The PATRICIA McCONNELL RETURNS A PUPPY! brou-ha-ha (It’s almost been worth it just having an excuse to use that word: brou-ha-ha. Say it over and over and try not to laugh!) has brought up one of the most important questions in dog training. What “problem behaviors” can be ameliorated by training and/or management, and what can’t? Ah, the answer is a book unto itself (and yup, it’s going to be a topic of the book I’m about to start writing), so I can’t answer as fully as I’d like here. But here are some thoughts, that relate to my recent experience and to our relationship with dogs in general.
First, as many wise readers have noted, there is such a thing as temperament in dogs, just as there is in people. Temperament is defined as a set of behavioral predispositions that are seen very early in life (within days of birth in infants), believed to be strongly influenced by genetics, and are relatively stable over time. (Personality, on the other hand, is the combination of an individual’s innate temperament and their experience–the interplay of ‘nature-nurture.’) In most mammalian species, there are some tendencies that are so strongly innate that they can be shaped but never completed turned around. Just as no one expects a blood hound to work a flock of sheep, no one expects a fearless, bold puppy to become a shrinking violet unless it was subjected to a major trauma.
Will is a great example of the tenacity of temperament: As a young pup he was pathologically afraid of unfamiliar dogs, the worst I’ve seen in over 20 years. He has come so far it makes my heart swell—he has lots of dog buddies, makes wonderful choices to keep himself out of trouble, and does extremely well in a variety of contexts. But he’ll never be a dog park dog and I’d never let 5 big male dogs run into the house and surprise him. He would be terrified. He was also one of the most sound-sensitive dogs I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t take him out and about because he didn’t habituate to environmental noises, he sensitized to them and became worse. (I know, I know, some of you are asking now: Why didn’t you take him back!!! The answer is complicated, but here’s the quick answer: he was so bad I truly believed he’d have to be euthanized if I didn’t do everything I could to turn him around. His name is “Will” because I asked “Will he or won’t he make it through his first year?” More on that in later blogs and the book to come.)
So, there are some innate traits that can be shaped and changed, but not eliminated. Many of them cause no problems at all in some contexts, but not in others. I’ll talk about context in a minute, but here are some (just some) of the behavioral predispositions that can be influenced, but rarely eliminated:
Dogs who want control: Call it “dominance” or “status seeking” or whatever you want, but some dogs seem to come out of the chute wanting to control objects, space and their own bodies. Just as some babies are cheerful and smiley, and others are inhibited and fearful (and continue to be as adults in their 20’s), some dogs seem hard-wired to want to control their environment. That’s often just not a problem, it can be dealt with easily enough with the right (positive) training methods and in the right context, but it can’t always be eliminated. (Ah, there’s that probability statement again!). And the contexts in which that predisposition most often leads to serious trouble are: 1) Two same sex dogs who are both controlling and 2) controlling/dominant/high status dogs in a home with very young children.
Dogs who are sound sensitive: This is again something that can be shaped and conditioned; but if it is moderate to severe, can rarely be eliminated. Will is so very, very much better than he was, bu this is not a dog to volunteer for military duty. He just never will be a dog who is literally “bomb proof.” Will stills reacts strongly to some sounds, and gets nervous in noisy environments, but we cope with it without much trouble because of where we live and how I manage him. However, if a bunch o’ football fans wanted to come to the house and scream bloody murder over a game on TV, I’d put Will in his crate and shut the door (or go on a long walk!) Will could never make it in a noisy day care for example, so how ‘fixable’ this issue is depends on the context. The new pup is also quite sound sensitive, but he recovers quickly and isn’t anything like Will was when he was young. I’d score Will, when he was a pup, as an 11 (out of 10, no kidding), new pup as a 5, first pup as a 2. Both pups will be just fine, but new pup will take a bit more work. It will be easy to handle at this level of intensity, but is something to be aware of.
Dogs who are fearful: Fear can come in many different contexts, from fear of other dogs, to fear of unfamiliar people, to fear of environmental change or loud noises. Will showed no sign of fear of people until he was an adolescent (classic “juvenile onset shyness”), which was easily overcome by classical conditioning for about 6 months. However, he is easily overstimulated and frightened, and he’s just never going to turn into a dog who comfortable at a shooting range.
Dogs who live through their nose: Some scent hounds seem to put their noses down a few hours after birth and don’t pick it up unless you are rubbing their ears and there is nothing else going on. Of course, this is exactly what they are bred for, so it is surprising sometimes when people complain that their Bloodhound doesn’t listen in the woods.Can you train around that if you are a skilled trainer? You bet, but is this the dog who would be the best choice for a novice owner who wants a dog to stick around during long walks in the country? Maybe not. Context again makes this a cost or a benefit.
There are many other behaviors we can add to this list: I’d love to hear your input on it. But whatever the issue, here’s what is critical to understand: just as in medicine, some problems can be prevented if you can see them coming, some are easily treated or managed, some can be treated and managed with difficulty, and some are simply deal breakers in a particular context. And as one astute reader mentioned, many ‘problems’ aren’t problems at all… at least not in a particular context. I have seen so many dogs who were in big trouble until they ended up where they needed to be all along…
Ah… such a big issue! We’ll continue this conversation off and on in the future, because I think it is so important.
Meanwhile, back on the farm: Here’s New pup/Nick/Riddle/Chance/Flip/Bug-in-the-Rug with big brother Will. Pup is absolutely smitten by Willie, and Will is doing great with him. Who knows what will happen in the months and years to come, but right now, I’m going to soak up what’s happening right now.
Thank you for this post, Trisha.
As someone who shares her life with a fearful/reactive/sound-sensitive dog, I often wonder how good she can get. I’ve worked hard with her, and like Will, she has come a long way. But, as someone with obedience ambitions, I also wonder if she has come far enough, and if she can go much further. Right now, she can keep herself together the majority of the time while at trials, but it takes a LOT of work on my part (and a lot of treats for her).
I know there are no easy answers, and truthfully, whether she earns another title or not doesn’t matter much to me… I love this dog more than I ever thought possible, and I’m just glad that she’s in my life. Which is probably why I worry so much. She seems willing to try, but I don’t know if I’m being fair to her.
They look SO happy together – seeing them relaxed and playing together must be the best evidence that the brou-ha-ha is worth it!
I will watch this discussion with interest – I’ve worked hard with both of mine to get them relaxed around people, dogs and the world in general, but I’m not sure that Poppy will ever be as confident as Sophy. Sophy assumes everyone is nice until proven otherwise; Poppy waits to be sure before approaching. Not a problem, but definitely a difference in either temperament or personality – she may yet gain in confidence as she learn to read canine and human body language better. I’m also interested to see how you handle the inevitable disagreements that arise between dogs in the same family. Poppy is nearly a year old now, and I am aware that there is going to be a certain amount of negotiation ahead as we move from young adult and puppy to two adult bitches!
I’m loving your blog, but this is my first chance to comment. My Oscar is a big blustery buffoon with unfamiliar dogs. He loves his buddies, but he can’t handle meeting new dogs unless they are clearly playful, small, or non-threatening. This blew up as he turned two-ish (we adopted him and aren’t sure of his exact age), but I know now the foundation was there. We struggle with balancing his need to run and play and maybe meet a new friend here or there with the reality of his also not being a dog park dog. I’m so glad to learn more about Will, how he has come so far, and how to choose another pack member appropriately. Thanks!
Interesting post, Trisha! If it’s not too impertinent, I would like underscore your point that while many of personality issues can be managed (often to the point where they are not problematic), the effort required to manage them is a lifelong commitment.
My dog has a truckload of instinctive/personality baggage – a very strong prey drive toward large game (deer, in his case), a tendency to be uncomfortable about strangers approaching or entering the house, a persistent tendency to lock his gaze on objects of interest, a frustratingly good sense of object permanence, etc. All of these things were, at one point in his genetic history, desired and adaptive character traits, specifically selected for by breeders trying to create a boar-hunting, estate-guarding canine success. Not all of these traits are well-suited to a life as a family companion, but they are managable. After months of intensive work, I can walk him confidently off leash-he’s given up animal tracking and I can call him off a chase. He will also, grudgingly, behave himself when the pizza man comes over. But there are definitely limits-this is not a dog who could ever be trusted to work sheep, for example. Be near sheep, maybe, but not actually pursue them. And, if he went to live with someone less committed to keeping him properly supervised and disciplined, I have no doubt he’d be a deer-chasing, mailman-biting terrorist in a nanosecond.
I’m glad to hear they are doing well together. I am sort of hoping that when you write this book you have in mind, you talk about returning a puppy because I really believe one of the biggest reasons for owner surrender to shelters is incompatibility. I think that people are not always 100% dishonest when they mention the divorce or the move as the reason for giving up the dog, but that deep down inside, perhaps they were looking for a reason to let go of a dog that just set their teeth on edge whenever they looked at it.
I wish more people understood that all dogs are not equally suitable for their lifestyle. If you are a couch potato, there is a dog our there for you. And if you want your dog to come to work with you every day, there’s a dog for you. And if you want to do dock-diving, there’s a dog for you, but those three are not all the same dog.
We have two fabulous Pembroke Welsh Corgis that we got from a terrific breeder. We got one as a pup, and he is positively bombproof. The other we got as an adult, a retired show dog/ breeding bitch, and she is 100% reliable with people, kids, noises, and most dogs, though she can be a little snarky with certain big dogs.
When people ask us if Corgis are good family dogs, or good with kids, or whatever, I stress that they are IF you want a dog that needs a lot of exercise and a lot of mental stimulation every day (and if you don’t mind a house covered in fur). Both dogs had countless hours of socialization put into them (one by me, one by the breeder) and ongoing years of training to be the dogs they are. In a house where they got one or two walks a week, or a house full of screamers, or a house where no one really knew who was in charge, they’d be a disaster.
The dog community has done a great job getting out the word about spaying and neutering, and is making progress with the puppy mills, but the next piece of the puzzle is helping people understand how important it is to have the right dog for your household.
I think your story with Mick could be a great start in spreading that word. We hear so many romanticized stories about people’s love affairs with their problem dogs, but the huge majority of households just don’t have the time or resources to “fix” the dogs that aren’t suited for their homes. If more people spent the time to do the homework before picking their own dog, and recognized right off the bat if they were not getting what they needed, I have a sneaking suspicion there would be a lot fewer people surrendering adults or needing to spend years and heartache and money on “fixing” a dog that has become a huge problem.
Very interesting. You have to wonder which core temperament variables might account for the chemistry between two individuals, and whether there are behavioral correlates that dogs identify in each other. Maybe when Will met Nick/Riddle/Chance/Flip/Bug, he could sense a kindred sound-sensitive spirit with whom he would be comfortable!
Your experiences with Will interest me very much as we’ve got a little lad of about a year with a bad reactive problem. He was a little jittery but we were dealing with it until a very ill behaved Aussie at a CGC test scared the socks off of him when he was about six months of age…now that we’re starting stock dog training and he’s mostly okay with other BCs but any other breed of dog (especially a hairy one) is likely to set him off like a rocket, – except for Beagles. I spent some time at the local SPCA and there happened to be a great many Beagles there and he got used to Beagles. It doesn’t help that his “big brother” litter mate has developed a habit of pouncing on him every time my back is turned (immediate solution, don’t turn my back) but I need to find a way to take the big guy down a few notches and boost my little lad’s confidence up a bit so that they can both go out into the world well behaved and confident. Looking through your website and blogs for suggestions from your readers….
The boys look so happy – that must warm your heart after all Will’s issues with other dogs.
I’m another with a fearful/sound-sensitive dog – fortunately she has never shown a sign of aggression and is excellent with other dogs (much puppy daycare to thank for that). I’m slowly coming to accept that she will not be a super obedience dog – she developed a mysterious fear of the clicker after 8 months of no problems and regularly develops inexplicable things to react to. (Why won’t she come readily into the house – just stands at a distance and watches – after our second walk of the day when she does every other time? Dog knows…)
I do feel guilty that I can’t seem to properly countercondition or do whatever it is that you’d be able to do with her (I’ve read all the books and she doesn’t quite fit into the categories somehow), but she’s a happy dog almost all the time, and I think I’ll have to be content with that. I’m putting away the clicker books and concentrating on enjoying her for what she is. We are a quiet home, she has two off leash walks (one with a pal her age) every day, and we love her dearly. Her fear issues will always be there, we can’t seem to eradicate them, but she’s a wonderful dog for us. Not every dog needs to be an extrovert…Do I sound like I’m trying too hard to convince myself??
Liz F. says
New pup’s name: Not sure if you have these in your area, but there is a take-n-bake pizza franchise named Nick and Willy’s Pizza. I don’t know if the franchise is wide spread, or if it makes a difference to you, but just a word of caution so as to be prepared when/if people ask about the names down the line. There might be a few tiresome questions. Might be irrelevant.
Either way, congratulations, and thanks for sharing the announcement of your next book. Very exciting.
Rose T. says
Trish, thanks for being so candid about your ordeal with the puppy. It must have been a very hard decision to make esp. when you’re in the spotlight. I too had to return a dog that wasn’t a good fit for me and my current pack (which was three cats at the time). The dog I adopted through rescue ended up being a resource guarding, fearful of strangers, easily stressed dog after the 3rd week of being in my home. To a more experienced owner, this would probably not be a problem (and as far as I know he’s very happy in his new home) but to me, these were problems were overwhelming.
I made the extremely difficult decision to return him after realizing that I didn’t have the skills to rehabilitate him. It was best for the dog and my household.
@Crystal, I often wonder how much “training” and “de-sensitizing” is going too far. My brit is a soft dog who is sometimes fearful of new things – I’ve been doing a lot of luring exercises when it comes to swimming, getting her use to the beach/ocean etc. and I think to myself, does my dog really need to do these things, or do I want her to do them for me? Granted, Brits are supposed to swim, retrieve, etc. of which, she really wants nothing to do with . I also worry that pushing too hard damages the relationship and erodes the bond we have with our dogs. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to accept her as she is and work on the things that she likes.
Ah, excellent topic.
How about play style? My B/C mix likes to chase other dogs, but doesn’t want to be in their space. Consequently, when she wants to play with another dog she barks at it until it pays attention to her. (Thats my take on this behavior anyway.) She never goes in for a nip or to put a paw on them, just stands and barks, tail wagging, ears forward, eyes relaxed, etc.
If the other dog is fearful I can (and do) call her off said dog and she’s pretty good about going and doing her own thing or finding another dog. If the other dog is her buddy then it will usually eventually play with her again and she’ll stop barking.
My friend asks me why, if I can train her to herd sheep and to run an agility course, can’t I train her not to bark? I claim that I *could* train her not to bark but I’d really just be training her to avoid initiating play, or worse, avoid play at all. Am I giving up too easily?
You are so correct in what you say about nature and environment and context. You helped my husband and me with our 10 out of 10 on sight/sound/movement/people/some dogs-fearful dalmatian 15 years ago and he lived a happy life, within our abilities to control situations for him. Controlling situations was critical. The poor dog was afraid of my husband, and all men for that matter. You gave us wonderful suggestions to overcome this and we did, but I think the best advice was to know what we were up against, counter condition where we could, accept who he was and prevent problems by controlling the environment to the degree possible. We could never change the things that happened to him before we got him at 8 months or his breeding and disposition, he simply was who he was when we adopted him. We learned so very much from this dog that it has informed all of our future adoptions from shelters, not that some of the dogs haven’t had issues of their own, they do, but we accept them for who they are, work on what we can, train (positive methods, always) them and love them. So a very heartfelt thank you.
Good luck to Jim with his surgery, and to you both in his recovery. Best wishes to all of you with the puppy. I’m looking forward to the name. How about a nice British name like Onslow (if you watch Keeping up Appearances you’ll know where this comes from)?
Here in England, the almost too obvious name for a brother for Wills would be Harry!
Once again i read your blog and say “this makes perfect sense to me, why didn’t I think of that”. If only others could see the individual temperments of dogs. The general consensus with most people is that a young puppy can be molded into anything the owner wants. Unfortunatly that also leads to alot of blame when a dog has “problem” behaviors as an adult. I also wish people would realize this when training a dog, I hear “well it worked with so and so” usually refering to traditional punishment based behavior.
I would like to hear you thoughts on resourse guarding and if you feel it is a strong behavorial predisposition. Do you feel that it can be managed or possibly “fixed”. I am refering to young puppies showing guarding behaviors. I have seen some that responed well to training and others that have gotten much worse with age. What do you feel is a reliable indicator of progonis, severity of guarding, age of onset, response to training, other tempermanent traits, level of escalation? also, not to stir to pot on “dominance” do you feel some dogs guard as a means to control, or more as a defensive act. Most people associate guarding behaviors with “dominance”, but I have seen guarders on both sides the confidence scale, the more confident ones are adults with unknown history, so is this learned behavior? I have read your blogs on dominance and do understand that it is a relationship, not a trait, but have met some dogs that do seem to try to control all relationships they are in, some of whom were guarders as adults.
Thank you for your wonderful blogs, books, and down to earth personality. Obviously you were born with a solid tempermanent and had many good experiences in your life. good luck with the puppy.
Hi There, Patricia,
I love your books and your new puppy is adorable!
My part-BC dog was powerfully sound fearful when first I adopted him. Dogs barking at him behind privacy gates would scare him, as would Monday trash-day mornings. Even if Mhina was inside and the trucks were several blocks away he would be frightened. So, I would hold him and give him treats and now when Monday rolls around Mhina isn’t even bothered. He loves people, other dogs, and sleeps through every thunderstorm, which is a huge improvement of my previous much more stoic dog.
Thank you for being courageous enough to share your struggles with us. It is nice to hear that even a professional flounders on occasion, Karen
Your recent posts highlight the importance of a partnership with a good breeder. You want a dog that will be a good fit in your household; the breeder wants her dog to go to the best home for him.
I’ve been thinking lately about managing behaviors over time and when that’s a good thing and when it’s not.
I adopted littermates from the SPCA almost 20 years ago. It was a dumb, amateur move–couldn’t bear to “break up the set.”
Unfortunately, Agatha and Christie never really thrived together. Christie was more social and liked dogs. Agatha was standoffish and hated other dogs. Because Agatha’s issues were harder to manage, Christie got short shrift–she never got the play time with other dogs she’d enjoy.
If I had known more then, I might have done a better job desensitizing Agatha and given Christie more time away from her sister. But I also wonder if I would have been more fair to Christie by finding her a new home where she could live and flourish as the dog she was meant to be.
I wonder how much of my desire to “manage” the difficulties of these two dogs was due to a view I had of myself as “tenacious” and a “rescuer.” It’s very hard to move ourselves to the background and really do what’s best for the animals in our care.
It sounds like you feel comfortable with the fact that you’ve made the right puppy decision for Will. It may also be very true that you made the right puppy decision for Mick.
Enjoy your vacation and time with your family–
Great stuff. Not so great, thugh, when you realize you have a double-whammy-personality dog. Mine is shy but also a hot shot wannabe (sigh). He has been a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong, but he’s also been a heartbreaker (mine) and a total pill. With positive training, we’ve got a nice balance going, but whew. He can be a pistol.
So refreshing to hear of behaviorists and trainers not having perfect dogs. In a world like ours, perfect dogs seem to be a MUST and I love reading more about acceptance and management. Too many owners try neither before surrendering a dog to either Craigslist or the local shelter. In this tough culture (expectations on dogs) it’s good to hear, and to keep hearing, that owners have other options than surrender.
I’m keeping my pistol . . .
Jenna Bullis says
I would love to see you write more about innate traits as they relate to breeds and people selecting the “wrong” dog for their lifestyle. Or better yet give folks suggestions on what to consider (apart from looks) when deciding on the best dog for their lives. As you stated these traits can be shaped to a degree and context is part of the equation but I think many people overlook breed traits in favor of how the dog “looks”. It just seems like people many times do not set themselves up for success. And I can admit to being one of those people too. As a former long time owner of Rottweilers (19years) I loved the breed but they were a challenge to manage in my lifestyle which included taking my dogs to work with me (I train service dogs for the visually impaired) where they were constantly exposed to an ever changing tide of immature Labs and clients who were usually not very dog savvy. Add to the mix a husband who even after 20 years does not see the behavioral signs of discomfort and thinks our dogs could and should meet every unfamiliar person and dog who passes by. Had I lived in a vacuum I would have continued owning Rotties, but there were other things to consider, just like how you needed to consider Will when bringing a new pup into your life. I finally made the decision to look for another breed and searched for something that typically was likely to be more social and outgoing with unfamiliar people and other dogs. I finally decided on a Portuguese Water Dog despite not really caring for their look and all that hair. After another year long search for the “right” breeder I finally got a pup. I feel like I have stacked the cards as much as possible in my favor and now am putting in all the work to nurture my pup into what I hope she will turn into. She is 6 months old now and I’m happy to say that so far (knock on wood), she has met (and exceeded) my expectations in personality. I ADORE this pup and yes, I have even fallen in love with the “hair factor” that comes along with this breed. Who would have thought?
Good luck with your pup, and thanks for the blog, I really enjoy it.
Ellen Pepin says
Last year we adopted a female collie, who barks a lot and pulls and lunges when a vehicle goes by on our walks. We have been working with an ACAAB on this problem. She has us using something called a “calming cap” which is kind of like a hood pulled over her eyes. It worked beautifully at first, but now she uses her hearing to know when a car is coming. I have also tried to use the “watch me” command when cars approach. Unfortunately, she knows one is coming before I do and is already past the moment of paying attention to me. My husband is a bit faster to react and she is better for him.
What I was wondering is: is this a behavior that can be changed or only modified? The behaviorist thinks she will always be somewhat reactive to cars. Does this have anything to do with a herding instinct?
Ellen Pepin says
I also wanted to say how much I love seeing pictures of the new puppy. It sounds like he may turn out to be the right one for you.
My 4 year old BC’s Mom is very bad with other (strange) dogs, although I think her behavior is not due to fear…it’s more like “stay away from me, I don’t want you near, I just don’t like dogs” and “I’ll eat you if you get into my personal space”. Fortunately, we took our pup to 2 puppy kindergarten classes a week for the first 6 weeks that we had him. Then started going to a dog park at least once a week when he was 6 months old. Then agility classes at 1 year of age. We can definitely see his Mom’s genetics in him, but he is very manageable – better off leash than on. Doesn’t like strange dogs up close to him, but warms up to them as he spends more time around them. For example, in agility class he’s suspicious of a new dog, but after several classes he’ll be fine. Interestingly enough, he loves people (almost, but not quite as much as a Lab). It so happens his parents were also friendly towards people.
Lovely picture of the two happy dogs!
All the best for Jim
“If more people spent the time to do the homework before picking their own dog, and recognized right off the bat if they were not getting what they needed,” yes yes Beth! And kudos to Trisha and others trying to educate folks like me on what that homework looks like.
I think that “arousal potential” for want of a better term is something that’s pretty hard to change. I have this gorgeous, laid back dog that walks around with his head in the clouds and is downright lazy. I have managed to get him quite excited about some activities such as targeting, but getting him excited is something that could fall flat at any moment with little warning. Keep it short and sweet or he runs out of arousal. 😛 My other dog switches on in the blink of an eye, and then it’s bark leap bite chase shake until I put the toys away and tell him to go away. Unless he’s distracted, which he quite easily is. Which I guess brings me to another temperament aspect that is hard to change, I think.
Awareness. The dog with his head in the clouds is often unaware of his surroundings. It is hard to teach him to interact with objects because he trips over them and just whines because they got between him and me. I found it amazingly difficult to teach him to go to a mat. After some 50 clicks for being on the mat he still hadn’t realised there even was a mat. I tried clicking for head tilts once and he never did figure out what I was clicking for and threw himself on the ground in frustration about it. My other dog always seems to know what’s going on. He’s aware of everything! It makes training super easy, but it also means he is so cluey he learns things you didn’t want him to learn, and he can be very sensitive about what he thinks is going to happen next.
I guess frustration threshold is another temperament trait. And creativity, maybe? Novelty-seeking? That thing that makes some dogs want to be around people and somehow care when they get shouted at?
I wonder if resource guarding is one of those traits amenable to change, but not extinguishable. My Welsh Terrier started as a pup to guard things and people, and now at almost 6 years she is very good w/people but still guards from other dogs and occasionally from my cat. If someone is petting her and that person’s own dog comes up to them, she will warn that dog off. With the cat, she gets ugly if he knocks food off the counter and jumps down to get it. She’s never injured another dog or the kitty, but she is serious about her guarding. The worst she does w/people is to turn her head away if she has something she really doesn’t want to give up, but she will relinquish it if asked. I’d never trust her around little kids, and I never leave food out when I’m not home.
Anne J says
The longer I have dogs the more mystery it seems why some get along and some don’t. The only thing I can definitely say is that opposite sexes tend to have a better chance than same. But then you get my 4 girls racing around the lilac bushes having a grand time and none of the boys joining in, so who knows. My 9 year old female is a bossy one, and she doesn’t get along with every dog, but the 2 girls we brought in as pups she loves. The adult female I bought, Missy, she still does not like and I keep them separate if I’m not there to watch. If a better home came along for Missy I would part with her even though she’s a darling dog, but she has particular requirements and so far I haven’t found anyone.
My issues dog may have come “out of the chute” with certain qualities – but she was picked up on the street starved, shot, and post-litter so it’s hard to know how much of her (good and bad) is who she is and how much is something she can’t unlearn. (
I am sure she’s busy (not going to go as far as saying she’s on the lookout for something to engage her “arousal potential,” although that might have been true at first), and has some nerve, as part of her natural temperament.
Even if I knew the origins of her behavior, there’s nothing I can think of that would change as far training and management.
My goal right now, which is a “I need to be more aware of this” goal and not a check-box goal, is to build her trust in me to help with the “alpha-has-to-be” behavior which is stressful for both us. The process would be to get back into getting her out and about so she has to deal with things – but only on afternoons when she’s fresh and ready and I’m fresh and ready so we both have the wherewithal to work.
I would let five big dogs into the house, because she’s fine with dogs, but, yeah, there are things she’s just not going to do. Ever. Period.
Either way, she will always be a busy and reactive dog and there’s always management that goes with that. I can keep her from doing certain things, mostly by managing what I ask of her and where I take her, but even if I felt she was no longer likely to want to do certain things, I don’t forsee a time when think it would be responsible to let up on that management. (For instance, in class, we don’t do off-leash work when novice dogs and handlers are present.)
Some of the TV shows, I think, and chatterboxes at the dog park, give a very wrong idea about what can be accomplished with a truly troubled dog. Friends of mine who work with special needs children see the same thing – parents vacillate between imaging a genuinely autistic child will marry and raise children (not a likely outcome for a twelve-year old who still can’t control bodily functions and eats furniture) and thinking their child will have to be caged for life and never know joy. Dog and children are who they are, and that’s what you have to work with.
Thanks for a thoughtful post about who Willy is, hat it took to get him where he is now, and the value of working to get him there.
Having reactive dogs puts us in a strange paradox of dog ownership: we both accept them for who they are and spend time with them in the present tense, but are also always working with them, with the constant implication that we are trying to “fix” them, at least as much as we can. I have to remind myself daily of all the things I love about my dogs as they are, even as I’m loading up a huge bag of chicken just to get around the neighborhood on a walk. Strange to both appreciate them and wish better things for them at the same time.
Interesting to think about some common temperament traits that researchers have come up with for humans: extraversion/surgency; fearfulness; effortful control. Sounds pretty familiar, especially the ones dealing with reactivity. In human research, we talk about “differential susceptibility,” in which some people are genetically wired to be more or less susceptible to environmental influences, for example parenting. In this model, babies born with difficult temperament (fussy, irritable, etc) do the worst with poor parenting, but actually better than the easy babies when both experience good parenting. So the outcome continuum goes: worst: difficult babies plus poor parenting, next: all the easy babies with any kind of parenting, then best: difficult babies plus good parenting. Food for thought, I guess.
Having 2 socially challenged beagles Daizy n George who have come such a long way…I ended up moving from an apartment where people/dogs racing through the hallway, being attacked by dogs in the hallway and finally ended up in the country pretty much because of our love for a quieter lifestyle… (the became reactive…keep away) and to enjoy our shared LOVE of nature.
Plus…I’ve got to say that I’ve grown so much as a person because of what we’ve been through. I’m no longer a push over, I have so much more patience! I use humour to keep myself sane working with my guys which has come in handy to diffuse tense or awkward social situations with people! Oh and the biggie life lesson is in knowing how much better the world is when people make compassionate decisions on how they treat those around them, furry or human kind.
I’m happy that I have Keegan, my clown, a pretty sound people/dog wise adolescent Aussie…it is really a treat…but I really owe a lot more to my two beagles who are my heart and soul.
I love them for who they are and how far we’ve come, and would never ever knowingly set them up to fail for selfish reasons of my own.
If I want to enjoy a busy area where dogs are off leash and humans may or may not care what their dogs are up to, or a playground full of children screaming and running towards us…then I make sure I spend time before I leave doing something we love….then leave my guys to chill out and snooze at home.
No guilt leaving them home. Being stressed beyond what is emotionally healthy is not fun period.
I love how Cynthia shared her studies !!!! I wish there was research of that kind for dogs! If only trainers could use those more compassionate terms to describe challenged dogs….
Can I just say that I love all of you who left comments? I’m feeling very isolated lately, and lost at times with my big crazy GSD mix who roars like a lion at nearly every dog on earth (save 3 who have been on tie outs within her view since she was a puppy). She’s not joking, either, and nearly killed another dog once, who she tried to shake the life out of when it jumped towards her. It’s her one major drawback. She’s so affectionate with people that even non dog-lovers say she seems human. Today we drove past a mop-like small dog and I braced myself for the roar from the back seat. It was epic. Then I came home, jumped on this site and thanked my lucky stars for Patricia, her blog, and all of you who “get” dogs more than anyone I’ve ever met. Thank you, thank you, you all made my day a lot brighter just knowing there’s others out there with dogs who are far from perfect.
Interesting question about what behaviors can be modified and which can’t or not with ridiculous amounts of work. I agree with Gillian that play style is one that can’t be changed. Some dogs seem to be very good at adjusting their play style to different sizes of dogs and some just aren’t. My greyhound, Opal, is a lovely dog and not at all dog-dog aggressive, but she plays rough with every dog she meets, and so it almost never works for her to play with a small dog.
I also think “trainability” is a behavior that is hard to change. It seems to be a combination of many things, how tuned in the dog is to people, how motivated they are for food/toys, how distracted they are, etc. My herding dog mix learns tricks very quickly and seems to enjoy shaping and learning new stuff. Opal can learn, but it takes much longer for me to teach her something and she isn’t as interested. You don’t see many greyhounds in the obedience ring, but plenty of retrievers and some herding dogs.
Really looking forward to your new book!
not my call but . . . Riddle ;-)–isn’t that part of what you are working through so thoughtfully? I would need a name that did not remind me of the other pup and I urge my students and adopters to pick a name that calls well and makes them smile.
I’ve so enjoyed reading all the comments on this thread. I hope that the success of these training methods and personality issues continues to spread. I’ve often thought that although I love my dog for an absolutely enless list of reasons, one of the top ones is that her personality matches mine so well (couch potato!).
To beck–if you live (perchance?) in Chicago, I’ve had a fabulous positive, clicker-based training experience with a trainer here. Since that seems like a long shot, you can also check out his website, http://www.chicagopaws.com. He does have some downloadable training videos available on the website, if you’re interested. He uses the clicker extensively and quite successfully with dog-dog aggression (we’ve been doing it for a while now for leash reactivity and have seen very nice improvement). Hope this helps–I know how hard it can be to try to understand how a dog that’s so fabulous with people can be so ugly with other dogs.
Kerry L. says
Wow, you’ve just given me terms that I can use to describe Walter – he wants to ‘control his environment’, he wants it to be predictable. He’s not necessarily a dominant dog, he’s mellow and calm in most circumstances and he’s very courageous and confident. He’s good with other dogs and does well keeping himself out of trouble at the dog park. There’s never been an issue between him and the other dogs currently in the household, but he loves his routine. He’d like things to go his way but he won’t force the issue. Pike mentioned an author who talks about building a relationship with the dog you have, really getting to know the dog you have . . . it’s been a joy to work to know Walter in that way and it helps me to have accurate terms to use in describing him.
it makes me grin to see and imagine the new brothers playing!
and your explanation of temperament/personality made me think for a moment about my own self, too — what i should just accept, what ‘can be shaped but never completed turned around.’
enjoy your time off!
The wonderful picture of New Pup and Willie running together reminds me of the time when we brought our third puppy (Olive) in the household. The largest dog (Monty, 120 lbs) was playing with her just like that, even if she was barely bigger then his head! Three years (+90 lbs, on her, of course) later, they still play exactly the same…
I was thinking about a column you wrote for Bark a few years ago about naming dogs. Instead of a name with deep meaning for the new little one, how about a good ol’ guy name, that sounds snappy and matches Will’s name but rings differently enough from his (like Jack or Jake, for instance)?
Jennifer Hamilton says
It seems to me that resource guarding has a genetic component. While there also is likely an environmental component and also that is can be managed, it seems to me that some puppies come out predisposed and some do not.
David Muriello says
This is such an important topic and I am so happy you are writing about it. I actually just wrote a song about it, albeit with a MUCH sillier way of delivering a similar message.
People benefit greatly from realizing what training can do and what it can’t. Trainers/behavior experts, too. It’s especially challenging to explain the limitations to dog owners because punishment based training makes it look like ANYTHING can be “fixed” and quickly, and of course what is really happening underneath or in the long term is something very different than what appears on the surface. (That’s not to say that punishment should never be included in training – there is a time, place, and type of penalty that CAN AT TIMES apply to certain training issues/teaching – IF you know what you’re doing and this is not the MAIN method of teaching.) But being tough, even with good timing, still has it’s limitations!
On the flip side it is also true that highly scientific, modern, positive reinforcement training with any-type-of-conditioning-you-want-to-name simply can’t change certain things about certain dogs. That’s a very hard pill for a lot of clients to swallow. It also puts the trainer in a tough spot – you want to be able to say This is the Way it Is – This IS the way it’s going to Be – But EVEN we don’t know 100% for sure – as shown by even a highly respected expert like Patricia having probability statements in this post! That’s why some great behavior specialists will spend years working with a dog in every way possible only to come to the conclusion with the client that the dog should be euthanized. Sad, but this really happens, I was just told such a story. Ah, the trials and tribs of dog owners – and their trainers. What a fascinating life….
Golden Retriever Puppies Rule says
Patricia, great article, really. I had a beautiful golden retriever as a child. He was with me until my college years. We were very close. To the point where I could swear that my dog Sculley could emphatically feel my thoughts. He was incredibly sensitive to even slight intonations in my voice.
He was a great dog and my best friend. I often wondered how we had lucked out with such a well-tempered pet. We never really did any formal obedience training because there wasn’t a need. Personally, I think so much depends on genetics. Temperament is not something you can train, it’s just part of the dogs fiber.
Thanks again for such a thought provoking post.