“Why don’t you train like a normal person” was the response from one man I had asked to call his uncontrolled dog that was charging straight toward my dog. His dog was completely ignoring the man’s commands. He continued to argue with me about how clueless and stupid I was to be training with methods he didn’t even inquire about and in this location (where leashes are required and his dog was the first and only uncontrolled dog I had encountered there). My dog had greeted his dog nicely despite his dog’s rude approach and I had simply proactively asked for him to control his dog to reduce the amount of stress his dog caused mine. Eventually, I got the guy to leave us alone but I had to be very assertive and rude.
When a reactive dog lunges and barks at something or we proactively tell people to stay away to prevent barking and lunging, we often receive scathing looks and negative comments. The idea that behavioral issues are all the pet parent’s fault is pervasive and inaccurate. Yes, an experienced handler can often prevent a dog from barking and lunging by managing a dog’s threshold distance from triggers and this can go a long way to helping the dog be more comfortable in it’s environment. But that handler did not necessarily cause the original behavioral issue. Nor is the handler in full control of the environment and therefore sometimes a trigger will get too close despite our best efforts and cause our dog to react. Nor does having a reactive dog doesn’t mean we inherited a money tree with which to rent private spaces to walk and rehabilitate our dogs. Nor do we have a magic wand to make the reactivity go away overnight, the treatment takes time.
Behavioral problems are not always directly caused by the pet parent. Some dogs have a genetic predisposition for certain behavioral issues including aggression (1,2). The environment in which a dog was breed effects a dogs risk for behavioral issues. Puppy mills and other environments that lack environmental enrichment or cause stress to the mother increase risk of behavioral issues in the offspring (3, 4). Some people adopt dogs with preexisting behavioral problems. Some dogs become reactive after being attacked by off leash dog or after a pet professional the owner thought they could trust scared their dog.
Some people tried to proactively train their dogs but followed the advice of a trainer or television celebrity that promoted punishment based techniques despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that punishment based techniques increase the risk for aggression and other behavioral issues. People are remarkably obedient to authority figures, so before you criticize these pet parents for following an authority figures advise please look up the Milgram Experiment (5). For more information on the scientific research related to training methods, see this blog by Zazie Todd. https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/p/resources.html?m=1
Others people simply made mistakes during socialization, some dogs require more careful socialization than others. A person’s previous dogs may have been perfectly sociable and friendly while this dog is not, even though the person did not do anything different. In one retrospective study of 737 dogs, being a first time dog owner was associated with increased risk for multiple behavioral problems including aggression (6). Who hasn’t made mistakes their first time doing something? Is this a valid reason to shame and publicly criticize them?
I did a poll in the Do No Harm Dog Training Facebook group. This group is composed of dog professionals and pet parents whom are interested in humane training methods. I asked people who have dog reactive dogs to select the primary reason their dog became reactive and included an option for dogs that were reactive prior to adoption. The top three responses were dog was already reactive when I adopted him/her, attacked by a dog, and genetics. This group’s demographics include a higher percentage of well informed dog professionals and pet parents than the general population. This sample bias likely reduced the risk of direct owner caused mistakes leading to reactivity (i.e. socialization errors, which ranked 4 and 5 in the poll) though many participants became informed pet parents or went on to become trainers because of their experience with their reactive dog. Here is a link to the poll. https://m.facebook.com/questions.php?question_id=930053523867949
Whatever the reason a dog is now reactive, the cause is in the past and shaming the pet parent for their dog becoming reactive or for bring the reactive dog into public does not improve public safety and it may make the pet parent less likely to seek professional help. We hope pet parents will learn from any mistakes they made along the way that may have caused the reactivity or amplified it.
When we are outside with our reactive dogs our minds should be on the present, managing and treating the dog in front of us, not ruminating on the past and a complete stranger can not know what has happened in the past to make an accurate critic. If our dog is reacting, there is a good chance that the person is either the dog’s trigger or their pet is, this means the longer we converse with the person, the higher our dog’s stress level goes and more likely to behave poorly in the future.
Let me apologize ahead of time for the fact that many of us will seem short tempered or rude to you as we attempt to end the conversation or gain distance from you. We are either trying to prevent our dog from reacting by managing their threshold distance and length of time exposure to the trigger or if our dog goes CUJO as we work on gaining distance so our dog can calm down sooner and be negatively impacted by the stress for a shorter period of time. We don’t wish to be rude or aggressive, we are just doing what is best for our dog.
If we want to prevent reactivity and increase public safety, we need to advocate for better breeding practices, good puppy parent education (7), reduce risk of dogs being uncontrolled in a portion of public settings, and provide those whose dogs are showing signs of behavioral problems with good science based rehabilitation resources.
1. Våge J., Wade C., Biagi T., Fatjo J., Amat M., et al. , 2010. Association of dopamine- and serotonin-related genes with canine aggression. Genes Brain Behav. 9: 372–378.
2. Zapata I., Serpell J. A., Alvarez C. E., 2016. Genetic mapping of canine fear and aggression. BMC Genomics 17: 572.
3. McMillan, F., Serpell, J., Duffy, D., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I. (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242(10), 1359-1363 DOI: 10.2460/javma.242.10.1359
4. Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Pastorino, G., & Albertini, M. (2016). Owner-reported aggressive behavior towards familiar people may be a more prominent occurrence in pet shop-traded dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 13-17 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.11.007
5. McLeod, S. A. (2017, Feb 05). The Milgram experiment. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html
6.Owner characteristics and interactions and the prevalence of canine behaviour problems. Jagoe, Andrew et al. Applied Animal Behaviour Science , Volume 47 , Issue 1 , 31 – 42. https://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/0168-1591(95)01008-4/fulltext
7. Angelo Gazzano, Chiara Mariti, Sara Alvares, Alessandro Cozzi, Rosalba Tognetti, Claudio Sighieri, The prevention of undesirable behaviors in dogs: effectiveness of veterinary behaviorists’ advice given to puppy owners, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 3, Issue 3, 2008, Pages 125-133,ISSN 1558-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2008.04.004 (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787808000798)