Which Dogs are Best with Children?

That question was intended to be ironic… and also to hopefully entice those curious internet searching parents to learn just why they should never trust ANY type of dog to be better or worse with children. It is up to them as responsible dog owners to manage dogs who have healthy interactions with their kiddoes. Don’t believe me? Below I will share the scientific fact behind my position.

If you’ve been following along with us for very long, you probably know that we think the folks at  Animal Farm Foundation are just about the best thing since bully sticks and peanut butter kongs… and if you’re new, you can check out some proof of our admiration, here, here and here! The biggest goal of AFF is to spread the knowledge that dogs should be judged based on their individual qualities, as opposed to breed labels or statistics. Their latest infographics (shown and explained below) share the science behind why an individual approach is not only more fair, but actually also more successful!

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(All of the images in this post are courtesy of Animal Farm Foundation.)

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Did you know that while 50 out of 20,000 (0.25%) of a dog’s genes determine physical appearance, those genes are entirely separate from the genes that influence brain development and function? Therefore, it is scientifically proven that there is NO link between appearance and behavior. And yet our politicians continue to make giant, life-changing assumptions based on that less-than-one-percent. Don’t judge my dog by his cover! Just because a dog looks like a pit bull, does not actually confirm that they have any genetic ties to a staffordshire terrier (think boxer x lab, as just one prime example).

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One reason any vet worth their weight in Acana dog food might suggest that a mixed-breed dog has better odds than a purebred of staying healthy for its lifetime, is because in a closed gene pool (see above) all of the genes are concentrated… the good, the bad, and the hairless (sorry, Chinese Cresteds). Did you know that most purebred dogs originated from only a handful of foundation sires and bitches, which was sometimes as few as 5? Talk about inbreeding! A 1994 Time magazine article on the effects of overbreeding reported that as many as 25% of the 20 million purebred dogs in the US are afflicted with a serious genetic problem. In the world of agriculture and animal breeding, this trend of improved health in mixed-breed animals is called hybrid vigor. By mixing two or more separate gene pools, overtime the recessive genes that carry health and other genetic problems are minimized. All of this contributes to the conversation about individualism in dogs, because a physical appearance really can only tell us so much.

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“Wait, so AFF is telling us that identical twins have identical DNA, but even dogs in the same litter have different DNA? Well, I’ve met identical twins whose attitudes and personalities were nothing alike! I guess it would be crazy to assume that dogs who look similar would have similar behavior…”

Even when dogs are 100% purebred, we cannot predict their behavior. Even in the case of cloned pets (genetically identical animals) scientific evaluation of these animals still shows differences in their personalities and behavior. This is because the behavior of all dogs (or any being!) are not just influenced by genetics and breeding, but also by many outside factors including training, management, environment, and socialization.
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Not only does physical appearance have little to do with behavior, but scientific studies from AFF peers have proven that attempts at visual breed identification by animal welfare professionals (vets, scientists, shelter workers) are incorrect more than 75% of the time. Even worse, those incorrect evaluations are not even the same across the board… those assigning the breed titles cannot even agree! This is because our personal experiences play a large role in the comparisons we draw between a dog’s appearance and their breed of origin.

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This is an interesting way to look at it. Tonka is the offspring of two purebred dogs, and the rest of his 12-pup litter looked very similar to my boy. Any guesses as to the parents’ breeds? (Seriously, would love it if you’d guess in the comments below!) Spoiler alert…

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If I had a dollar for every person that literally ARGUED with me that my dog was at least part black lab, I would be able to take more than one reader out to dinner. Nevertheless, the facts remain that Tonka’s father was a brindle boxer (deep chest, athletic body) and his mother was a golden retriever (long snout, expressive almond eyes, floppy ears)… where did the rest of him come from? I’d like to think that much of his behavior comes from a very conscientious upbringing by me, and thanks to the research from Animal Farm Foundation, I can be confident that this may largely be the truth.

Animal Farm Foundation says it best when they say that: “The only way we can accurately determine what a dog’s needs are is to look at the individual dog in front us for the answers. In other words, we can’t judge a book by its cover (even if that cover looks like other ones we’ve seen before!)”

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AFF: “Treating all dogs as individuals means that we let go of biased thinking, recognizing each dog for who they really are, not who we assume they are based on looks, labels, or past experiences. In doing so, we set all dogs free of the baggage and consequences caused by our assumptions, prejudices, and discrimination.” Hmmm. That sounds kind of like the way most of us agree we should evaluate the people in our communities. From a genetic standpoint alone, why should dogs be any different?

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So maybe (hopefully!!) you already new and totally agree with all of the facts shared above. But more importantly, do you understand why they are so important?

It matters to families and communities…

Regardless of ‘breed’ or ‘type’ of dog, false expectations (positive or negative!) can be dangerous or unfair to the animal, and to the families they love. For example, if we assume that every lab is going to be naturally comfortable around children and have an affinity for water, we might not take the time to set the individual dog up for success through careful introduction and training. This may create a dog that has fear or anxiety issues. You can turn this around in the other direction by recognizing the truth behind confirmation bias… In any situation in life, if we approach with negativity and trepidation, we oftentimes set ourselves up for failure, and unintentionally cause the very events we are anticipating. No breed description should be considered a fool-proof road map of a dog’s preferences, personality, or ability. These qualities are heavily influenced by environment and management. If we approach each dog as an individual, and let the animal tell us more than we assume based on their appearance, we are much more likely to wind up with a dog that is a happy member of our families, and of our society.

It matters to those in the animal welfare industries…

As rescuers, shelter workers, and animal advocates, it is always in our best interest to be as honest as possible with potential adopters, volunteers, and the general public at large. By labeling dogs without factual knowledge of their true backgrounds, we are unintentionally being dishonest, and may be setting the dogs up for failure. Instead of meeting an adopter who wants a Golden Retriever, and providing them with dogs that match that physical description, we need to start advocating for “types” of dog. Maybe to the average dog owner, a Golden Retriever fills them with ideas of a dog who will happily play fetch and join the family on hikes, while snuggling in their childrens’ beds at night. Perhaps your shelter has 3 dogs that match this description, but who may or may not look like a Golden Retriever. In this case, you are providing the family with a variety of dog types, all of whom are more likely to be compatible with their lifestyle long-term, and giving many of your rescue or shelter residents an opportunity at a proper home. At the same time, you are doing your part to not reinforce stereotypes or set up false expectations. No breed description entitles an adopter the guarantee that a dog will act a certain way, or have specific preferences… only each individual dog can tell us that!

Additionally, these preferences, personality traits, and abilities, have a large propensity for change over time. If we assumed that a dog’s genetic composition determines their personality traits (Georgia), we would have never taken the opportunity to improve her associations with other animals… we would have assumed that her preferences were intact and not subject to change. This refutes the common pit bull advocacy statement that ‘it’s all in how they’re raised,‘ because it is in fact, more in how they are managed, that matters most. If we assumed that all dog behaviors were set by their genetics or their early life experiences, we would never give cruelty or neglect victims a chance, and everyone searching for a new family member would be getting their dogs from breeders. And that would be a huge problem!

It matters to politicians and law makers…

Once and for all, it is time to put an end to laws passed on the flawed idea that you can determine how a dog will act based on how they look or their breed label. Rather than punishing all dogs and their owners based on the negative or criminal actions of a few, let’s start legislating and enforcing responsible dog ownership laws for owners of all dog breeds and types. In this way, we hold all owners equally accountable, and thereby truly create safer communities. Dogs should be labeled based on their actions or behavior, not on their breeds or physical traits. No one, human or animal, deserves to be persecuted (or even killed!) based on stereotypes.

The AFM5 Moral of the Story:

The world of animal rescue and advocacy is a huge one, and perhaps because of that, it is constantly evolving. That is a great thing for the animals, because it means that we are always being presented with new tools to improve our understanding, and become more competent at finding homes for unwanted pups, cats, rabbits, horses, etc. We have all been guilty of unintentionally spreading misinformation a time or two. What matters is that you take the time to educate yourself as thoroughly as possible, and keep your own missions and morals at the forefront of your mind. Let’s make sure that when we are well-intentioned in advocating for our animals, that we are doing more GOOD than harm.

 

AFF CITATIONS:

The Dog and It’s Genome by Elaine Ostrander

Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog by Scott and Fuller

National Geographic

Kristopher J. Irizarry, PhD

Janis Bradley, The Relevance of Breed in Selecting a Companion Dog

Dr. Victoria Voith

AFF ABSTRACTS:

Brachycephalic traits

Morphological traits

Brain development genes

Cranial facial development and here

Canine skull development

The Great Debate

When you read this blog title, what did you imagine the controversial topic would be? To be fair, the options are seemingly endless.

I want to talk to you today about something that I can almost guarantee all of our readers will not agree on. The No-Kill Movement. This is a topic that came up during my time at the AFF Internship, and the conversation was an especially deep one, given that we had individuals present from both No-Kill and Municipal/Open-Admission Shelters. I appreciate that AFF takes a neutral stance on all controversial issues, but it was also eye-opening to hear the perspectives from individuals who are in the ‘pits,’ so to speak. Let’s start with the background…

Another photo from AFF!

Another photo from AFF!

The No-Kill Movement

Nathan Winograd is the advocate of a comprehensive movement for animal-shelter reform. Winograd and his supporters believe that no animal should ever be killed for any reason other than to alleviate the animal’s suffering or because the animal is so vicious as to be uncontrollable.

Private Shelters

A private shelter is funded by private donations. The primary purpose of these shelters is to find homes for lost or displaced animals, and provide them with a safe haven until such a home may be found. While specifics may vary, these organizations typically do not euthanize animals for reasons other than health or quality of life. However, no facility is limitless. Because of this, they often only admit animals that would be considered highly adoptable.

Animal Friends, a private animal shelter that is local to our area

Animal Friends, a private animal shelter that is local to our area

Municipal Shelters

A municipal shelter is run by a city, county, or other such public entity. These shelters are funded by taxpayer dollars. They are staffed by government employees, who may or may not have a background or education in regards to animals. Most often, these facilities are required by law to take in any unwanted animal that is brought in, regardless of available space or the animal’s condition.

Manhattan's Animal Care & Control, which is infamous for its conditions

Manhattan’s Animal Care & Control, which is infamous for its conditions

My Perspective

By now you should know that while I always strive to share authentic truths in this space, it would be dishonest of me to claim that the things I write are always without opinion or bias. I am not a journalist, reporting facts for the nightly news… this is my creative space where I attempt to share information that will interest others with similar passions and morals.

You also know by now that I adore my pets more than life itself. There is nothing that I wouldn’t do or give up to make their lives better. More importantly, I believe that the animals sitting in shelters are just as “special” as the ones who sleep soundly, curled up at my feet now, as I type this out to for all of you to read. I believe this so deeply that I reserve much of my life (financially and so far as my time and emotions) toward this cause. For anyone to say that my efforts are not made with the animals’ best interest at the forefront of my mind would be incredibly misguided.

Of course, I would love it if one day, all animal shelters were able to have 99%+ rates of release (meaning, that 99% of the animals that come into the shelter are released into loving homes, as opposed to being euthanized). With all of that being said, it might surprise you that I am not entirely in support of the No-Kill Movement. There. I said it. Now you wanna know why, right?

There are worse things than death

The reality of our world, is that many municipal and open-admission shelters are working with minimal budgets and mediocre facilities. They may operate with a miniscule staff or volunteer base. From experiences shared with me directly from employees in such shelters, animals are often kept in small cages (think of the stacked kennels you see in your veterinary office) and may or may not be walked a few times per week. Yes, you read that right… they are certainly not guaranteed even a daily walk, much less multiple times per day. There are no toys or blankets in their kennels, and kennel enrichment is a non-event. Can you imagine how quickly the dogs’ attitudes decline in such an environment? As for health care, it is procured by the local government worker, who has worked his way up, but boasts no prior experience with animals, and certainly not with veterinary care. This all may sound bad, but can I say that it is not anywhere close to one of the worst shelters in our country? If I told you which shelter it was, you would be astounded.

Don’t forget, these facilities are required to admit any animal that walks through their door. Young or old, sick or healthy, well-trained or aggressive, surrendered or ‘found’ as a stray… any animal must be accepted. Most importantly, these requirements are made regardless of space. There are only so many open kennels in any facility, and if adopters do not come through their doors, difficult decisions must be made. There is truly no other option.

None of us want to see photos like this, but they are a grim reality. This dog is available for rescue in CA.

None of us want to see photos like this, but they are a grim reality. This dog is available for rescue in CA.

It is a community problem

You may have read the above, ready to lay blame on the employees in that facility. But in reality, that does nothing. Those people are performing a thankless task, with endless stress and emotional strain, nights, weekends, and holidays, for very little financial return. Believe it or not, most of them are there because they can’t imagine walking away, and they want to make a difference for any animal they can.

The larger problem exists in our community. This large group of people who still believe that animals are disposable. This isn’t to be blamed on those of a certain ethnicity, in a specific zip code, or of a particular socio-economic status. If there are animals being killed in your community due to improper facilities, lack of homes, or lack of space, then it is a problem we are all responsible for. To me, the biggest problem with the No-Kill mentality, is that if a community has a shelter that claims to be No-Kill, what do they do when they run out of space? Regardless of a shelter’s social designations, each one is simply a collection of rooms in a building, with kennels or runs that end at some predetermined number. There is no magic button to add space! When a No-Kill shelter runs out of available room, they must turn animals away at their door. There is no other option for them, just as there is no other option for the municipal shelters. In this way, they are the same.

The difference is that when a No-Kill shelter turns away an animal, they do not know what happens to it. If it is an animal being surrendered, the owner may find another home for it or reconsider their decision. However, realistically the shelter is their last option, and so all others have been exhausted. Perhaps they take matters into their own hands, and find a way to ‘get rid’ of it, one way or another. If finances are the issue, maybe the animal starves or is neglected and denied medical attention. More positively, they may turn the animal loose or run it off, in hopes that someone will take it in. But most likely? If the animal is not admitted to the No-Kill shelter, the one that usually boasts extensive funding and eye-catching marketing tools, the animal somehow finds its way to the municipal shelter, who will not turn it away. To make room in the shelter for this new dog, space, and difficult decisions, must be made. Do you see how this comes full circle?

Because of this, I believe that until all shelters in a community, both private and municipal, are simultaneously able to boast high release rates and open-door practices, then no shelter should be able to call themselves No-Kill. Maybe these shelters don’t practice euthanasia within their walls, but if it is happening to animals in their community that they have turned away or are not able to accommodate, then they need to recognize that until they are part of the solution, they are still a part of the problem.

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A Pittsburgh night walk that raises money for local shelters

Conclusion

I am not suggesting that the No-Kill Movement is a pointless one, or that it is misguided. We have to start somewhere, and their objectives are admirable. Furthermore, I am certainly not suggesting that municipal shelters have it all right, and that euthanasia is our only option. What I am suggesting, is that instead of labeling shelters in this way, taking sides, and pointing fingers, why don’t we all start working toward the same common goal? Let’s stop labeling each other… shelters should not be designated as Kill and No-Kill. These so-called ‘No-Kill’ shelters should not be advertising themselves as such until they are able to pull all At-Risk dogs from the municipal shelters. And perhaps instead of continuing to argue advocate our own missions, we should focus on marketing our adoptable animals, as well as Spay/Neuter programs and other practices that support the eradication of unwanted pets.

I would love to hear from readers on this subject. Did you have a strong viewpoint on this subject before you read my own? If so, what was it, and has it varied at all after you read my thoughts? Are there any facts that I have missed? I look forward to input from you all!

This is the Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh, our area's only Open-Admission shelter. They admirably claim not to euthanize for space reasons, and advocate very hard for the animals in their care

This is the Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh, our area’s only Open-Admission shelter. They admirably claim not to euthanize for space reasons, and advocate very hard for the animals in their care

Perfecting my Perspective

*I know this one is long, but I happen to believe that it is worth the read!*

Those of you that have been following this blog for a while, may know that my passion for animals, behavior, and training first came from my background as a competitive horseback rider. When I had to take a break from riding, and my horses, for a few years, I found comfort in the world of dogs and dog training. It was an easy transition, as there are so many similarities between the two species.

Both dogs and horses are intelligent, athletic animals. They both have a strong tendency towards communication via body language. Both are powerful animals, with a fight-or-flight tendency that gives them the potential to be destructive, but only in self-defense. Perhaps most importantly, both are animals that have evolved to develop close relationships with humans. Because of this, most possess a tendency toward companionship with humans, if not a strong drive to please them. Anytime I give a riding lesson and the rider faces a frustration, I always remind them that our horses rarely willfully disobey, especially if we make the right choice easy. If they are not responding to our cues, it is best to assume a miscommunication on the part of the human partner. Of course, if you are reading this, you probably also know that to be my approach to dog training.

543388_10150945397487427_101345628_nBecause of these tendencies, I largely have always applied force-free tendencies when training either species. While we do use our bodies to cue our horses (as well as tools such as leg aids and bit pressure) the best riders will recognize that they will never be able to overpower a 1,200+ pound animal. Attempting to be forceful or aggressive with a horse will only result in a frustrated animal, that may or may not react by lashing out.

Due to the similarities I see, I will often read articles that apply to one of the two species, and stretch it to apply to training the other. I find this to be a great way to gather fresh or unique approaches and ideas. With that goal in mind, I came across this article last week, and quickly shared it on facebook with an affirmative description. Let me share with you my gut reaction.

The article discussed the perils of ‘spoiling’ our horses. What resonated with me was reflective of two important theories I apply to animal behavior.

1) Animals thrive with structure, discipline, and training. They want to know how to please us (or at least, how to earn what they want) and so we teach them ‘right’ from ‘wrong’. We create anxious animals when we change the rules or never train them to begin with, because they will exist as though they never know when punishment or praise is coming. If you know me, you know that I love to take my dogs on exciting adventures, let them sleep in the bed, and consistently supply them with the newest toys, but I also spend lots of time training them to ensure that they understand what my expectations are, and make them work for their rewards. I can confidently say that because of this approach, our pups are some of the happiest and most secure dogs I have come across.

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2) One fatal flaw (literally) I often encounter in other pet owners, is that they try to show their affection to their pets by form of food. Please do not confuse my criticism as being directed toward those that practice force-free training, and make their pets work for their rewards, while maintaining a balanced diet! Instead, I am referring to those pet parents that insist on feeding table scraps regularly, and ignore the signs of weight gain in their animals. Maybe it comes from my own fixation with healthy eating, but when I see people overfeeding their pets, or feeding them inappropriate items, I can’t help but picture it as literally poisoning their friend!

food is medicine or poisonDon’t just take my word for it! You may or may not recall the invaluable research done by Purina, which produced undeniable results supporting the benefits of an appropriately-portioned diet in dogs. The study took place over 14 years, and compared 48 purebred labrador retrievers from seven litters. Paired within their litters according to gender and body weight, the pups were randomly assigned to either a control group (fed ad libitum during 15 minute daily feedings) or a lean-fed group (fed 75% the amount eaten by the littermates in previous group). All dogs were being served the same balanced, nutritionally complete diets, which started as a puppy variety, and later evolved to the adult formulation, for the entire duration of the study. The only difference was in the quantity provided.

What is your reaction to a dog that looks like this?

What is your reaction to a dog that looks like this?

Any guesses as to the results? I’m sure you can hypothesize where I am going with this, but the actual results were even more astounding than I expected them to be!

  • The median life span of the lean-fed dogs was increased… but by 1.8 years, or 15%. In the lean-fed group, the age at which 50% of the dogs had passed was 13, compared to 11.2 in the opposing group.
  • By age 10, only three of the lean-fed dogs had passed away, as opposed to seven of the control dogs. At the end of the 12th year? Only ONE control dog had survived, in comparison to 11 of the lean-fed dogs. 25% of the lean-fed group lived to see 13.5 years of age, while none of the control group achieved that mark.
  • Additionally, 50% of the dogs in the control group required treatment for chronic conditions at 9.9 years of age. In contrast, the median age for the lean-fed dogs was 12 years. This group had lower serum triglycerides and triiodothyronine, as well as healthier insulin and glucose use.

Think about your dog; your sweet best friend, partner, and confidante. Imagine them aging, slowing down, becoming hard of hearing. As hard as it may be, picture yourself preparing to say goodbye to them when the time comes… in that moment, what price would you pay to guarantee you a few more years of your time with your dog, free from pain and the difficulties that old age brings? I would be willing to bet that no price would be too great. But this study shows us that we need pay no price… to ensure more years of time with our dog, as well as a significant reduction in health problems and associated vet bills, we must simply maintain portion control in our pet’s diet. It makes those nightly tablescraps seem a little less innocent, doesn’t it? Of course, occasional indulgences are not my complaint… but we must keep in mind that when we are responsible for the input of calories in our pets, we must be cognizant of the effects of our decisions. By overfeeding them, we are literally shortening their lifespan.

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While those are the visceral responses I had to the article, a friend of mine, whose opinion on the topics of animal training I greatly respect, had a different reaction. Her reactions were not my initial perspective, but I could not agree with them more. I think it is so interesting that two people who have largely similar approaches to the subject (she also shares an equestrian background, as well as an animal sciences degree, an affinity for pitties and force-free dog training… and we are the same age!) can have such different gut responses to the same topic. This was our conversation:

J: I agree that untrained/”spoiled” horses can be very dangerous – but I’m not comfortable with thinking my horse is “disrespecting” me. To me, this article weighs very heavily in human emotions, and does not seem to address other sources of bad behavior: fear, anxiety, nervousness, insecurity (just like dogs). The “too many treats” argument is often used against reward-based positive training, and, while I agree they shouldn’t be overused, I think that primary reinforcers like food can go a very long way in getting an animal – any species – to change their emotional response to things and therefore their behavior. Thanks for the thought provoking article!!

S: Completely agree J! I wasn’t thinking about it from that perspective… I would never want to reinforce theories that refute force-free training, so thanks for sharing that perspective. Maybe I should have applied that philosophy a little more in my mind before I shared this. I guess what struck me about this article is the fact that humans often anthropomorphize our animals’ behaviors… not wanting to train them or correct them because they worry about ‘hurting their feelings’. I am a strong believer in the fact that happy animals are ones that know what is expected of them, and are corrected when they stray outside of their expectations (not forcefully!) and rewarded when they make the right decisions. I believe that the best animal owners / handlers /etc train their animals to clearly learn ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ so to speak, by making the right choices easy to achieve, and the wrong ones more difficult. Does that make sense?

J: Yep, totally. And I’m completely with you on the not over-anthropomorphizing the behaviors of our dogs (animals) to justify letting them get away with something – that is one of the only things Caesar Milan and I agree on. In sort of but not really the same vein, a big thing I am learning with all the books I am reading lately is that if an animal is not responding to our cue (often quick to be labeled as stubborn!!), it is our job as the trainer to look at how we can improve our communication. Does the animal *really* know what we are asking of them? Anyway, positive trainers often get the wrap that we’re big softies, which is a shame because our animals have a ton of boundaries and expectations, they’re just not upheld in the traditional ways (“let’s make it worth your while to do what I want” vs “do what I want, or else!”).

One difference that my friend has from me, is that she has been a part of the blogging and advocating thing longer than I have, and she has more formal, applied experience with dog training. I think that while we largely share the same views, she has developed a clearer position that she applies any time she approaches a topic. I am still working on developing my approach and perspectives, as well as learning to check myself before I choose to support or criticize an article, group, etc. Do you know that you readers and your comments are a huge part of that learning process for me? So let’s hear it… what was your first reaction to the article? Any similarities or differences to the perspectives that my friend and I had? Can’t wait to hear from you! (PS- As a reminder, I am a big fan of intelligent and respectful debate!)

Confessions of an Ignorant Dog Owner

I want to share with all of you an experience that I once had, years ago. I’m not sure if I am sharing this for the sake of full disclosure, to rid myself of some guilt, or to educate others, but I do know that I feel it is important to share. SO here goes…

Some of you may know that I got Tonka when I was just finishing high school, which I did a year early, and so I was only 17 years old. However, I took this responsibility very seriously. Having temporarily retired from my competitive horseback riding career, training and socializing Tonk became my hobby, and so it filled many of my waking hours. Yeah, there is probably a psychology lesson in there somewhere, but let’s just say that I put every ounce of heart and sweat into his upbringing.

Baby Tonk

Baby Tonk

When I went on to college, it was no surprise that he went with me. He was everyone’s favorite pup. He was the type of dog that could calm even the most reactive of dogs, and do it well. It took a lot to ruffle his coat.

Helping me study

Helping me study

The amazing farm where I had an equally amazing experience... but the same was not true for Tonk =/

The amazing farm where I had an equally amazing experience… but the same was not true for Tonk =/

A few years later, when Tonka was 3 or 4 years old, I took a summer internship on a horse farm in VA. It was a dream job, even though the hours were exhausting. Best of all, I could take my pup with me (as if I would accept a job otherwise!) The only downside? The owner, who I deeply respected and admired, bred Labs. That was all fine and dandy, but his male lab, Chase, was quite a handful. Of course being intact and overflowing with hormones, Chase had little respect for anyone, and nothing in the way of manners. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, and it didn’t really matter who tried to stand in his way. Unfortunately, Chase took a quick disliking to Tonka. Tonka would try to avoid him, but if I was standing between the two, he never hesitated to defend me. I did my best to keep the dogs separated, but Chase’s owner seemed intent that the dogs would eventually work it out themselves. Of course, that never happened. Over the course of the summer, Chase attacked Tonka three separate times, and did the same with two other dogs. Once, when one of the other dog’s owners interfered with the attack, she suffered a nasty bite herself, for which I took her to the emergency room an hour away in the middle of the night. These weren’t just your run of the mill dog fights… they were serious aggression issues. Tonka still has white scars on his face that tell the story.

This was Luke, one of Tonk's friends on the farm, and one of the first pitties I knew personally!

This was Luke, one of Tonk’s friends on the farm, and one of the first pitties I knew personally!

That summer seemed to instill in Tonka a mild yet lasting distrust of other dogs, particularly males. Of course I couldn’t blame him. At the same time, I felt such immense guilt for not being better able to protect my dog from Chase and his ignorant owner. However, the man was thrice my age, and was responsible for my wages, job, and living arrangements. To say it was a delicate situation is to put it mildly.

Getting to work with your dog was pretty much the best thing ever...

Getting to work with your dog was pretty much the best thing ever…

When we returned to State College that fall, I made it my mission to improve Tonka’s socialization in order to bring him back to where he had been previously. At the time, I thought that the best way to do this was to visit the dog park. For a while, this worked wonders. Tonka loved going to the park and interacting with the other dogs and owners, most of whom we knew by name. For a long time, we did not experience any issues. However, in a college town, you can expect that not everyone who frequented the park was a responsible dog owner.

Dog park dog

Dog park dog

On one sunny afternoon after I was finished with class for the day, Tonka and I were playing fetch in an empty corner of the dog park. He was totally relaxed and focused on the task at hand, enjoying some one-on-one time with his mama. Usually the center of the pack, he was content to play with me while the other dogs wrestled and played probably 100+ feet away from us. All of the sudden, out of nowhere, a male boxer who had just entered the park, ran past the other dogs and people, and literally came flying straight at my dog (like, so fast he was truly a blur), straight into his side, with such force that Tonka was instantly knocked to the ground. This dog, for no obvious reason, began attacking Tonk. Without any conscious thought, I ran over to the dogs and started kicking the boxer that was still on top of Tonka. I still don’t know what prompted me to do that, but I can guarantee that it was a gut reaction to a traumatic situation. I know that I was not kicking him with full force, or at all to try to hurt him, but enough so as to dislodge him without getting bitten in the process. I also know that it only took one or two kicks to redirect his attention… I was not repeatedly kicking a dog in the stomach. A few seconds later (although this all felt like an hour!) a young man, about my age, came and retrieved his dog by the collar. He seemed like a nice person, but he was irate at me for kicking his dog. He yelled something about his dog having fear issues, and how could I kick someone else’s dog? No apology or even acknowledgement of the fact that his dog had just attacked mine without any provocation. He quickly left the park. I was so shaken up that I don’t think I even said anything to him, either in apology or defense. I went to retrieve Tonka, who seemed to escape with a few minor injuries, at least of the physical variety. Some other dog owners came up to me to report that this was not the first time they had seen this boxer attack another dog, but nothing could really calm me. That was the last time I visited a dog park with Tonka, until this experience years later, with Gaige. (Long-time readers will remember that we had a less dramatic, but similar, experience with her.)

I don’t know what to say about the traumatic events that day. Of course, I feel terribly about kicking his dog. To this day, I wish I could contact the owner in apology. I’m sure his dog is not a horrible pup, and now being a person with a dog that can sometimes be reactive, I have so much compassion for both the owner and the pooch. At the same time, I was there, effectively by myself, and was trying to make a decision to save my dog. Do I think his dog was trying to kill Tonka? No, I do not. But in a traumatic situation, I don’t think my brain could process that. Furthermore, the fact that the attack was targeted and completely unprovoked made me feel as though the dog’s actions could not be predicted. Had the owner been in range to assist me, maybe he could have jumped in instead of leaving me to fend for myself. I still do not know how I would react if I were to be put in the same situation… which is just one of the many reasons that I will never go to a dog park again.

As I said when I began, I don’t know exactly why I decided to write this post today. Maybe it is to free myself of some guilt… guilt for the way I handled the situation at the dog park, and most especially, guilt for the fact that I feel I have failed Tonka as far as standing up for him in stressful situations. Of course I now know better, but I wish I could have spared him some of these experiences. Perhaps by sharing this, it will help other dogs whose owners are as well-meaning yet uninformed as I once was.

Dogs and Dominance

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This graphic pretty much says it all, so I will try not to muddy up their message with excessive wordiness. However, I think it is important to convey that dominance is one of the most misused and misunderstood terms in the worlds of dog training and behavior.

Just as most individuals who are educated in dog behavior can recognize that displays of ‘aggression’ in dogs are often based in fear, the mentality that we must utilize dominance to train our dogs was also originally rooted in fear. After a study of wolves in captive that originated in the 1940’s, it was suggested that if owners did not ‘establish dominance’ then their dogs would physically harm them. However, these early wolf studies were seriously flawed, in a variety of ways. First, the animals were held in captivity, in small enclosures, which is obviously far from their natural environment. Further, the wolves came from varying packs, which created a group structure that was volatile and unnatural. According to one biologist, these studies would be relative to evaluations of human behavior carried out in concentration camps.

Furthermore, while scientists agree that dogs have evolved from wolves, observations of free-roaming dogs have shown them to be scavengers as opposed to predators. They often exist in solitary groups, as structured pack-life does not prove to be beneficial to them when it comes to sharing resources. Rather, they may form loose groups that fluctuate as animals come and go frequently and with random duration (hmmm, sounds kind of like life in a human home, doesn’t it?).

Most importantly, aggression in dogs rarely comes from issues with dominance. Rather, we see aggression in dogs due to any combination of factors that may include lack of proper and early socialization, pain or illness, mismanagement including lack of training and use of aversive methods, traumatic experiences, or genetic predisposition (poor breeding). Most commonly, we will see aggression in a dog that has a lack of confidence such as fear or anxiety. This lack of confidence may come from any of the above situations, but it is obvious that it would only be exacerbated by an owner or handler that manages their dog through intimidation or force, thereby damaging the dog’s confidence even further. Unfortunately, those who believe in a dominance hierarchy when it comes to training our dogs, feel that the best way to utilize this phenomenon is through the use of force.

The behaviors we see in our dogs, whether positive or negative, are a result of the dog having found what ‘works’ for them. For example, a dog will jump up on a person not because they are being dominant, but because it is a natural greeting, where they are then rewarded by what they perceive to be attention and play-time… if you wave your hands at a jumping dog and ‘bark’ back at them, this mimics play and gives the dog attention. However, by ignoring the behavior, you are not providing any reward, which will cause the dog to eventually extinguish the behavior. If you can also teach the dog the proper way to greet people, and reward them for it, you are going even further as a responsible owner.

Our dogs recognize us as being different from other dogs. While we can gather clues from dog behavior by watching the way they interact with one another, the relationship we share with our dogs is so unique… after all, isn’t that one thing that we love most about it?

From personal experience, most of you know that Georgia came to us a nervous and fearful dog. She did not interact well with other dogs or with new people. However, by creating a structured environment for her, as well as slowly introducing her to situations where she could gain confidence at low thresholds of exposure, she has become a confident dog that thrives on the companionship of adults, children, dogs, and cats. I shudder to think what may have become of her if I had taken popular advice of utilizing force-based training or even just eradicated her exposure to other animals. Georgia is one of my greatest accomplishments, and her presence in our home is a favorite part of our lives. We are so glad that we did not fall victim to the myths of dominance, and we hope that you can say the same!

Catching Flies…

As pit bull advocates, we often find ourselves in a position where we need to stand up for the dogs we have come to know, and thereby, come to love. In fact, this can be true for many things in life. When we have a passion for something, be it political stances, social policies, child welfare, or religion, we are occasionally thrown into situations where our loyalty is tested. In what circumstances are we willing to defend that which we believe in?

It is important to me that people judge my dogs as individuals.

It is important to me that people judge my dogs as individuals.

For me, I believe loyalty to be one of my best qualities, and this is something that I am very proud of. I am a devoted friend, wife, sister, daughter, and pet owner, sometimes to a fault. I am not a fighter, I am certainly not intimidating or imposing, I don’t have a celebrity status to influence those around me… but because I enjoy writing and am always honing my abilities, I carefully choose my words as my greatest defense against those that try to tear down the people and things I care most about. At the same time, it is important to me to maintain a gentle approach. I am a firm believer in the old saying that ‘you catch more flies with honey, than you do with vinegar’. Because of this, even when faced with someone who disagrees with me, I try my best to remain calm, yet assertive, and to avoid accusations. I do not believe that anyone is going to absorb what you say, if you are offending them while you are saying it!

With all of that being said, I learned a valuable lesson last week that I would like to share with all of you.

Our friend J. over at Peace, Love, & Fostering shared this post on their facebook page last week. If you are interested in dog training, as well as the changes in perception our society is making in regards to dogs and dog ownership, it is certainly worth the time spent reading it. I would be interested in your honest, respectful, perspectives. (If you plan to do so, I would appreciate it if you would read it before you read the rest of this post, so as not to be influenced by my opinions!)

My reaction to this post was multi-faceted. I read it and felt such a strong relation to many of the points the writer introduced. She shared many important thoughts that are, in my opinion, so necessary to convey to well-meaning animal lovers. At its most elementary, the piece was about the science behind force-free dog training, why it is more effective, and how many of those who claim to love dogs and advocate for them, are really just muddying the waters when it comes to what is best for the dog, and conveying that to the public.

For those of you that do not know, force-free training is essentially just that: an approach to dog training that enhances your relationship with your dog, avoiding physical manipulation or intimidation, while reinforcing behaviors through positive association.
 
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What upset me so much was not the content, but the writer’s approach. In my perspective, she has this incredible opportunity to convey a point. She is obviously intelligent and talented as a writer, and please understand that I respect her for this. She put a lot of effort into this article, as was evident by her extensive source list. She has a unique perspective on the subject, which could produce positive waves of change in the worlds of dog training and ownership. However (and perhaps, BECAUSE of how valid her argument is) I absolutely shudder at her approach and tone. She continually criticizes and downright ridicules anyone with a different perspective than the one she feels is ‘right’… even if their perspective just comes from a naive and uniformed lack of knowledge or understanding. She is essentially condemning anyone that utilizes force or tools of punishment in an attempt to produce changes in a dog’s behavior. While I absolutely agree that there are better ways to train our dogs, and that our dogs DESERVE a better approach, my question remains: What dog owner would *ever* went to take advice from someone so condescending? And, with such a valid argument and the unique opportunity of a vast audience, shouldn’t that be her goal? I respect her perspective, but I worry that those who may be on the fence and considering a transition to force-free training, will read her article and be so turned-off that they refuse to remain open-minded. To me, her approach simply was making the rest of us who are proponents of force-free training look like judgmental wackos!

In one particular selection, she criticizes those that support forceful training: “but they seem thoroughly intent on attacking anybody who suggests otherwise”… which is exactly what her article does. It attacks anyone that disagrees with, or misunderstands, force-free training. If she believes that a forceful approach is ineffective with dogs, why does she employ such force when communicating with her own kind??

My stance is this: Whether the topic is politics, racism, poverty, etc… If the point of a diatribe is to truly bring about change in the uninformed or ignorant masses, why would you ever take a position of judgmental arrogance? You are not going to change any minds with that approach, and are then effectively just talking to hear yourself speak, or to hear others who already agree with your position, compliment you for it. Whether or not your argument is valid, if you take a judgemental and aggressive approach, the intended audience will never be open to receiving it in the manner in which it was presented.

At the same time, I found myself wondering if perhaps the writer’s purpose was not primarily to evoke a change in readers’ perspectives, but instead to garner attention and inspire conversation. And if in fact that was her goal, perhaps that is not all bad. If she can get the attention of the masses, perhaps some of them will be more willing to listen to the more moderate, respectful arguments that support and share her same perspectives.

Furthermore, there is something to be said for blogging, in that it is an emotional release for writers. Sometimes we have something on our hearts, and we need to express it. Occasionally we need to open up the floodgates, and let the words organize our thoughts and our hearts, without censoring every emotion or editing every accusation. While I believe that when our blogging has a purpose, we have a responsibility to put that goal first at all times, I also know that sometimes we need to write what is on our hearts, as it comes to us.

The bottom line is that when we blog for advocacy, regardless of the subject, we hit a strange paradox: while our blogs serve as an opportunity for self-expression and self-discovery, I believe that we also have a responsibility as advocates for the cause. Certainly, some of us more than others (we will get there someday!), are standing under a spotlight as the poster children for our causes. All we can do is keep our missions in mind, and hope that our words are received in the way that we intend them… I have certainly made mistakes and omissions in things that I have written, but I am sure to stay open-minded, while processing all of the feedback I receive.

I am genuinely interested in hearing you reactions to this article! I would appreciate it if you would all stay respectful, but I do want to know… did you agree with the writer’s opinions? What about her approach? What was your initial reaction, and how did that compare with your perspective once you’d read my own? As advocates for pit bulls, how do you think we can best approach those that don’t understand our dogs? I value your opinions!

Hang in there... it's almost Friday!

Hang in there… it’s almost Friday!