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February 2017-The Misunderstood Dog-What Bad Behavior Can Really Mean

This blog was written by our very own Norrah Johnston.  As you all know Norrah has a long history of working with dogs and has seen this issue repeatedly. I feel as a pet owner it can be quite common and it contains great information to always keep in mind. Even the best behaved dog can have a bad moment and learning to read your pet can save you heartache and distress.

A few weeks ago I was talking with an individual about their new dog daycare/kennel business, and we were discussing staffing. They mentioned that their staff would not need extensive training as this business would only be allowing “good” dogs there. I didn’t say anything, but that sentence kept repeating itself over and over in my head. On the one hand I was concerned at how they would determine the good dogs from the bad ones, on the other hand I was offended for this group of “bad” dogs that would be turned away. Maybe my hurt feelings came from years of working in a shelter watching people quickly judge the good dogs from the bad dogs, or maybe these feelings came from understanding these so called bad dogs a little more than the average person. I’m certainly not calling myself a dog whisperer by any means, but spending 10 plus years working with thousands of different dogs in an animal shelter and my extensive work with a dog trainer does give a person an edge on understanding such a complex creature. Let me share my thoughts on this one.

What defines a bad dog? Is it a dog that doesn’t sit on command? A dog that pulls hard on a leash? What about a dog that doesn’t like other dogs? I think it’s safe to say that most would consider a dog that has bitten a child or stranger, or even just growls at a child or stranger a bad dog. I’m going to use these above examples to defend my “bad” furry friends, or at least give a different perspective on these guys.

The first two I want to get off the table quickly. Not listening to commands like sit, stay, or even pulling on a leash are not the result of a bad or stupid dog. This is merely laziness that lands on the owner or previous owner in some cases. We should always be working with our dogs to help bridge the gap of communication. Just like children, dogs aren’t born understanding our language, although they do quickly learn how to read our body language. They want to please us. We are the very center of their life. We on the other hand tend to expect them to just know what we want from them. We are all guilty of it at one time or another. They spend every day with us, how could they not pick some of this up? They do it sometimes…. I think we all forget to appreciate how difficult it must be to live in our world. Dogs need things to be black and white when they are learning our language, and consistency is key! If they sit and get a treat one day, then the next day they sit very excited thinking they’ve cracked the code to only have you mumble something then walk away. Our dog is then left feeling very puzzled. Long story short, I don’t feel that dogs that do not follow commands are bad, they are merely confused and most of the time frustrated.

So how about the dog that bites and/or doesn’t like children. I hear it all the time. Our dog grew up with children, or they were always great with kids. I really feel bad for these dogs. Aside from a small percentage, this other group of bad dogs took as much as they could handle in my experience. They tried to communicate this anyway they knew how. Sometimes we don’t see that they were being hurt or they were fearful at times. Like I had previously touched on dogs are experts at reading body language. That’s in part because that is their main source of communication. Signals like looking away, licking their lips, holding their head low, are all ways of saying they are uncomfortable. Please give me space. To us these signs are subtle, or unnoticeable. When those don’t work, they will kick it up a notch. Now they show their teeth and/or growl. These signs are not necessarily aggressive behaviors. They are quite the opposite. Growling, showing teeth, stiffened shoulders, and the hair lifting can all be an attempt to avoid conflict. A truly aggressive dog will not give you those warnings. Smaller children do not know to watch for these signals in addition they do not typically move the way we do. Their body language is very different. Not to mention children are fast, unpredictable, loud, and at times probably smell pretty different from a dog’s perspective. It is our responsibility as dog owners to recognize that our dog is nervous or uncomfortable around little people, and children should learn early on that animals are not toys. We should be teaching our children to respect dogs and give them some personal space. A simple way we can do that is to give our dogs a safe place. A spot they can go lay down and the children aren’t allowed to touch or even acknowledge the dog. Now I’m not saying this is the only case. There are other reasons a dog may choose to be aggressive with children. They may be possessive of a toy or furniture. I’m merely pointing out a fairly common scenario here. I’m pointing out the other side to many sad stories.

Let’s move on to the nasty dog that hates strangers. There are many moments in a dog’s life that could have created an issue like this, or maybe this is just a combination of breed and/or upbringing. None the less, not all dogs are social butterflies just like some people. My dog for instance loves most people, but on occasion, especially when we are out for a walk, she may feel uncomfortable with an approaching person. She will communicate this through her own body language. She will lower her head, pin her ears back, and I can see her eyes get larger. At this point I know she is uncomfortable with the person that is approaching. When I first adopted her I missed these signals. She let out a low growl and like Velcro, attached herself to my leg. I was very fortunate to have a good friend that worked with difficult dog behaviors. He walked me through what was happening. Lyla came from a life that was very different from the one I was offering her. She saw what people were capable of. She was not an aggressive dog, but there were times she became very fearful and felt she needed to guard me and her. Through training and relationship building, she now knows that I’ve got it handled. I now pick up on her body language and I know when she is telling me things subtly. She knows that with me, I will not allow a person that she is uncomfortable with to touch her. She just has to say the word. To be honest, I do not allow anyone to approach and handle any of my dogs. If my dog’s approaches people, then I allow it, otherwise there is no reason to make my dogs be touched by anyone. It’s not fair to force them to be hugged, kissed, and petted by strangers. I mean if you really think about it, would you appreciate it if someone made you get touched and hugged by complete strangers? If they are uncomfortable and fearful, they need to have a way to communicate this to their handler, and because we don’t always notice how our dogs respond to situations, it can get out of control at times. They start with a whisper that turns to talking, and later results in screaming essentially. This is what I see in most cases, so in my opinion, most of these bad dogs are merely fearful and just trying to yell loud enough that someone listens.

What about good dogs? Can good dogs slip up and wind up in the bad dog category? From my experience, it happens all the time and it happens so quickly. Let’s take one of these handpicked good dogs. They are good with dogs, children, new people, they are good listeners at home, and they are just that happy go lucky type. Now let’s take this sweet girl and call her Lizzy. Today Lizzy is going to go to doggie daycare for the first time. Sounds like fun! So we load up our girl into the car. Yay, she’s very excited to go for a ride. We drive her to our local doggie daycare and we get her out of the car. As she gets out of the car, Lizzy is excited about all the new doggie smells that fill the air. She can also hear all the barking from inside of the building. Now she’s almost frantic! There’s so much to sniff. She smells scared dogs, excited dogs, bossy dogs, squirrels, cat, male dog, female dogs, people, OH, and a piece of food!! Then she spots another dog in the parking lot. Ooh!! She wants to meet him. He looks excited also! Lizzy tries to get to him, but she is stopped by her collar, now her collar is being yanked the other way, no, she wants to meet this other dog! Then she is quickly refocused somewhere else. She hears this weird sound and the door in front of them as it opens. Lizzy has never seen this before. It was weird and scary. She tries to turn around to go the other way but her owner yanks her back through that loud door that opens all by itself. That’s when the other dog gets close, but Lizzy is so focused on this door she didn’t notice the other dog was right there until he was sniffing her forcefully. At this point Lizzy is full of excitement, fear, and anxiety. The situation we thought was no big deal turned out to be so overwhelming for Lizzy. She was shocked and whipped around and snapped. Just like that. One quick moment, and the dog that has been great with dogs her whole life just bit another dog. This was the same moment the manager comes out to assist these people. He saw everything and decides that Lizzy wouldn’t be a good fit there. They only allow good dogs. They recommend that her owners take her to a trainer for further evaluation. It can really happen that fast. Most people that work with dogs would understand that situation that is just an example of how an otherwise good dog can get worked up and overwhelmed. Any dog put in an overwhelming situation can act without thinking and be labeled a bad dog.

This is just scratching the surface of the sort of events that can cause a typical dog to become a bad dog. I feel that we don’t give our dogs enough credit. They live in a world surrounded with a foreign language, with creatures (us) that live and act so much different than they do. To top it off, they repay us with loyalty and the purest of love. I’ve gotten to know so many dogs that were quickly labeled a bad dog and dumped, whether they were taken to a shelter (if they are lucky), left on the side of the road, or even worse, left alone in a house after all the other furniture and possessions were taken. Some dogs are given up on when they can’t “get with the program” and others just get stuck at home all the time because their owners always get told they have a bad dog. They spend their lives trying to understand us better, don’t we owe it to them to try to understand them better also?

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