If you look at the shelves of any pet store, the programming on some television channels or browse your social media streams, it’s clear that we find living with dogs to be rather difficult, at least part of the time. Difficult enough to look for a solution outside of our collective wheelhouses or levels of patience. It seems like every time I walk into a pet store, there are more new products promising to correct behavior that we find objectionable, lined up next to the bark collars or spray, every conceivable walking contraption, products to stop coprophagia, prong collars, books and magazine articles whose information is antiquated or is written by charismatic-but-unqualified authors, shock collars intended to correct any number of behaviors and finally, the crates that promise that your frantic dog won’t be able to escape from it. Let’s not forget the television shows touting to teach you to be a pack leader (dogs don't need pack leaders, by the way), Facebook pages emphatic that they have the secrets to dog training and dog trainers (or those that promote themselves as such) who employ punitive, confrontational tactics to try and produce behavior that pet owners desire.
I’m cringing as I type this. Why? Because all of this is a symptom of a bigger problem: ‘solutions’ that don’t really work to begin with, and only exacerbate behaviors.
They also put families, veterinary staff, groomers, pet sitters and other caregivers — and the public-at-large at risk of unwanted and even dangerous interactions with dogs.
We all want what’s best for pets. We want them to be able to handle themselves with a manageable level of self-control, to be happy and safe. So we interact in ways that communicate when they need to exercise certain levels of that self-control — but those interactions need to be devoid of fear and pain. While I’m a firm believer that families ought to be asking pointed questions about how their pet sitters, dog daycare and boarding staff handle addressing unwanted behaviors and what training philosophies (by this, I mean ‘how do they communicate with the dog?’), these professionals need to be inquiring the same of their potential clients.
On more than one consultation, I’ve needed to advocate for myself, which in turn does the same for the pet and and the others. I’ve gotten really good at asking questions about a pet’s behavior, including anything that’s concerning or troublesome — and how the family addresses it. Resource guarding is common, as are fear-based behaviors. On one occasion, a family member noted that the former was something that they had been working on with their giant breed dog, as they have the youngest relatives of their family visit often and didn’t want to put them at risk of being bitten by the dog should they get too close to a toy or a bone. I was not surprised to hear the strategy:
“I take hold of him, pin him to the ground by the scruff of the neck and sternly tell him no.”
I politely responded with, “You alpha roll him.” They gave an affirmative reply.
Just visualize that. Then think about the likely outcome.
A 120 lb dog, handled in a manner that’s at its core, is incompatible with getting the true result that a family wants. And when one does this, they end up getting way more than they bargain for by way of more complicated behavior issues. Essentially, using a strategy to correct behavior that is based on fear begets a fear response. At first glance, that might seem benign, but as that fear response increases and that pet’s fear threshold lowers, a dog will do what it needs to protect them self (think fight or flight). This is not a decision that a dog chooses necessarily; the unmistakable displays of fear, which in their early manifestations go unnoticed by many humans, the growling, snapping, biting is not. They are a physiologic response. They are all signals to convey, ‘please stop right there, I’m not comfortable with this’.
I replied by saying that I understood and appreciated the notion that resource guarding can be problematic, I needed to be very clear that I hope that they understood that I would not be able to interact with their dog in that way, and that in doing so would violate my ethos in many ways. And though yes, this was their home, the dog belongs to them and that there are no laws dictating that they can’t employ training methods like this, the outcome from doing so certainly has implications that affects others. And they can be unexpectedly exponential. I explained to the family why alpha rolling their dog wouldn’t accomplish what they were aiming for (the cessation of resource guarding), it would likely magnify the behavior, and in all likelihood in the midst of the children they were trying to keep safe. Those children, being less-sophisticated than their adult counterparts in picking up on this lovable dog’s body language, wouldn’t notice how, their attempts to pet or cuddle him or innocently reaching for a random item near him might be taken as ‘Wait, the last time a human made a move around me like that (association with the alpha roll), it made me really uneasy… oh no”.
And then there would be the matter with my physically interacting with him, which inherently would be happening a lot; reaching to put a harness and leash on him, petting him, feeding him, playing with him, checking him for ticks.
Could they see my point? Yes, they said, wide-eyed.
Though I’m masterful at consistently reading a pet’s body language, it goes without saying that the level of contact that I have with my charges does in itself raise the inherent risk of being snapped at or bitten. (Because of my training and policies — not luck — that’s never happened.) But with a dog who has been subjected to strategies that rely on fear, pain and lack of autonomy to communicate with them or address unwanted behavior, well, that unnecessarily places me and depending on where we are, other pets and humans at an even higher risk. From a legal and ethical standpoint, I’m not keen on that, and other professionals and caregivers shouldn’t be, either. That said, I politely decline on taking on clients who adhere to methods of training or behavior modification that put myself and others at risk.
It goes without saying that I commend families for recognizing the need for adequate training and communication when it comes to themselves with their pets — and when there is a sticky wicket of an animal behavior issue that needs attention. I do implore, however, to allow the ever-increasing amount of products and books and celebrity-status personalities (oh, yes, and your cousin’s neighbor) who lack science-backed education but are nonetheless advising the best way to fix these situations to inform: they’re not effective. If they were, there wouldn’t be a need for more options every week, and thus, fewer pets would need re-homing. Instead, please, consult an animal behavior professional, one who has accreditation from and affiliations with reputable organizations that espouse responsible strategies, for example, positive reinforcement and relationship building with dogs and cats. They can help with so much, including barking issues, separation anxiety, fearfulness, leash reactivity, house training, redirected aggression, resource guarding and recall. In doing so, you’ll be advocating for your pet, yourselves and everyone in your midst while promoting a safe and happy environment for all, including your pet sitter and veterinary staff.
Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and in animal hospice — as well as the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.