He didn't real-l-l-y mean it!

"If his bark is worse than his bite then don't let him bark at me!"


Q: My husband and I have been arguing about our dog. He's a wonderful dog but he doesn't like our friends. He's okay if people leave him alone but if they talk to him or try to pet him, he growls and snaps at them. My husband says the dog has a serious problem but I think he's just being protective. Which of us is right?

Q: My puppy is a really nice dog except when we get too close to his food dish or his toys. Then he tries to bite us. He was adopted from a shelter and I know that he had to have been abused to behave this way. My vet says that we have a serious problem but I think that our pup just needs a little more love and some time to grow out of it. What do you think?

A: I think that both of these dogs have serious problems! Along with their bad behavior, they have another serious problem: owners that make excuses for them.

We all love our dogs, there's no doubt about that, but sometimes love gets in the way of looking at our dogs' behavior honestly and objectively. When we fail to recognize a problem, or worse, refuse to believe there is a problem, we can actually make the problem worse.

People make excuses for their dogs for all kinds of reasons. Some people don't understand what normal canine behavior should be and don't recognize when their dog is behaving abnormally. Some do realize when things aren't right but are afraid to take steps to correct them because they're worried their dog might not love them as much as it did before. Others are secretly afraid of their dogs and believe, often rightly so, that their dog might bite them if they intervene. Some people love their dogs so much that they refuse to acknowledge that their dogs aren't perfect, much less mentally disturbed. A few go so far as to ignore the bad behavior to such an extent that the dog becomes a real danger to themselves and other people.

Most of us want our dogs to be be protective toward our families, but is behaving aggressively toward our guests the sort of protection we want? No, that's just being obnoxious! It indicates a dog that is either fearful and insecure or dominant and over-reactive. Neither is normal and both can be dangerous.

Can mistreatment by a previous owner cause behavior problems? Sure, but it doesn't mean the dog should be allowed to continue its bad behavior now that it's being treated properly. Blaming earlier abuse for a bad attitude is just an excuse for not teaching the dog how it's expected to act now.

Do dogs ever grow out of their behavior problems? Very seldom. As the dog gets bigger, so does the problem! Bad behavior that was considered cute or tolerable in a small puppy is usually intolerable or even dangerous in a fully grown dog.

Q: My wife is worried about our dog but I think she's worked up over nothing. Our daughter is a little scared of the dog and he takes advantage of her. The other day, he nipped her while she was petting him and she had to have a couple stitches in her arm. My wife says the dog is a menace but I think he was just playing. After all, if he really meant to hurt her, he could've, couldn't he?

A: If this is the dog's idea of playing, I don't want to be around when he's serious! Downplaying a problem -- pretending things aren't as bad as they really are -- is another form of denial, another way of making excuses for bad behavior. When it comes right down to it, it's actually lying although the owner may not recognize himself as being dishonest. By using terms like "nip" instead of "bite," some owners hide the truth and create an even more dangerous situation for themselves and other people.

A dog that bites or threatens to bite is not a safe dog, plain and simple. Whether the dog "means to" or not isn't the issue. The important thing in all these cases is: the dog is doing something it shouldn't and the behavior must be corrected. Unless the owner admits that there is a problem and gets help to solve it, things will only get worse and more people will get hurt.

Q: My roommate and I have been talking and we finally agree that something has to be done about her dog's aggression problems. She loves him a lot but he's bitten a couple people and all our friends are afraid of him now. I think she's a little afraid of him, too. Where can we go for help?

A: You've made a wise decision! It takes a special kind of love to be able to see our dogs as they really are and accept that something about them needs fixing. By acknowledging that he has a problem and getting help to solve it, you're being responsible and showing how much you care about your dog and your friends.

Dogs that bite or threaten to bite are usually beyond the capabilities of the average group training class such as those commonly offered by kennel clubs and animal shelters. It's best to seek out the help of a professional trainer or behaviorist that can personally evaluate your dog and tailor a training program that meets your dog's individual needs. Most kennel clubs, training clubs, animal shelters, groomers and veterinarians can provide referrals to trainers experienced in behavior problems.

Q: How do I know if the trainer is qualified?

A: Unlike many professions, dog training doesn't yet require a license or experience to go into business. Finding a good trainer can be a confusing process. Don't be afraid to ask questions about a trainer's schooling and experience. Does he or she belong to any professional organizations to keep up on new information and techniques? Does the trainer like your breed and had past success with it? Ask for references to previous clients and call them -- were their dogs' problems solved and did they feel comfortable with the trainer's methods? A good trainer will evaluate your dog and be honest about his expectations for success. A good trainer will also be honest with you about the level of effort you'll be expected to put in to reinforce and maintain the dog's training. Your dog's training won't be a one-sided process -- the trainer can't do it all. It's going to be a mutual effort between the two of you. The result -- a well-trained, safe pet -- will be well worth it! You'll wonder why you didn't do it sooner.

More on obedience training

Vicki DeGruy

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