Angels or Devils?


Most of us readily accept that our human loved ones and acquaintances have both good traits and not so good traits. We understand that good people with good intentions can get into serious conflicts. We recognize that children must be taught how to behave with others and will occasionally make mistakes along the way. We even know – and in most cases can forgive – that even the best people occasionally act very poorly. That kind of nuance often goes out the window, however, when we judge dogs and even dog owners. The specifics of how we judge dogs differ, but I’ve been noticing that the judgments tend towards the black and white. Some people seem to think that dogs are born either good or bad, with little room for anything in between. Others come right out and state that all dogs are born sweet and loving. If a dog behaves otherwise, they tell you, then blame the owner.

That’s how we judge other people’s dogs. With our own, the angel/devil dichotomy plays out a little differently. Embarrassed protective owners say things like, “But he’s NOT a bad dog,” or, “He’s really not mean.” On the flip side, frustrated clients tell me that their dog is “stubborn,” “stupid,” or “trying to be the alpha.” These “explanations” of canine misbehavior all have one thing in common. They all fall into the trap of thinking that there are 3 kinds of dogs: Lassie, Marley, and Cujo. Some blame the dog if it seems more Marley or Cujo than Lassie, while others blame the owner. They all, however, make the mistake of blaming behavior problems on who the dog is rather than just looking at what the dog’s doing. This is a gigantic blind spot in our culture’s common “sense.”

In reality, the saint and sinner categories apply to dogs even less often than they apply to people. Just like us, dogs make decisions based on the available information, their previous experiences, and their natural instinct. Just like us, they need instruction on how to behave properly. Unlike us, they have to learn in a world that runs according to rules set by a totally different species that often require them to act against their most deeply seated natural inclinations.

This is a tough situation to put our dogs in. It makes misunderstandings and misbehavior almost inevitable, even for the very best dogs. As Patricia McConnell so often tells us, canine behavior problems usually be summed up with the great line from the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here, is a failure to communicate.” Sadly, most people make very little effort to learn to communicate with their dogs. We expect them to figure it out more or less on their own with a little (not!) helpful verbal instruction from us.

Fortunately, most dogs dedicate far more effort to deciphering how humans communicate than vice versa, and they do OK. When they don’t quite get it right however, far too many are labeled as “bad,” “stupid,” or “stubborn.” The lucky ones’ owners go looking for help, but even there the focus on who the dog is over what he’s doing can derail a dog’s chances. Quick fixes based on “being the alpha” or projecting the right “energy” seem far more prevalent than simple instruction on how to gently and effectively communicate what we want to our dogs and understand what they’re communicating to us.

I’ve been pondering this issue since I read the comments in response to Kelly’s excellent post the other day. Someone raised the concern that an educational campaign emphasizing the role of behavior problems in pet relinquishments sends a message that shelter and rescue dogs are somehow “faulty.” It never would have occurred to me to think of the issue that way, because I don’t divide dogs up into good dogs and bad dogs. I think it is a real concern, however, because of this angel/devil dichotomy that so many people impose on dogs.

I’ve been working with shelters in varying capacities for almost 20 years. I am thoroughly convinced that “behavior problems” account for a large and growing percentage of the dogs relinquished to shelters and rescues. When I say “behavior problems,” however, I don’t mean “bad dogs.” Even the simplest problems can start a chain reaction that ultimately costs a dog its home. Lack of house training, destructive chewing, jumping on people, and excessive uninhibited play biting leave enormous numbers of dogs homeless. These are exceedingly easy behaviors to solve if you know what you’re doing, but many dog owners receive either no information or poor information on how to solve them. That’s a big failure on the part of the larger animal welfare and animal care communities.

If vets, breeders, shelters, rescues, and trainers cooperated to really encourage every new dog owner to take a little time to learn how to communicate with their new best friend and train a few simple behaviors, it would both put a gigantic dent in the homeless pet population and improve the quality of life for millions of dogs who stay in their homes. This is particularly true of puppy classes. As Kelly said in her post, every dog starts as someone’s puppy, and a little socialization and basic training at that age goes a long way, even if the dog does develop problems later.

We’ve made huge progress in the last couple of decades in increasing the levels of vaccination and sterilization in the US. Rescue groups and shelters have become far more savvy about making sure that adopters have the right type of home, good veterinary references, fenced-in yards, and more. For some reason, though, the community has lagged when it comes to providing quality behavioral advice. Vets who fail to encourage or even discourage puppy training are still in the majority in my area. Many rescues and shelters with extremely stringent criteria in other areas place little emphasis on behavioral compatibility or post-adoption support. In spite of all the accumulating evidence that early socialization and training are not only safe but extremely important to a dogs’ welfare, its promotion has been slow to spread.

I wonder if those of us working to alleviate the suffering dogs endure due to the lack of decent basic behavioral information in the wider dog world are battling more than just a lack of awareness and inertia. I wonder if one of our big enemies is the angel/devil dichotomy people have when thinking about behavioral problems. Thoughts?

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