Unwanted canine behavior in the United States kills dogs at three times the rate that they die from cancer. A snarling, growling, or biting dog stands a serious chance of losing his life, and it often hardly matters what happened to the dog to provoke such a response. Our society is intolerant of dogs that demonstrate that they are uncomfortable in their environment with a warning growl or an air snap, and a bite can be a certain death warrant. Even so, when a dog does show aggressive behavior, many of us still deeply love that dog. It is our shared bond that puts committed dog owners on the hunt to find viable solutions for their best four-legged friends.
Dogs have broken my heart in many ways, many times over. Through no fault of their own, dangerous or highly dysfunctional dogs do show up from time to time. I’ve cried alongside clients who’ve made the hardest decision that one has to make in a relationship with a dog, and that is to put the dog down before it is physically his time because of pathological, unsolvable behavior problems. My world was shattered when I walked that final road with a young female German Shepherd.
Dogs have also healed me. They’ve been my confidants, my companions, my protectors, and my life for fifty years. I have become an open-hearted human because of what I first learned from dogs—even though, like so many dogs I’ve helped, I had a rough start in life. With dogs by my side, I was able to survive a difficult childhood; one of my dogs even followed my bus to school every day and would seek me out during recess. I owe dogs a lot. One dog literally saved my life—twice.
With dogs come their owners. I was so let down by observing the cruel things that humans do to dogs that I was becoming reactive (overreacting to everyday situations) and aggressive (defensive or even wanting to do harm) toward others. My level of compassion for dogs never waned, but my affection for people began to ebb away. Then something astounding happened: I found my tribe of humans. They are you: the owners who care enough about the well-being of their troubled dogs that they read a book like this one.
Here, I share stories of my long life with dogs as a way to pay homage to their incredible natures and their willingness to be a great comfort to millions of us. Dogs bring us joy and love—at least, those are our expectations of them. Life gets complicated for man and dog alike when a dog’s behavior doesn’t match up with our expectations. I write for the average dog owner who finds him- or herself living with a dog that displays serious behavioral concerns, such as growling, lunging at other dogs or people, or attempting to bite other dogs or people. Some things in this book will be hard to read because I don’t shy away from sharing what can happen to dogs when owners don’t stand up for fair and ethical training and breeding practices. I also don’t leave out my own learning curve with dogs. We are not born experts, and I had to wade through bad dog-training information as much as anyone else.
If you are living with a troubled dog, the most important thing you can do is bring in a truly experienced and knowledgeable dog trainer or behaviorist as soon as the unwanted behavior shows up. It does no one (least of all, the dog) any favors to wait with the expectation that your dog will outgrow these serious issues, such as aggression or fear-driven behavior. Dogs will get worse without proper, force-free intervention. Although I present some of the most modern, scientifically proven ways to help a dog, the very first thing I want you to do, before you try any of these tools yourself, is to get professional help and then use this book as an additional guide alongside the professional trainer’s work. I’ll tell you in this book how to find that qualified professional who will be able to help you master the tools you’ll need to see true behavioral change.
I see this book as not only a warning about what not to do to but also as a truly inspiring journey that shows just how far dog owners are able to take their once-troubled housemates. Many of my clients have gone on to obtain the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen titles for their once-reactive dogs, and they are now out in the world, walking their dogs during normal hours, going on group hikes, and participating in dog sports.
One of my goals in writing this book is to help troubled dogs find peace in their homes as their owners become more informed about canine behavior and how dogs learn. My goal is also to reach out through the pages to you—the compassionate owner—to tell you that you are not alone and that there are solutions for most dogs. We can often reduce our dogs’ anxiety, and we can often replace their unwanted behaviors with desired behaviors. In many ways, it is a fortunate time to own a troubled dog because so many bright minds across many fields of study are exploring what makes dogs tick and how we can best help them.
My final goal is to serve as a coach in helping you change your dog’s behavior so that you can retire from the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club: a lonely club of dog owners who become so embarrassed or worn out by their dogs’ behavior in public that they resort to walking their dogs at off hours in an attempt to avoid their dogs’ making a scene.
It is true that in order to change another species’ behavior, we must first change our own. Change is not easy for you or for your dog, but it is worthwhile, especially when it brings serenity back into both of your lives. A troubled dog—especially one baring his teeth—does not have a good outlook for a long life without your help. It’s as simple and as real as that.
I’ve walked countless dog owners through this process, and I have faith that you, too, can see improvements in your dog’s quality of life, thereby improving your own as well.
Note: I have changed some of the humans’ and dogs’ names to provide privacy for my clients. I also chose to call dogs “him” or “her” and not “it.” I believe each dog to be a sentient, unique being with his or her own personality and therefore not an “it.”