DEAR DIDI: You did such a wonderful job mediating between my family and our dog. The overall change in our household is no short of a Christmas miracle in our opinion. I wonder if our situation is more common than we know. Please share our story to maybe help someone else out there that doesn’t have the benefit of your wisdom. -Family finally at peace in Stockton
DEAR FAMILY AT PEACE: You are very generous to have me share your story and, as you guessed, it is not uncommon. It is also not abnormal. As much as we are not supposed to “judge a book by its cover”, I fear it is frequently instinctive for us to do so.
I will refer to this kind and generous family as the Smiths. Back in February they were out shopping at a WalMart. As they walked back to their car in the back parking lot they encountered a man dumping six puppies in the garbage bins. Horrified, they asked him what he was doing. The story the man gave was that he had a purebred Husky and a purebred Rhodesian Ridgeback that were champion show dogs. The two accidentally got together and he wasn’t able to do anything with these “mutts”. The family took the six week old puppies home. Mrs. Smith raised three of them and her best friend took care of the other three. They did research into the two breeds and were extremely concerned with finding homes that could handle the “dangerous dogs” (Huskies and Rhodesian Ridgebacks are not inherently dangerous). All but one of the puppies found homes. Mrs. Smith kept the last one because it already showed signs of extreme aggression and she didn’t want anyone to get hurt. She took the dog to training classes at PetSmart and tried her best, but at 9 months old their dog was growling at anyone that came to their home, lunging at family members, and she had bit two people. The Smiths were referred to me by their trainer for evaluation.
Our initial consultation consisted of a thorough background interview, medical and behavioral history. I personally interacted with the dog and observed her physical stature and emotional demeanor. It is also my job to evaluate the humans in the household and their relationship with the dog. I asked the family to run a DNA test to verify the story of the criminal that was dumping them. The family resisted a DNA test so we began a behavior modification plan. Although we made some headway, there really wasn’t a significant change within the first three weeks of training and it was clear to me the family’s fear of their own dog was preventing them from approaching and implementing my plan effectively. I finally talked them into doing the $80 test which came back two weeks later.
The Smiths were shocked and appalled to discover that their “dangerous” breed mix dog had ZERO husky and ZERO Rhodesian Ridgeback in its genetic makeup! The dog was a golden retriever, poodle, sheepdog mix. As much as we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover most people cannot help looking at a mixed breed dog and trying to guess what breeds are in it. Furthermore, we all have emotional associations with certain breeds either learned from childhood experiences or developed from hearing rumors and myths. However, those emotional associations have a large impact on the way we approach, train, and interact with the dog. Sometimes our emotions cause us to feel sorry for a dog and coddle them when what the dog really needs is a firm set of clearly communicated rules and repercussions that are fairly and consistently enforced. Our emotions can cause us to fear the potential of a dog and cause us to be over controlling of the animal which could create fear and anxiety in the animal. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. That nervousness and anxiety then causes the dog to behave aggressively convincing the family their fears were justified.
Genetics are a complicated thing. Another one of my clients has what appears to be a gorgeous blue-nosed Pitbull that he is very proud of. After running DNA to isolate a training issue, we discovered that the dog was actually 50% chihuahua! That fact steered our training methods in a much more productive direction. A dog can look one thing and be another very easily. Even experienced veterinarians and dog pound employees will frequently mislabel mixed breed animals. The DNA test can be purchased at PetSmart and is a simple cheek swab. Enlist the help of a qualified trainer or behaviorist to decipher the results and what it might mean for your family! The Smiths attitude about the actual breed mix of their dog caused them immediately to ditch their fear and which, in turn, led to a more confident and loving approach to our training plan. Their dog turned around in 2 months flat and is now sweet and accepting of all family members and visitors to their home. -email your questions to email@example.com