A Dog Died Today. Because of a Trainer.
Or trainers. I can't clearly put this in any one person's lap.
Let's back up and see where we are. First off, I am not going to identify the trainer(s), the dog, or the family. My purpose is not to belittle or attack anyone. Instead I want this to be a learning experience for other trainers and a warning to owners.
The dog was.....let's call it (not as a thing "it", but as a "I'm not telling you any more details 'it'") Stat-as in short for the statistic he/she/her/him/it became. Stat was a dog rescued from a municipal animal control facility by a foster family. Stat was initially a friendly, accepting dog. Needed a bit of socialization, but a generally good dog that needed a home and a few manners. Stat was with the foster family for a bit, then on to what should have been Stat's forever home. Sadly, about 8 months later, there was a serious change in the new family's situation and Stat came back to the fosters. Stat was a little bit put off, but then settled back in to the foster home.
Stat was an exuberant dog that the fosters felt needed a bit of structure, a few manners, to make Stat more permanently adoptable. So they looked online, searched the area, and found what looked like a reputable trainer. There was a cool website. There were testimonials. There were nice pictures. There was a list of things the person(s) involved had done that sounded good. There were no certifications, but the owners never knew there were such things for dog trainers.
So they called and sent Stat off for "residential training". The stay was supposed to be two weeks. The trainer called, and two weeks turned into two months to "fix some issues" that had come up.
The follow up instructions were essentially "here is your dog, here is an electronic collar. If Stat misbehaves just use the collar. If Stat gives you any problem, turn the collar up."
The fosters told me that the first thing they notice when Stat came home was the dead look. Stat's eyes just didn't seem to sparkle any more. Stat was more responsive and minded well, but something wasn't right. Stat wasn't as much fun.
Stat still gave them a few problems. Now Stat had become visibly reactive to dogs, animals, and humans. Stat barked and lunged. Sit and down were fine, but walks were becoming an ordeal. The wife, a small framed woman, was concerned she couldn't hold Stat if something "went wrong".
So they called in other trainers. A total of five, including the first one. And their answer was always "if there are any problems, just turn up the collar." All five were full on e-collar trainers, and not one of them proposed any other possible solution.
The family began blaming themselves. Stat was an absolute love in the house with them, but if anyone entered the house or even came into the yard Stat became more and more visibly agitated. Walking became an impossibility due to the reactivity and increasingly aggressive displays. One day the male foster parent was walking Stat when a person passed in the other direction. The man had placed Stat on his right as the oncomer passed to the left for security, but Stat lunged across the foster and tried to bite the passerby, nicking him slightly.
At this point the fosters called a friend who runs a local rescue. They were looking for professional help that could solve their problems,not make them worse. The rescue person had them call straight away.
I was in Texas on three different cases. I spoke to them, told them I would try and help, and arranged to meet them when I got back. The three Texas cases bled into a case in New York city, but today I finally connected and met Stat.
I started by discussing the issues with the fosters out in the front yard. In order to try and not make Stat anxious with a strange person in the house (something they identified as particularly an issue-they had not been able to have company in some time) Stat came out to meet me. I kept my body position neutral, angled, voice soft, not meeting eyes. I let Stat come and close the distance between us. I extended a closed hand out to sniff, with a tiny piece of treat between two knuckles so Stat could sniff and get a reward. And he bit me. Hard. In the hand. Full engagement, top and bottom, with moderate force.
And that was just the first bite. Four more times Stat bit me. All except the one to the pants leg from behind were full Level 4 bites, full engagement, not as much strength as possible but definitely not holding much back.
No, I am not in the hospital. Remember how I have preached about protective gear? Today it was the difference between a rough day and a crisis. Kevlar gloves, a Kevlar sleeve, and the Kevlar combo pants that I developed with a manufacturer (more on that later...for now we return to Stat.).
Every time Stat engaged I saw the warnings but they were subtle and fast. Zero to ninety in less than a second. Each time I was relatively neutral, not challenging, and trying to make friends. And every time, right after the bite, Stat sat there chattering teeth and drooling.
Stat was afraid. Mortally afraid. Not cowering, but sitting and chattering, waiting for the hammer to drop and for pain to arrive.
The fosters and I talked quite a long while. The fosters were dedicated, but were out of their depth. Stat was great with them, but was terrified of others, and instead of reverting to the fly part of fight or fly, Stat had learned that there was no fly option. Stat had been treated with aversive methods so often in the past where anyone could be a threat at any time. Threats never had a consistent look to Stat-they were anyone not the fosters. A passing pedestrian. A friendly stranger. Next possibly a child with no awareness-or no manners.
The fosters and I had a long, hard talk. I kept trying to softly make contact. Stat would take treats easily, confidently, sitting looking like the world's most friendly dog. And then suddenly the storm hit and there was a strong, dedicated bite. Again.
Stat was clearly dangerous. Stat had lost the ability to cope without violence-or had that ability purged under fire. Stat had been taken from a personable dog that just needed a bit of guidance to a dog into whom violence had been burned. I am usually very slow to recommend death as an option for a dog with even severe behavior problems, but in this case it was up front and center.
After talking over all the options the fosters decided, and I concurred, that Stat was a danger with a limited prognosis of recovery. Stat had been broken. The only reasonable option was to put Stat down. The fosters contacted the local Vet and Stat was taken by the people Stat trusted and could safely interact with to the Vet's office to be escorted on to another life. At least this procedure was done gently, respectfully, and every measure was taken so that Stat did not die in fear.
Could Stat have been saved? In a perfect world, I would give a solid--maybe. Stat had been mistreated enough that extensive behavior work over a long period of time would have been required. The rehabilitator in Stat's case would have had to be truly skilled, patient, and willing to risk injury on a daily basis for an unknown period of time. With no guarantee of success, or of even moderation of the problem biting.
Could Stat have gone to a sanctuary somewhere? Maybe. Given funds, resources, and a proper place with room. Stat still would have had to be isolated, kept in a kennel, limited in contact with others, maybe forever. I don't see that as a positive quality of life for a social creature that deserves a permanent loving home. (To give an example, I have personally seen one such facility where a dog was kept for years. The dog was truly dangerous, had no chance of recovery, and the keepers had to maintain the dog in a kennel with absolutely no direct human or dog contact. They drugged the dog every three months so they could clean the large kennel run, wash the dog, trim its nails, and give it any needed medications. Otherwise they could only shove food and water under the kennel bars. That is NOT the way I think a dog should live.).
Can I absolutely state that any one of the previous five trainers caused this? No, I can't point a clear finger. All five were force/aversive based trainers. Obviously none of them were the right trainer. None of them seem to have understood the principles of using scientifically valid methods. I am not going to share who they were. That is not my place.
I will warn owners of a couple concerns. When picking a trainer make sure that they are willing to discuss their training methods and give you clear reasons why they choose a particular tool, especially if it is even remotely aversive. A trainer should not have any "secret techniques" or things that they cannot or will not do in front of you. They should have more than a single set of tools in their toolbox of training techniques. If their answer to problems is just "Turn it Up" then RUN. The other direction. And above all, if they do anything that makes you remotely uncomfortable, find someone else.
SIDE NOTE: PROTECTIVE GEAR.
I mention above that Stat bit me hard several times. That happens sometimes, and I am never happy about it. Most often it shows that I have messed up. Bite scars are not medals of honor.
That is why I use protective gear. Folks have asked me what I use, so here is the current kit.
The first part of my arsenal is a pair of pants that Andrew Kater and the folks at ACES (Animal Care Equipment and Services) developed for me. They are a mix of Kevlar and magic (or some other fabric, I'm not sure which) that go on over your regular pants and look for all the world like a pair of rain pants. They aren't scary or look like a bite suit for training protection dogs. They have an elastic waist with built in belt and zips to get over your boots. They even have pockets. Here they are:
Now here is a look at the bite to my leg that would have been a serious Level 4 had the pants not taken the punishment: As you can see there was only a little abrasion and minor scratching through the pants, but no puncture. You feel all the pressure since they are not padded. The bite hurts, but the teeth don't come through. I am not saying that these will stop everything and anything, but they certainly do work. They come in a couple sizes and are comfortable to wear. They are no where near as hot or bulky as a full set of bite gear. And you would NOT want to use these for protection dog training as they are NOT designed for that. But for protection while training or evaluating dogs in comfort and safety, I'm happy.
The pants can be ordered from www.animal-care.com, Animal Care Equipment and Services. They are $98.50 a pair. They don't seem to have been added to the online catalog yet, but just call and speak to Chama Gomez at 1-800-338-2237 ext 101. Ask her for my pants. Unworn.
In the above photo I am also wearing the Kevlar lined leather gloves that ACES sells. This model is called the Humaniac Deluxe Duty Gloves. They are tight (which I want so I can manipulate dog, lead, and tools) and are thin enough that you can feel what you are doing. They are $45.00 a pair and come in sizes. My fairly big hands take a large.
The sleeve you can see poking out from under my jacket above are made by BiteBuster and can be purchased from their website at bitebuster.com or through ACES. They fit over your hands and forearms, with a double layer over the palm of your hand giving even more protection-and a thumb loop so they can't pull back and leave your wrist exposed. They are called the Armadillo Arm Sleeves and run between $25 and $30 depending on size.
And disclosure: neither of these fine folks have paid me for this. They did give me samples to work with because I won't support something that doesn't work for me personally.
Advocating for Animals – Victoria and Holly are joined by actor and animal activist, Peter Egan to discuss dogs, moon bears and...
Victoria is joined by dog behaviour expert and a driving force behind the UK Dog Behaviour & Training Charter Andrew Hale to...
The rescue of 180 Chihuahuas sparks a larger conversation on how to transition dogs from crisis situations into homes.
Articles from Victoria Stilwell
- 2021 Dog Behavior Conference Announced
- Why I’m Not a Purely Positive Dog Trainer
- Becoming a Dog Trainer
- Social Bullying
- Does Your Dog Respect You?