Do you always keep a box of Kleenex in your office for consults?” Jennifer, the owner of a four-year-old Labrador Retriever, asked as I passed her the box.
“They’re needed fairly often in this room,” I responded, with a warm and understanding smile. I didn’t tell her how many boxes of Kleenex my clients go through each week, nor that I buy in bulk.
My client’s dog, Sissy, had shocked Jennifer by sinking her teeth into her new puppy’s muzzle over the weekend, damaging the young pup’s palate and requiring an expensive weekend trip to the emergency vet clinic for more than fifteen stitches. Before that, while out on a leashed walk, Sissy had lunged at and nipped a much larger dog belonging to a neighbor. In the previous four years, Sissy had been an ideal companion with zero signs of aggression. Jennifer and her husband had two young kids at home, and their son’s leg had been nicked as he broke up the fight between the Lab and the puppy. They recognized the potential for serious injury both to their children and to other dogs from their deeply loved Lab.
Annie with a client’s dog named Armani at a gorgeous spot in Durango, Colorado. No force is necessary to train any dog.
This worried and grief-stricken dog owner would not be the first person in my office that week who needed an entire box of Kleenex as we discussed a dog’s dangerous behavior. Jennifer admitted softly that she had begun to walk her dog at strange hours—usually after midnight—in an attempt to avoid all other dogs. She had become the newest member of the club that no one is happy to belong to: the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club.
I started calling these owners by that moniker after years of working with aggressive dogs and hearing about this unhappy solution. Walking their dogs late at night took an obvious toll on the owners—stealing sleep time and more. Even on those dark walks, both dog and owner remain hypervigilant and on the lookout for any perceived threats. Owners who have lunging, barking, and growling dogs often feel embarrassed and ashamed when their dogs are triggered by another dog, a stranger, a person on a skateboard, and the like. Many feel as though their dogs betray their idea of what a dog is and how a dog should behave. Others expect dogs to love all other dogs and people, even though we don’t demand that of ourselves.
These owners have no successful methods to stop their dogs’ unwanted antics, although many of them may have heard about or even seen trainers demonstrating forceful techniques, such as rolling dogs onto their backs to teach them to “behave.” Such techniques have no basis in scientifically proven, effective dog training. Even though owners should never blindly try these training tactics at home, many owners do try outdated and harmful punishment methods in desperate attempts to “fix” their dogs. Many find that their dogs’ behavior worsens after they employ aggressive control tactics.
Aggression begets aggression, and studies prove this. Many owners get bitten as they try to “dominate” their terrified dogs. Some dogs just shut down entirely, afraid of making a wrong move and infuriating their unstable humans. While some misguided souls consider a shut-down dog to be a well-trained one, this sad result does nothing to alleviate the internal anxiety that such a dog feels around either his now physically abusive owner or whatever triggers caused the outbursts. I end many a week with another trip to the grocery store to stock up on more boxes of Kleenex. Sometimes I need those tissues after hearing the horrible things that people attempted because they saw it demonstrated by uncredentialed trainers.
According to well-known veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, professor, and best-selling author, 42 percent of dog owners say that their dogs have a behavior problem, and the number-one problem is canine aggression. Aggression—whether it is directed at humans or other dogs—is the most common behavioral reason that owners are referred to veterinary behaviorists. It’s also the number-one reason that animals are relinquished to shelters. Dr. Dodman concludes that three times as many dogs are destroyed for behavior issues as die from cancer. There are approximately 77.8 million dogs in the United States, so if Dr. Dodman is correct that 42 percent of dog owners report behavior problems, there are potentially 32 million dogs in the United States with behavior concerns.
Dogs of any size can display dangerous behavior.
Beyond those figures, many of us in the dog-training field feel that more dogs than ever have lost the ability to happily, successfully, and calmly greet another dog on leash. These dogs may not truly be considered aggressive or reactive and have no bite history, but their out-of-control behavior causes their owners the same sense of embarrassment and concern that a biting dog can. The potential for real harm does exist, and the owners know it in their bones—and so do the dogs at the other end of the leash. It seems at times as though our dogs mirror our own human ability to be aggressive toward one another. Dogs can just be flat-out rude in greeting each other. Is it our fault…or theirs?
The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. In addition to physical wounds, millions of Americans also develop a seriously negative feeling about dogs after one sinks its teeth into their delicate human flesh. Twenty-seven thousand victims per year undergo reconstructive surgery as a result of dog bites. There is a large financial cost as well, to the tune of $483 million a year. Dog-bite claims in 2013 accounted for one-third of all homeowners’ liability insurance claims. One might think that the insurance-industry giants would have a vested interest in reducing the number of dog bites, but, to my knowledge, there are no large-scale programs in which insurers are working with credentialed behaviorists or trainers.
Children suffer the most dog bites (359,223 in 2013), and when a dog opts to communicate with a child using his powerful teeth, the dog’s life often comes to an abrupt end, even if the child was harassing the dog and even if an irresponsible parent left the two alone together (one study discovered that an adult was not present in 69 percent of the dog-bite incidents). There is also a heavy emotional toll on the child, who is most likely bitten by a dog that he knows and loves, and the child might very well believe himself to be the cause if the dog is destroyed.
Young boys are bitten the most often. Our focus should be, therefore, aimed straight at teaching young boys to use different behaviors when they are interacting with dogs. Instead, we kill dogs if they dare defend themselves from inappropriate or unwanted behaviors exhibited by young male humans. Little boys and our lack of instruction for them are true “red zone” cases.
But how much of a true threat are our dogs to our children? The foregoing numbers seem pretty frightening. A recent policy paper issued by the Animals and Society Institute points out that children younger than ten are three times more likely to drown in a 5-gallon bucket than die from a dog bite. That same paper accurately states that an individual is as likely to be killed by a forklift or a cow as by a dog. Nonetheless, dogs willing to use their teeth are in serious danger of losing their lives, even though dog-bite fatalities are extremely rare. Humans are far more dangerous to dogs than dogs are to humans.
Annie’s Border Collies, Radar and Echo, were semi-feral when she rescued them as puppies from a neglectful home. They now both have advanced Canine Good Citizen titles, Echo is a certified therapy dog, and Radar competes in nosework trials.
A Biting Problem
Why do dogs even resort to using teeth? There are many reasons—and humans are at the root of most, if not all, of them. Dogs have become more inbred than at any other time in our shared history, in large part because there is a great deal of money to be made in breeding dogs. So-called “backyard breeders,” who do not seek registration for their litters or membership in breed clubs, have few to no restrictions on what they breed and how often. Some states, such as my home state of Colorado, are making significant legal changes to better protect dogs, including a law that makes it illegal to sell or give away puppies younger than eight weeks of age. Large puppy-mill organizations are still legal in several states, and not only do they put unhealthy but expensive puppies into the arms of unsuspecting owners, but the parent dogs suffer horribly and live in filthy, unbearable conditions.
Inherited reactivity or fear is a real phenomenon that causes suffering both for the dog that is troubled and for the human who loves the dog. Puppy mills, overbreeding, inbreeding, and a lack of proper socialization have led to a crisis in our relationship with our best friend. From a dog’s point of view, he might be better off walking away from this sort of hurtful relationship and choosing instead to live as the great majority of dogs do around the globe—near humans but far enough away from them that the humans do not interfere with their day-to-day lives.
One reason dogs resort to biting is the way we train them. A study by veterinary behaviorists in 2009 revealed that training with aversives (results that are unpleasant to the dog) elicits more aggression from a dog. Aversives in this study included leash pops and/or performing an “over” (an action in which an owner throws the dog to the ground and forces him on his back in a horrible misuse of training and misunderstanding of human leadership). Many subsequent studies reveal the same thing: using physical force in an attempt to train a dog will likely backfire and create an even more aggressive animal. Other studies show that using positive reinforcement (that is, using food, toys, or the like to motivate a dog to enjoy learning and to reinforce the behavior that the owner wants the dog to repeat) does not elicit aggression.
Whenever there is a dog-bite incident that also involves a dog trainer making national headlines, I put on my investigative reporter’s hat and do some sleuthing. Time and time again, I discover that the trainer used aversive methods. Take the sad story of Paul, a rescued German Shepherd in Union County, North Carolina, whose life ended the day he attacked a person in a park. Paul then went after the woman who had “trained” him after she had sprung him two weeks earlier from a shelter that was set to euthanize him for aggression. A sheriff’s deputy was called to get the dog off the trainer, and he had to shoot Paul dead to stop the attack. The trainer involved had received a large portion of her own training from Schutzhund competitors, who excel in teaching students how to use shock collars on dogs. (Schutzhund is a dog sport originating in Germany that focuses on protection, obedience, and tracking skills.) Her only other training came from an online school. She had no known or publicly documented training in behavioral modification. I did, though, find this in a news story: “‘The owner was bitten, I believe, when they [sic]were trying to hold the animal down,’ said Captain Goodman.”
Was the trainer attempting to alpha roll (throw the dog on his back to “prove” that she, the human, was dominant) this dog? Did Paul die with a shock collar on his neck? We probably won’t ever know the answers to these questions. This dog did not have rabies or any other publicly known health issues. What caused him to attack so viciously? What role did any potential aversive training have in creating this scenario? He was listed as a stray at the shelter, and it is true that we do not know what happened to him prior to his landing in the shelter. We do know, however, that he was sent to a trainer who used aversives in her training practice.
You can train any dog with human compassion, intelligence, fairness and without fear or pain inflicted on the dog.
Reward-based training is the best way to handle behavior problems, even serious problems like aggression.
The Case against Aversives
In 2014, a homeless pit bull was fostered by a volunteer for a rescue group in Texas. The head trainer and operator of the rescue had received her training from a well-known trainer who fetches large sums to train dog owners and to teach his beliefs about pack psychology (even though pack theory, or dominance theory, has been debunked again and again by scientists). The rescue volunteer claimed that the dog got his foot caught in a crate and then violently attacked her to the extent that it took three adult men to get him off her, even after she used a taser on him. She had two broken bones, and her wounds required fifty stitches.
The head of the rescue managed to get the dog transferred to tge trainer’s facility in another state. The daily fee for “rehab” at this facility can be as high as $100 per day, and, in later news stories, the staff suggested that the dog would need at least a year of rehab—a potential cost of $36,500.
The rescue operator told reporters that she had trained the dog according to the way she had been taught by the well-known trainer. She believed that the dog could be retrained and get a second chance at life. She was wrong. The dog not only reportedly violently attacked another dog while at the training facility, but he also attacked the rescuer’s boyfriend and another woman after she removed the dog from the center. The woman suffered a broken arm and suffers long-term damage. The dog was eventually euthanized. There was no second chance for him.
An isolated pen outdoors is akin to punishment for dogs, who are naturally social creatures.
What Owners Can Do—and Shouldn’t Do
How we keep dogs can contribute to the making of a biting dog. Recent studies show that dogs involved in fatal attacks are often kept in less-than-desirable housing situations, such as on chains or living outside, alone, in dog pens. Dogs are social animals (not pack animals), and we frustrate them when we remove their main focus: us. It is inherently cruel and short-sighted of humans to have selected and bred dogs for their friendliness and then shut them away with little or no socialization or human contact. If you did this to me, I would bite, too. You might do the same. The best way to torture a human being in prison is to put him in isolation, so we know that enforced isolation on a social animal is cruel and unusual punishment.
Many want to blame dog bites on a specific breed, most often pit bull-type dogs, but studies tell us something completely different. These are the top controllable reasons behind 256 dog-bite fatalities between 2000 and 2009:
• No able-bodied person was present to intervene.
• The victim had no familiar relationship with the dog.
• The dog was not spayed or neutered.
• The victim’s ability to manage interactions with the dog was compromised due to age or physical condition.
• The dog had been previously mismanaged.
• The dog had been abused or neglected.
Most dogs in America live in our homes and alongside our vulnerable children. Somewhere in our co-evolvement with this animal that descended from wolves, we decided to bring them inside. Their teeth came with them, as did their own ways of communicating with us and with other dogs. People nowadays acquire a dog for companionship—but what happens when that companion chooses to use his teeth as a communication tool?
Dogs need guidance and positive training, not harsh treatment.
If you’ve never owned a problem dog, consider yourself lucky. If you have enough dogs over your lifetime, chances are high that you, too, might become a member of the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club. Admission into the club comes with sudden empathy for and commiseration with all of the other dog owners who have the same problems. It can be hard to understand the level of concern that these unsettled dogs bring to their owners until you’ve walked in—or have been yanked down the street in—their shoes.
People worry about the real harm that their furry companion could do to a human or another dog. They worry—rightfully so—about potential lawsuits. Their worry increases as time goes on because dogs do not “grow out of” reactivity. Instead, the dog practices the “go away” behaviors of barking, lunging, and growling at what concerns them, and it often works because the perceived threat does go away; the dog learns that this behavior is indeed effective, and his confidence is boosted.
Many owners end up exiling themselves and their pets inside their own homes because going out in public becomes too big of an ordeal. Others become the Midnight Dog Walkers and start taking their dogs out at odd hours in hopes of obtaining peaceful walks. Neither of these undesirable options teaches the dog what we would prefer him to do instead of freaking out when he is faced with his triggers. These sad choices change dog ownership from being one of our most precious relationships to becoming a seriously negative one and a potentially lethal one (most often for the dog).
Golden Retriever Solda wears a relaxed, content expression, showing that she feels comfortable.
These troubled dogs need human guidance and support, but far too often they get harsh treatment, and many get needles stuck in their veins that take them to their final destination—one that offers no chance of rehab or reform. It is that ever-present idea of euthanasia that is perhaps the top worry for owners with aggressive dogs. There is a lot of “what-if” thinking generated by behavior concerns: “What if my dog bites someone?” “What if my dog hurts another dog?” “What if my dog bites me?” “What if I can’t stop my dog from behaving in this dangerous fashion?”
As a trainer, many times I’ve worked with owners who have done everything right by their dogs. Here’s a common scenario: The owner attends puppy classes with his puppy, pays for private training lessons, and properly socializes his beloved pet. Then, one day, often between the ages of twelve and thirty-six months, the puppy literally snaps and gives a close-call warning (called an “air snap” or a “muzzle punch” if contact without teeth is made) that scares or angers the human half of the relationship.
When a dog exhibits aggression—a very natural canine behavior that is misunderstood and unwanted by humans—the trust between dog and human can suffer a serious blow. If the human responds with aggression, trust is thrown out of the doghouse and will be hard to restore—it’s not impossible, but the human will need to learn new skills to reshape the dog’s behavior.
Many of my clients tell me that they have had X breed of dog all of their lives, and, for the first time, they have an aggressive X dog in their home. This seems to come as an even bigger shock to those who have dogs who have traditionally been perceived as good family pets, such as Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. My experience, and that of countless professionals who work with dogs, can assure dog owners that no pure breed or mixed breed is excluded from potentially dangerous behavior. If a dog has teeth, he can bite. Period.
From a dog’s point of view, biting is a last-resort communication tool because it comes with serious consequences to the biter, even though a dog isn’t thinking about a final trip to the veterinarian’s office when he bites. He most likely is thinking something like: I have warned you and warned you that what you are doing makes me uncomfortable, but you keep doing it, so—bam!—I need to intensify my warning to get you to back off. That’s a simplistic description of aggression because there are many, many different starting points and reasons (from the dog’s point of view) that teeth are brought into a conversation. Dogs do give a lot of warnings, and few bites are ever “just out of the blue.”
There is a communication gap between man and the animal that he dubbed his “best friend” because humans miss so many of the subtle cues given by a dog before he snaps. Men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but in the current state of affairs between dog and man, man is an outright alien with dreadful canine communication skills. Dogs are masters at understanding us, but we lag far behind in our knowledge of their ways of communicating with us. When a person cannot communicate or get the behavior he wants out of an animal, it’s easy to become frustrated and resort to human aggression against the “stupid” animal. Dogs probably feel the same way toward us, and we know that frustration in a dog can lead to aggression, just as it can in us.
We find ourselves in a stalemate with a loving animal that we bred to live alongside us and that we expect to bring us unconditional love and joy. We spend billions of dollars as a society on our pets. Many people openly grieve the loss of a dog, even if they are incapable of crying over the death of a human whom they know and love. Dogs can be the gateway to opening our hearts to the primal emotion of love. Unless, of course, they seemingly turn against us and bite the hand that feeds them. It leaves confused owners asking, “Can’t we just all get along?”
Is there a solution—a way to escape the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club? I am happy to tell you that there are concrete ways to change your dog’s opinion of people or dogs or other triggers (like skateboards or bicycles) that he sees as a threat. Because aggression is the number-one behavioral challenge for owners, scientists and behaviorists are finally studying canines, and what they are learning gives our complex and pointy-teethed companions a great deal of hope.
I have extensively studied the causes of undesired behavior and potential solutions to help troubled dogs. I wasn’t born a trainer (no one is), but I became a professional specializing in troubled dogs after I got what I call my “street education” in dogspeak. I learned to read canine body language, down to the most subtle cues, quickly from shelter dogs that were waiting for either new homes or euthanasia. These dogs taught me more than I could ever learn from a textbook, all while doing a number on my heart as their plight began to embitter me.
Behavior of the adult dog starts with a solid foundation of positive training and socialization as a puppy.