By: Jace MacDonald
Dogs are a huge part of our everyday lives. Whether you own one or live near them, it is almost impossible to go a day without seeing a dog. They make for such great social companions and can work for us in many ways. However, some dogs are not super loving. Some dogs come with “baggage” and behavioral issues. Most of the time, to no fault of their own, these dogs had a bad start in life. They could have been abandoned on the side of a road, left to fend for themselves since birth. They could have been abused and malnourished by their owners. They could have been used as bait for other dogs. The possibilities are endless as to what things could go wrong in a dogs’ life early on that will set them up for failure later down the road.
Because dogs are so widely accepted, and we have integrated them into our lifestyles, people have “rescued” or adopted these kinds of dogs in hopes of either providing them with a better life or trying to fix those undesirable behaviors. If you are an owner that has a dog like this, you know the toll it can take on both you and the dog. It is no easy thing living with a dog who at any moment can be triggered by a past event and lash out. Some of these reactive behaviors can be managed or possibly extinguished through various styles of training programs, but sometimes they cannot. As a professional trainer who has been doing this for 7 years, working with dogs who have certain “behavioral issues”, I’ve come to learn and realize that not every dog can be fixed. Not every dog will be able to socialize properly or interact with other people and dogs successfully. There comes a point where you enter, what I call, “The Preventative Stage”. This stage is where you have exhausted all possible resources, at an extensive degree, and simply cannot change or make better the situation you and your dog have. I know this can happen, because this is where I am at with my own personal dog Nova.
Nova was adopted two and a half years ago by my wife Hanna, who at the time I did not know yet. Hanna adopted Nova, a Pitbull mix, from a shelter in Ohio. They stated that Nova was rescued from an animal hoarding situation, and that was it. That was the only background and information she could get on her. Well, Hanna decided that she liked Nova and her personality, and thought she was very cute. So, she adopted her. Fast forward three weeks and Hanna met me (a dog trainer), and we hit it off and later on got married. Perks of marrying a dog trainer is that you get free dog training! Nova seriously needed it. She would pull hard on the leash and react and lunge toward other dogs, jump excessively on people, eat bowls of candy off the shelves, ate objects around the house, would urinate and defecate in the house… you get the point. Luckily all those things are trainable and easily managed. In a few short months, Nova was crushing her basic obedience. She was getting better at walking past dogs on leash, not getting into anything around the house, and fully potty trained. It wasn’t till Christmas time that we realized Nova had some “baggage” to her.
Two years ago, Hanna was having Christmas at her mom’s house and had Nova with her. Everything was going fine. That is until her grandfather came in. As soon as Nova saw him, she ran charging at him, growling and barking. She immediately went after his feet and started trying to bite them. Everyone was in shock and told me later (I was not there for this encounter), that “it came out of nowhere and for no reason at all”. What people don’t know or realize, is that dogs do not do things “for no reason at all”. There is always some reason, always something underlying that makes the dog act in a certain way. We at the time did not know what that was. So, we wrote it off as a fluke, a one-time event. Not a few months later, all three of us were at my grandparents’ house and a very similar situation occurred. Nova was laying on the floor and my grandpa a few feet away from her in a chair. He lifted his foot to place it on his footrest, and once again, Nova attacked.
For whatever unknown reason, or previous event, Nova does not like “old” men and their feet. It is very clear at this point and throughout the years spent with her, that she was terrified of older men. Her “aggression” towards them was fear based. The only logical thing I could conjure up in my mind, was that the previous owner was an older man who may have come home every day and kicked her, or something like that. So, I got to work. I implemented every style of training possible, from counterconditioning and desensitization to positive punishment. I spent two years working with and training her to not attack old men and their feet. We started to have some good success! I wrote a blog on “aggressive breeds”, and she was featured in that blog with a video of her taking a carrot from the mouth of an “older” male. Click Here to reference that post. I still did not fully trust her and made sure to implement the right training for the moment, but overall, she was a happy, loving, energetic pittie. There were times still that she would growl or make a short lunge towards one of our grandparents’ feet, but I could stop her mid act with a command or prevent the situation from happening by having her go to her “place” and stay there while my grandparents came in or moved around the room. We had setup very choregraphed meetings, where anytime an older gentleman came over, they would have to give Nova food by turning sideways, crouching down to get on her level and talk in a high-pitched happy voice. This was so that one, their feet were harder to access and two, when people turn sideways and crouch down, their body language is less threatening to a dog. This worked well and we went a long time without any issues.
Just the other day, everything went south. We had our grandparents over for dinner. The door to enter the house was locked, but it is locked by a keypad that they knew the combination to. They forgot about how Nova could be and did not think of setting up our choregraphed meetings. Instead, they walked right in. Nova came tearing down the stairs to see what “intruders” were there, and she saw my grandfather and immediately got ahold of his ankle. He had to fight her off of him with an umbrella that he was carrying, and by the time I got down there she had let go but was still trying to get at him. I ran over, yelling the “Stop” command and luckily our training paid off because she stopped immediately and laid down. I quickly grabbed ahold of her and safely put her into her crate while I tended to my grandfathers’ wounds. He had four punctures, one being deep. After all the adrenaline and excitement settled my grandfather apologized to me and realized what they had did was wrong. I politely and apologetically explained to him that you cannot just walk into a house at random that has a dog in it, let alone a dog with “issues”. Thankfully he was very understanding and at the end of the day everyone was alright.
I however was mortified and beaten. I felt like a failure as a dog trainer. I had put in all this time and effort to make Nova a better dog, and essentially none of it mattered. If the right situation presents itself, no matter how much she’s learned or been counter conditioned, she will bite. Think of it as PTSD. You simply cannot control it. When it happens, you lose all sense of reason, and your body goes into flight or fight mode. So, we have now entered “The Preventative Stage”. To provide Nova the best life possible, and to avoid having her get put down by court mandate, we must prevent things like this from ever happening again. There is no more “training” that can help her. Currently my solution will be simple. Anytime guests come over, she wears a muzzle, which she has been conditioned to. Anytime we are at a house that has older men, or older men come into our house, she will be crated. Unfortunately, she just cannot be trusted. What’s even more unfortunate is that if Nova perhaps had a more enriching and positive beginning to life, that none of this would have even happened. I truly believe that dogs of all breeds and sizes can be either happy and sociable, or mean and aggressive. It comes down to what US HUMANS do to the dogs in those early stages of life.
The point of me writing this blog is to help educate people on reactive dogs. To show and explain how difficult it can be to live with one, and what all goes into providing this dog with a better life. Those that are in similar situations can resonate with this post and understand how challenging it can be. People who have the perception that all dogs are and should be friendly, need to learn that is simply just not the case. Those people need to learn how to properly interact or even NOT interact with those dogs. Those people need to know that the owner of the reactive dog does not enjoy their behavior either, and are probably working really hard to change it. My goal as a dog trainer is to teach people how to better live with and understand dogs in general. The more we as the humans know about our furry friends, the less of these kinds of dogs will exist. We are the culprits in our dogs’ behaviors, we have the control to make them good or bad. We as the human race need to stand up and take charge for our actions, to help save the lives of many dogs that get tossed aside or put down due to human incompetence.
I hope you found this post informative, and if you have any questions feel free to reach out to me. All of my contact information is on my website: www.hdinteractions.com