A rescue in Virginia that specializes in rehabilitating questionable dogs, many being pits with behavior or bite histories, is currently being sued for an enormous amount of money by someone who adopted one of their dogs. Upon the adoption, the dog came with his very own shock collar, which reportedly was used to train the dog out of some aggressive behavior he had demonstrated in the past. Within hours of being home, the dog’s collar was removed, and shortly thereafter the dog randomly attacked a family member and mauled her so badly she did not survive the injuries inflicted.
The obsession to fix dogs that are imbalanced, aggressive, or displaying less than desirable behaviors is nothing new, it’s just out of control now that the fallacy of No-kill has taken hold in the masses. In the past 15 years or so, thanks to the internet and Animal Planet, the idea that any dog regardless of breed or temperament can and should be molded into the perfect companion that will tolerate absolutely anything and everything has seeped into the minds of millions. Allowing an animal to be an individual, to have it’s own emotions, thoughts, and feelings, and to make arrangements to keep such an animal is an undesirable approach for many dog owners. Much of society for whatever reason places a higher value on these animals, pouring money, time, and other resources into what they see as damaged dogs who must have been abused or not loved enough, while friendly flawless animals sit ignored in shelters daily. The glory and story of fixing an animal grabs the keys and drives many adopter’s choices on where they decide to acquire their canine companions. The lure of adopting a troubled animal is incredibly strong, and most often the wrong people are sucked into it. We see more stories in the headlines of these organizations not making good on their promises to help these animals, but instead disappointing time and again with irresponsible placement, not being honest with adopters, not taking them back when things don’t work, and relinquishing responsibility by pleading ignorance or placing blame on the victims when the animal, who was set up to fail in the first place on many levels, fails.
Behavior is the physical manifestation of an emotion. The way an animal behaves, reacts in certain situations, and responds to certain stimuli is their attempt either consciously or subconsciously to illustrate their emotions. The emotions that lie at the base of the behaviors we see most often are fear and arousal. It’s commonly overlooked that teaching an animal to react in a certain way that you have determined is more acceptable does not necessarily change the emotional response the animal experiences when faced with what is causing the reaction in the first place. Forcing a behavior that a human has decided is more appropriate than what was previously presented is not training; it is tightening a lid down on a pot of simmering water without turning down the heat, all the while expecting it not to eventually boil.
Take for instance a growl. A growl is universally recognized as a sign that a dog in uncomfortable and asking for space. I know I know, I misspoke. It would be more accurate to say that a growl is unfortunately universally recognized as a precursor to a bite, that an animal is telling you it’s aggressive. Insert shaking my head sad face here. Each animal we come across has different zones of comfort and tolerance that vary based on their location and circumstances. Are they alone or in a group? On a leash, confined in a yard or room, or loose? At home or at a park? With or without their owner present? There is usually what many refer to as a ladder of aggression, displays of emotion that an animal will exhibit in a certain order from very subtle to in your face extreme, that communicate these zones and when you’ve crossed from one to another. That is if you are paying attention. More often than not, unless a dog is psychologically wired wrong, extremely unsocialized, or the behavior has been “trained” out of them, these various displays will escalate in a predictable fashion. When you punish a growl, it doesn’t magically make the dog comfortable with the stranger that’s reaching for his head. The root of the dog’s displayed behavior has not been addressed. The punishment teaches the dog to forgo that one behavior and move on to the next one instead; the dog goes straight to a bite. Combine that with the owner’s ignorance towards things like lip licking, whale eye, paw raising, look aways, urogenital checks, displacement sniffing, panting, and freezing, which normally come before the growl anyway, and suddenly you have a bite that “came out of nowhere”, and an owner surrendered or euthanized animal.
Despite popular belief, a healthy animal avoids aggression if at all possible. Dogs will send on average 5-10 different signals to communicate that they are uncomfortable before resorting to an actual bite. Some move faster through the sequence than others. Every behavior we “train” out of an animal without addressing the underlying emotion simply removes a wrung from the ladder, thereby putting many animals on the fast track to aggressive (more often what I would rather term defensive) behaviors. These animals don’t need to be trained. They need to be studied, understood, carefully adjusted and placed into educated homes by people with extensive experience and honest outlooks on both an animal’s right to be happy and healthy physically and psychologically and, more importantly in my opinion, public safety and owner sanity.
These organizations that take it upon themselves to make excuse after excuse for why the animal reacts the way it does, use aversive training methods to mask the problem, and then sucker caring individuals to take them into their homes without honest disclosure of what they are getting into, do nothing to further the plight of these animals or the animal welfare community in general. I’m sure this lawsuit will shed some much needed light on this practice, and open some eyes about what it is we are actually trying to accomplish for animals and the people who love them.