The Allure of the Damaged Dog: Why We Rush Towards Danger

Aggressive dogs. What a trigger topic for so many! Humans, as a species, are so often attracted to danger. You see it in our hobbies and our choices of heroes. For many dog lovers, there is so often nothing more attractive than an aggressive dog. This scenario not only appeals to our nurturing instinct, but it also appeals to our egos. If we can tame the beast, we must be something special, right? We are the one who carved calm from chaos so we can then pat ourselves on the back and bask in the attention that this gets us. When it goes well. But what about when it doesn’t go so well? What about when it doesn’t go so well and the aggressive dog in question is not an owned dog, but instead, available for adoption to the unsuspecting public who is so easily misled by their heartstrings? Then it becomes a very complicated subject that is polarized at best. Sit down and get comfortable while we explore all sides of this subject.

I have written about the world of rescue several times in the past. Sadly, so many more “rescuers” will be in a rush to save a dog who was deemed aggressive at a shelter than are willing to step up and save the far more abundant dogs who are routinely euthanized for space needs in overcrowded shelters all over the country. Those dogs get little love from the “rescue” community that bands together in swarms for a dog who has bitten a human or another dog, often quite badly. Nice dogs waiting and waiting can turn into stressed dogs, who then exhibit behaviors that were not part of who they were before the extreme stress of a shelter environment took hold. Too bad preventing this from happening is not more of a top priority than swarming to the "rescue" of a dog who has an often serious bite record. Don’t get me wrong. Some of those bite records are not deserved. Some, not all.

Aggression in a shelter environment is further complicated by the fact that most shelters don’t have behavior departments. Often a little dog behavior knowledge would have prevented many of the bites in the first place. Too many times the dog in question is just a nice dog who has been placed in a poorly thought out position by the humans in charge of safety. Simply being respectful of a scared dog’s space and body autonomy, while providing for the dog’s basic needs “fixes” the issue. I get that, I really do. I have seen it happen far too many times, both in shelters and when I did Doberman rescue for 15 years. But other times, the dog in question has serious issues that are multi-faceted and cannot effectively be addressed in a shelter OR a rescue environment. Especially when the humans who are in charge of this process are not in possession of a quality education in modern dog behavior knowledge.

But without that knowledge, many rescuers think that everything can be “fixed”. Unfortunately, many members of the extremist rescue community are under the impression that love solves all problems and that is just not true. Those of us who work with dogs professionally certainly do wish that were the case. The word fixed is a misnomer. Behavior cannot be fixed. Behavior can be modified. But every sentient being has a choice. That will always and forever be the case, every moment of every day. No one exists in a vacuum so "fixing" behavior, despite what some irresponsible “trainers” will tell you, is simply not possible.

What can be done is that you can teach a dog to make better choices, both with environmental cues and with appropriate self-soothing responses during stressful situations, which when combined with consistency, lead to new neural brain patterns. This sets the stage for future success. This is how you properly address aggressive responses in dogs. This is not an overnight process and it involves layers of needs as a foundation. Those needs first include basic requirements that every sentient being needs, such as: a regular nourishing food and water source, safety from physical and emotional harm, the ability to safely sleep normally, the ability to be able to relieve oneself as needed, and adequate comfort from the elements. This foundation also should include the need to minimize stress. This is the baseline. Everything else proceeds from there, once this baseline is established. After that, consistency is the number one need for a successful behavior modification plan. Sadly that is not usually possible in either a rescue or a shelter situation, when many different humans are involved.

One problem with shelters, as hard as many do try to satisfy a dog’s basic needs, is that they are definitely not free from stress. Neither are dogs in many foster homes, but that is usually a better option. However, we come back to that blatant issue: too little understanding of modern dog behavior, especially among unregulated rescue groups. Dogs get pulled into any foster home who agrees to take them in. Consistency is lacking and stress is high. It’s a perfect storm in the making. So bad stuff happens. And a bite history then exists.

When it does, more pleas go out to the “rescue” community and the dog in question either gets passed around to more uneducated foster homes or funds are raised for “training”. If the latter happens, much of the time, some “trainer” who uses outdated methods will “step up” and offer to board and train the dog in question to the tune of several thousand dollars. Because of the attraction to aggression, these monies are usually raised very quickly. Unfortunately, far too few positive trainers do board and train but of those who do, they charge considerably less than their more traditional/balanced training based colleagues. Any dog sent to a positive trainer for board and train is a lucky dog indeed. But that still doesn’t make the understanding of what can be accomplished any clearer.

Which brings us back to the fact that aggression cannot be “fixed”. It can be modified. But let's look at the reality. The average board and train is about 2 weeks. That, my friends, is the exact average amount of time that it usually takes for a dog to settle in and show their true personality. Any responsible rescue group worth their adoption fee usually (there are always appropriate exceptions) doesn’t place a dog prior to 2 weeks in, because you need to know who they are in order to make an appropriate placement match. So just as the dog is settling into their routine in the board and train, they get released, either to an owner (if an owned dog) or often in this type of situation, to a foster home. Whatever behavior modification (if they were lucky), that took place during that time happened with the trainer, (not the person the dog is then released to). If they were not so lucky, they had behavior suppression “training”, which is considerably different than true behavior modification and in general, makes things worse than they started as. In the case of a positive training board and train, the trainer started the behavior modification process and would then have a transfer session with whomever is responsible for the dog from that point, to help them to keep moving forward. But in a rescue group, that’s a hard task to keep consistent.

Let’s use a typical human behavior modification scenario to help the unsuspecting public better understand. Is quitting smoking usually a behavior that can be fully accomplished in 2 weeks without setbacks or stress? Having done this myself, I will say a hard no. How about anger management, which is essentially what aggression behavior modification partially consists of? Again, unlikely. Do you think that someone with a violent temper who has assaulted people in the past can learn to make better choices in the span of 2 weeks without continuing to further work with a skilled professional? Now do you see my point? A person with little modern dog behavior knowledge trying to follow through on what needs done at home, has a very low chance of helping a dog like this to move forward successfully.

Now let’s add the complication of the dog having been boarded with a positive trainer (good) but one with an overestimation of their skill level (bad). That can and has been an issue with many of us who are now quality professionals. We learned the most by doing. We really do. I know that no one talks about that part in the world of professional dog training but after getting a solid education on the foundations of dog behavior and how to address various very general situations, we learn on the job how to be better trainers. Which is why any newer trainer should not be peddling their wares, so to speak, without having first apprenticed with a solid professional for at least a year (if not more), in my humble opinion. Learning by doing is faster IF we have solid observation skills, which is what brought many of us to this profession in the first place. But even with those solid observation skills, we do make mistakes and we learn from those mistakes, so someone to have the dog’s back in the way of a mentor is helpful. There are always going to be those situations where we didn’t trust our gut and then someone gets hurt.  Our gut gets a bad rap with some but it’s really just solid observation skills. (check out this book Blink and this book  The Gift of Fear  for more on that). When we ignore our gut and someone gets hurt, it may be us, it may be another human, it may be another dog. But it’s on us because we made that mistake. But that doesn’t make us a monster. That makes us a human, just like any other human. Flawed and hopefully, learning from our errors. That doesn’t matter to extremist “rescuers” though. They can and will campaign heavily to try and ruin any individual who doesn’t fit within their parameters of acceptable to their agenda.

Which leads me to promises made. Trainers don’t make promises if they are responsible trainers. We create realistic goals and quality behavior plans and we give the humans in charge of the dogs that we work with, guidelines to achieve those goals. So you see, this is a two way street. But here we come back to extremist rescuers and their expectations that exist because of a poor understanding of dog behavior. One side of the equation has all of the intent to do the right thing because that side of the equation understands dog behavior. The other side of the equation is full of sunshine and rainbows and imagines the pot of gold over that rainbow, without understanding that there really is no pot of gold. Sometimes scenarios have unfortunate endings because we don’t exist in a vacuum and every sentient being has choices every moment of every day and sometimes bad things happen that are out of our control. The perfect storm happens.

But so many people in the world of rescue won’t let go of that rainbow and pot of gold. They insist that every dog can have that, and that just isn’t reality as a dog professional knows it. Management fails and someone gets hurt and that is no one’s fault because we are all human and humans make mistakes. When a dog is intent on hurting a human or another dog to such an extent that a life is in danger, that is not a dog that should ever be available for adoption. The possibility of enough consistency being in place to safely provide all of the base needs and move forward is sadly lacking.  So said rescue community rises up with an uninformed roar and gathers followers to their agenda like my dog’s floofy fur cast-offs gather on my floor. They go to their keyboards and let the accusations fly and roll into falsehoods and soon they are attacking everyone who doesn’t agree with their agenda. Keyboard warriors are not your friends, even if you agree with them initially. There will come a time when you will disagree with them, maybe on some minor point and they will turn on you like a jackal eating his prey. Don’t fall for their agenda and don’t believe everything you hear about someone they don’t like. Read more about how they operate here. The Dark Side of Animal Rescue

What it boils down to is that, in my opinion, you really cannot save them all. But those in the dog world who promote this ideology get labeled as the bad guys. We are viewed as villains who routinely kill dogs. This could not be further from the truth. Our successes range in the thousands. The number of dogs we may have personally worked with either with clients or in shelters/rescues, who have been euthanized is such a small number than most of us can count those numbers on one hand. This is with many years in business. But those numbers will climb through no fault of the trainer’s own when they routinely work in a responsible shelter or deal specifically with a responsible rescue group who will not place marginal dogs. You work more with dangerous dogs; you see more dogs that must be humanely euthanized. That is simple statistics 101. That does not make us monsters. That makes us responsible and ethical professionals who care about all sides of the equation.

I will wrap this up with my own article on this subject linked here. Can and Should Every Dog Be Saved?    But additionally, there are a number of articles on this subject that should be read. If you really want to help dogs, then you owe not only them, but yourself to be ethical and knowledgeable on the subject. Rescuers should consider being kinder to humans, in addition to being kind to animals. No one wants to make these choices. And if you have had to make those choices and you need emotional support, I suggest joining the Facebook group, Losing Lulu .

The Perils of Placing Marginal Dogs

We Need to Talk About Behavioral Euthanasia

Behavioral Euthanasia Podcast

Two Words Behavioral Euthanasia

Harsh Truths and Difficult Choices




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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


4 thoughts on “The Allure of the Damaged Dog: Why We Rush Towards Danger

  1. Linda Hutchinson

    I have a reactive rescue pitbull. All the training we have done was erased in one day.
    I found out ThunderShirt makes a
    Thunder cap! It covers your dogs eyes, they can see to navigate, but it reduces reactivity!
    We have calm peaceful walks now.

  2. D.H

    Good article. Being in rescue, I completely agree. However No Kill as intended means exactly what this article refers to rather than indiscriminately euthanizing animals for space or other reasons. And that's how it should be. Anyone who thinks EVERY dog can be saved isn't living in the real world. So until they come up with a better term I'll continue to use no kill but educate on what that actually means. Most dogs can and should be saved. Rescues that can't deal with behavior issues should stick with easier dogs (easier said than done I know). And I'll keep trying to educate on force free training and behavior. Thanks for the thoughtful presentation of a difficult subject.

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