It’s funny how the pendulum swings … I have noticed a disturbing trend recently among dog owners and rescuers. “Back in the day” (whenever that was), if a dog was aggressive or destructive or difficult to train, people either punished it severely, or got rid of it. Behavior science and public education have come a long way since then, but I’m afraid the blame-game has just found a new target. Though mantras like “there are no bad dogs; only bad owners” have helped people realize that training and management are the owner’s responsibility, they have also caused a lot of guilt and blame.
“It’s all about how you raise them.” Really? What about those dogs (and there are thousands, if not tens of thousands) who had the worst neglectful and abusive upbringings, but once saved are the most loving, loyal companions one could ask for?
“It’s all about how you train them.” Really? So, with a little training, your Jack Russell will no longer want to kill small animals? Your Border Collie will no longer want to herd small children? If only you’d trained him better, your dog-aggressive terrier would be a social butterfly?
Reality rarely fits into a soundbite or a mantra; unfortunately (or fortunately, if you are on the receiving end of the guilt trips) it’s much more complicated.
It amazes me how many people (myself included once, until friends and colleagues set me straight) are surprised by this simple fact: like people, dogs are a product of their upbringing, training, AND genetics. Experience and genes work together to create an individual. And “experience” doesn’t start when you bring an 8 week old puppy home; it starts before your pup is even born, and in their first few weeks of life.
Something else people don’t realize is the fact that at social maturity, which is between 1 and 3 years of age, a dogs personality can change. They go from happy-go-lucky puppy to an adult, and their true personality is revealed and cemented. Again, this has everything to do with experience AND genetics! If your dog has tolerated – but been nervous around – children during their puppyhood and adolescence, when they reach adulthood they may start being more proactively aggressive. The same can happen with dog aggression, especially if you have a breed who is prone to dislike other dogs (terriers, Akitas, Chows, etc.). If you don’t know what to look for, it may come as a complete surprise when your 2 year old German Shepherd growls at your neighbor’s kids, or when your 18 month old terrier mix goes after another dog at the park. Don’t blame yourself! Even if you could have trained or managed your dog better, blame and guilt do nothing to solve the current issue. Just make sure it doesn’t happen again!
So, you ended up with a “problem dog” … is there hope? Of course! You might not be naturally athletic, but with a lot of practice you can reach your personal best. You might even end up being more skilled than your buddy who is naturally talented, but never practices. Will you be the next Michael Jordan? Of course not. But you can hold your own in a pick-up match with your friends. It’s the same with dogs. Your shy dog will never be as self-confident or outgoing as a pup who was genetically predisposed to resiliency, but he can improve to the point where he can be around other people and dogs without debilitating anxiety. He might even improve to the point where onlookers would never know he’s a shy guy – especially if you manage him well and always set him up for success. But he is who he is … the same as all of us.
So next time someone tries to guilt trip you about your dog’s problems – or next time you blame yourself – remember: no puppy comes to you with an entirely clean slate. All you can do is try the best you can to properly socialize and train her, and work with the puppy you have. And if issues arise, help is out there! Find a trainer who uses proven, science-based, force-free methods, or contact a veterinary behaviorist. They can help you and your dog reach your own personal “bests”.
A fellow blogger – I can’t remember now who it was, please comment if you do – said we should start saying, “it’s all in how you manage them.” I like that soundbite much better!