thrive when only one member of the house is dedicated to or able to carry out the training it needs.

So be kind to your animals, but be kind to your humans and your self too. Living with a reactive or aggressive dog is not easy and it is not something that everyone can or should be doing. It is only when we care more about the dog’s welfare than our pride and feelings that we can truly carry out our full commitment to give them a life worth living.

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