Dogs and ‘Digging In’

Nov 23, 2018 | Animal Behavior, Pet Guardians, Training

Behavior issues can take time and commitment to work through, but the rewards are immense. Can Stock Photo Inc./Byelikova

I work with many owners of rescue or re-homed dogs and one topic I’ve thought about many times, sometimes raised by owners themselves and possibly a little controversial, is do we sometimes give up on our dogs too easily? Of course, an important aspect of this is whether we have the necessary, realistic expectations when taking on a dog in the first place.

In my experience, sometimes a dog and owner combination just doesn’t work for an infinite number of reasons – just like a human relationship!  In this situation, if you stick at it regardless, hoping things will improve, but you can’t change the environmental situation, can’t commit to working on a behavior change program, can’t invest the time, effort and emotional resources required for example, then it might be wise to contemplate a split. If, for instance, behavioral issues progress to the stage where they begin to impact upon human and canine welfare (including here physical, psychological, social and behavioral aspects), then radical change might be necessary for all sakes. Splitting a dog-human partnership may be of course deeply traumatic initially but can be relieving and very destressing long-term – for both parties.

On the flip side, how many dogs are relinquished to shelters because they are not thoroughly house trained, have exhibited aggressive behavior towards children or other dogs (note, aggressive behavior is often a by product of fear), barked incessantly, or become distressed when left alone? I mention these particular behaviors as these are the most common I encounter in this particular context. It can be aggravating to see since some of these dogs, through no fault of their own, may struggle to find new homes, either due to the policy of the shelter they now find themselves in, or other factors (such as how they behave in in a stressful shelter environment or more trivial aspects, such as their color). Surely, as owners, we should be better prepared and the onus should be on us to commit when we adopt our new pets and not think of them as disposable commodities. In the main, larger rescue centres will offer lifetime support and assistance to  pets that are adopted, but this is not always the case. There is still (in the U.K. at least) the awful problem of obtaining dogs (and other pets) via the internet. But if we are to get serious about insisting owners prepare properly for dog ownership rather than simply buy on a whim and dispose when they get fed up, then a systematic questioning of prospective new owners needs to take place. I know that I was near interrogated prior to adopting my dog and I didn’t object to that at all. It shows me that that organisation cares who the puppies were homed to.  At the moment, in my opinion, there is too much profit in puppies and too little care and compassion.

So, staying power – you’ve either got it or you haven’t! As I said earlier, if your circumstances aren’t right and you know deep down that your relationship isn’t working, you may need to re-think. If, however, it’s just a question of working at it, can you do that? Unfortunately, some believe that training and behavior issues can be solved overnight or at the latest within a week or so. The reality is very different. You have got to work at it and it can be hard. It takes time to unravel and unlearn what might be well-rehearsed, historically reinforced behavior. Patience is required. It might also be that owners have to completely change tack in their approach. Maybe they need to become aware of the fallout that comes from punishment, that dominance in dogs has been discredited by scientific study, and that the concepts of the alpha and pack leader approach lie in the dark ages. It’s hard to change, but a realization that behaviour modification incurs swings of both high and low can help. This is normal, so don’t give up just because things don’t go to plan. Just take a break then try again. One thing that can be guaranteed is that a commitment to your dog will bring you the greatest reward of all.