Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?

Today I am angry.

Two people called me within a 24-hour period about issues with their dogs. One person is on the verge of returning his dog to its original rescue, where it would most likely have to be euthanized due to aggression issues and the other person already returned her dog to a shelter after being told by a trainer the dog was dangerous. That dog also may not make it out of the shelter as now someone has gone on record saying it is dangerous.

Both of these people did the right things: they reached out to trainers and even to a person who calls herself a behaviorist for help with the dogs. Unfortunately, the information and actions from these trainers was extremely outdated and not based on best practices as outlined by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists.

What we know about how behavior works; how animals interact with their environment and what roles ethology plays in behavior has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. We know wolves don’t live in packs the way we thought they once did and that the term “alpha” does not accurately reflect how wild wolves live. Plus we know domestic dogs are not wolves and to try and even compare them isn’t reflective of the dog’s behavior. Yet, lots of people still think their dog is the “alpha” who is trying to dominate them because a trainer told them that was the case.

Countries are banning the use of shock collars and prong collars because they have been shown to cause serious behavior issues. Sadly, the United States is not one of those countries. You can walk into any pet store and buy a collar that will shock your dog; a choke chain that can easily strangle it or a prong collar that will pinch its neck. In my area the trainers who use these devices have big billboards and lots of clients.

Let me tell you about these two dogs.

Case #1. A 2-year-old Labrador adopted from a lab rescue. The dog has always been a little fearful of strangers, but was great with his family. The family immediately took the dog to obedience school and did both Levels I and II of a well-known school. The obedience school was great; but it did not address the dog’s fear issues and the dog started growling at people who entered the home. On walks the dog shakes when approached by strangers and will hide behind whomever is walking it.

The family consulted their veterinarian (which is awesome); but the vet recommended a person who calls herself a behaviorist (which anyone can do) but she certainly isn’t certified through anywhere. But, she sounds impressive on paper. She told them that the issue was the dog was allowed on the furniture and they were playing tug with the dog. She advised them to stop both immediately stating the dog was learning to be dominant by being on the furniture and that playing tug was making the dog more aggressive. She also told them to start the dog on Prozac. She provided no follow up and other than the advice on not being on the furniture or playing tug; she gave the owners no other information on how to work with their fearful dog.

The owners stopped playing tug (which everyone, including the dog had previously enjoyed) and stopped letting the dog on the couch, which everyone had also enjoyed. Neither of these issues ever involved the people the dog was fearful of, which was strangers.

The dog did not get better and started to become worse and nipped a person in the family’s home.

They contacted a second trainer who advised them to put the dog in a prong collar and teach the dog a down/stay. When guests visited, the people were told to make their dog stay and if it didn’t they should heavily correct it by jerking up on the prong collar repeatedly until the dog went back into a down. The trainer has an impressive website that guarantees results. There are lots of amazing looking photos of obedient dogs doing nothing but remaining still.

Three days ago the 14-year-old daughter was working with the dog and asked it for a stay, when it broke the stay she corrected it with the prong collar and the dog launched at her and tried to grab her arm. The family was obviously upset as the dog had previously been “overall sweet” with the family.

The family called the rescue they got the dog from two years ago and said they wanted to return it. The rescue asked me to go and see the dog, which is how I came into the picture.

Case #2: A couple went to a local shelter and adopted a dog that was wiggly in the kennel and beloved of the staff. The first night they had it the dog jumped onto their bed and snuggled between them, often waking in the night to gently lick their fingers.

The couple had previously had a dog that bit their neighbor requiring extensive medical treatment for the neighbor. They wanted to make sure they started off on the right foot with this dog. So, the day after they adopted the dog, they took it to a trainer who advertised a temperament testing service so people could get a better idea of whether their dog was “safe” or not.

The dog became nervous when they got to the training facility and backed away from the first person it met and gave a soft growl. The head trainer then came in and took the dog outside and tied it to a fence. She backed up and then ran toward the dog waving her arms and yelling. The dog lunged forward to the end of its leash barking. The woman did this two more times. By the third time, the dog was lunging, barking, growling and showing all of its teeth at the woman. The trainer told the couple the dog would bite and that she would be happy to “prove” it to the couple by putting on a bite suit and letting the dog attack her on the next approach. The trainer said she wouldn’t even go near the dog now without a bite suit and told the owners they would have to untie the dog from the fence. When they untied the dog it jumped on them and licked their faces. The dog was wiggly with them.

The trainer told them the dog was dangerous and aggressive and because it showed this behavior it was not something they could fix. She said the dog was a liability and they should return it immediately and then she tried to sell them one of her puppies that she was training.

This trainer’s website sound impressive. She has a long list of accomplishments in the military and police world with dogs and service dogs.

The couple was not comfortable with what the trainer did, but because of her impressive website and due to their past experience with a dog that bit, they took the dog back to the shelter. The staff was astounded to hear what the trainer had said. They said the dog had been introduced to children, lots of strangers and all kinds of people and had always been happy and wiggly.

After returning the dog the couple worried about whether they had done the right thing and somehow found my name and called me.

We are a litigious society. If a dog is returned to a rescue or a shelter with a bite history or a label of “aggression” that shelter or rescue has to assess its liability risk if they adopt that dog back out again. Both of these dogs are now at serious risk of euthanasia simply because their owners, who thought they were being proactive, went to trainers who provided bad advice.

The first family has spent more than $3,000 on training in two years. They are reluctant to spend more; especially on me since I was up front and said all of my advice would be completely opposite of what they had been told by the previous two trainers. The family is concerned their dog will bite someone and they will be sued. It is a legitimate concern. They wanted me to guarantee that I could help the dog and make him “safe.” I cannot do that. There is no guarantee a dog won’t bite, especially a dog that has been practicing a behavior for two years and one in which the behavior is escalating.

The problem with both cases is no one addressed what was causing the issue in the first place. Both dogs were fearful. New people and strange environments made them nervous. They were not being “dominant” or “bad.” They were scared and the only way for them to communicate that fear was to growl or bite. Both dogs probably started life offering lesser stress signals such as yawning or lip licking, but over time most likely learned people didn’t listen to those very well, but people did listen to growling or biting. Over time the dog will start with those behaviors because they work for the dog.

So, let’s think of this in a different way.

snakeImagine you are a person who is afraid of snakes. Not just a little afraid, but so afraid you almost can’t breathe if you see a snake. If you see a snake, you want to rush forward and kill it before it can hurt you. You come to me for help because now you are afraid to go outside because there could be a snake out there.

I put you in a chair and I bring in a big snake. If you try and get out of the chair I punch you. I continue to punch you until you remain seated in the chair while the snake comes into the room. Later when the snake is gone, I put you back in the chair and I approach you and you jump up and punch me before I even get close to you.

Or I tie you to a fence and I pick up a snake and I run toward you yelling and waving the snake. You can’t get away because you are tied to the fence. You think you could be about to be killed by this scary snake. So, you rush forward and scream back at me and say you will punch me if I get too close to you.

You threatened me with bodily harm. Are you a bad person?

To help dogs with serious anxiety, stress or fear issues, we have to deal with the cause of that issue, not the reaction to the issue.

What if you were in a huge room with lots of exits and I brought in a tiny snake. If you left the room, then I would leave with the snake and come back with a drawing of a snake instead. If you stayed in the room I would give you $50. I would continue to give you $50 every time you looked in the general direction of the snake. If the snake was too scary or overwhelming you could leave the room via one of the exits. Over time you would realize that you had choices. You weren’t being forced to deal with the snake and the snake was very small. You were also getting rewarded for just glancing at the snake. If you chose to come closer to the snake on your own, you would get rewarded again. If you didn’t come closer to the snake that would be ok as well. We have lots of time to work with the snake. Or maybe I would suggest you go to a psychiatrist. Maybe your fear of snakes is so bad that you might need medication or we would need to find a different way for you to overcome your fear of snakes. But, we would go slow and find the best way for you to get over that fear of snakes.

Here is some information from the AVSAB’s Position Statement on Punishment: “AVSAB’s position is that punishment1 (e.g. choke chains, pinch collars, and electronic collars) should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. This is due to the potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals. AVSAB recommends that training should focus on reinforcing desired behaviors, removing the reinforcer for inappropriate behaviors, and addressing the emotional state and environmental conditions driving the undesirable behavior.”

Here is some information from the AVSAB Position Statement on Dominance: “AVSAB is concerned with the recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems. For decades, some traditional animal training has relied on dominance theory and has assumed that animals misbehave primarily because they are striving for higher rank. This idea often leads trainers to believe that force or coercion must be used to modify these undesirable behaviors. In the last several decades, our understanding of dominance theory and of the behavior of domesticated animals and their wild counterparts has grown considerably, leading to updated views. To understand how and whether to apply dominance theory to behavior in animals, it’s imperative that one first has a basic understanding of the principles.

“Even in the relatively few cases where aggression is related to rank, applying animal social theory and mimicking how animals would respond can pose a problem. First, it can cause one to use punishment, which may suppress aggression without addressing the underlying cause. Because fear and anxiety are common causes of aggression and other behavior problems, including those that mimic resource guarding, the use of punishment can directly exacerbate the problem by increasing the animal’s fear or anxiety.”

When you look for a person to help you with a behavior issue with your pet ask the person what types of training methods they use and why. If they use the words “dominance” or “alpha” consider walking (or running) away. Trainers should be able to tell you why they use a training method, who backs up that method and what scientific underlying principles apply to the training method.

I encourage anyone looking for a trainer to read (and reread) both AVSAB position statements and use that information to ask questions.




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