“Sometimes there are no words, no clever quotes to neatly sum up what's happened that day. Sometimes you do everything right, everything exactly right, and still you feel like you failed. Did it need to end that way? Could something have been done to prevent the tragedy in the first place?” Aaron Hotchner, Criminal Minds
FBI Special Agent Aaron Hotchner spoke those words referring to the startlingly sad ending of a murder investigation. Though not dealing with a murder, those words came back to me after working with one of my clients, a client who, despite all of my advice and interventions, seemed determined to repeat the same mistakes with multiple dogs— mistakes which are tragic for her dogs.
The client called for help in dealing with fearful behavior and aggression within her multi-dog home. Their pack was comprised of a lovely senior spayed Labrador mix, a social butterfly spayed one year-old German Shepherd, and an extremely fearful, intact, 6 month-old male white German Shepherd puppy. After filling out a behavior history for each dog, the client scheduled a consultation.
As trainers, we quickly develop a sense of how a particular case may end. Walking into this home, my hopes for these dogs and their owners sank. The Lab-mix happily greeted me at the door with a gently wagging tail and kind, submissive demeanor. The one year-old Shepherd delightedly grabbed a toy to play with me. The Shepherd puppy, however, barked and lunged while cringing behind his female owner.
Every member of the household was on edge because of the young Shepherd’s behavior—the owners and the other dogs. The female owner immediately began yelling at the Shepherd puppy to “Leave It” and “Behave.” The escalation of emotion and noise led the older Shepherd to drop her toy, eye the young dog warily, and redirect her anxiety onto the older Lab-mix with a particularly nasty display. As we sat down to talk, the owners refused to turn off the television which was relentlessly pouring through the day’s bad news loudly enough for people several homes down the street to hear.
I began going through the history of the youngest Shepherd. The puppy was completely ill at ease all of the time. He constantly hid behind his female owner. When not hiding, he would slink around the outside of the room, perhaps to hide behind a chair or in a corner. The clients reported that he did not interact or play with them at any time.
Additionally, the puppy already had a bite history. On his last vet visit, the puppy quivered behind his female owner’s legs in the exam room. The vet came into the room and immediately reached over the puppy’s head to begin his exam. The puppy snapped, leaving white scratch marks on the vet’s forearm. The vet’s response was to alpha roll the puppy, pinning him for several minutes while explaining to the owners that they must dominate him. Aggressive displays had also begun in the home, directed toward the male owner each time he attempted to enter a room the dog was in.
As trainers and consultants, our job is equal parts owner education and dog behavior modification. We must educate the owners to prevent them from repeating their mistakes. We talked about the puppy’s breeders—most likely unscrupulous back yard breeders, at best. Their breeding stock was chosen for color, not temperament or health. They met my clients in a Wal-Mart parking lot, terrified 3 month old puppies shoved into several crates which were bungeed in the back of a pick-up truck. We discussed fear periods, the importance of early socialization, and my fears that this puppy missed out on socialization which could have lessened the impact of his genetically influenced fearful behavior.
And yet, half an hour into the consultation, I realized that we weren’t discussing anything—I was essentially talking to myself. The owners were still loudly yelling at the puppy, despite my pleas to completely ignore him and to wait for something, anything, which we could reinforce. The owners continued watching the news, checking the calendar for upcoming sewing classes, even taking phone calls. I decided to end the consultation. I left my handouts on fear aggression, asking them to read through them so they could begin to understand their dire situation. I scheduled a follow-up later in the week, stressing the need to establish a time in which we could work without phone, sewing, or television interruption…
Two days later, I received the call. The puppy had been euthanized on the advice of their alpha-rolling, dominance espousing vet. The puppy’s brief life was nothing short of a tragedy from beginning to end.
The clients, however, still wanted to keep our scheduled consultation to begin working with the one year-old Shepherd.
Despite the misgivings I had about continuing to work with these clients, I kept that consultation. We fitted the Shepherd with an Easy-Walk Harness so that she could begin to go on walks with her owners more frequently. We began work on hand targets, sit, down, and impulse control. I began to feel like maybe, just maybe, I could actually reach these clients. And then, they dropped the bomb on me…
They were getting a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy from a breeder friend at the end of the week! Further, they were in contact with a German Shepherd breeder who had a litter which would be ready to go in 2 weeks. He would drive down from our neighboring state with the puppies for them to meet! They were getting not one, but two new puppies! And again, my heart plummeted from my chest…
Faced with this new challenge, I counseled them that it would be in the best interest of their two resident dogs to wait before bringing home new family members. I implored them to take the time to train and develop their wonderful Shepherd into the best dog she could be; to take the time to let their elderly dog recover from the stress of the months of living with the fearful puppy. Nothing I said would deter them from their plan to bring home their new puppies.
This story is ongoing. The Cavalier puppy joined the client’s family just last week. A new Shepherd puppy is on the way. I will continue to work with this family, but am quite convinced that they will continue to ignore very good advice. I fear they are doomed to repeat mistakes over and over again at the expense of their dogs.
But does it have to end this way? Like Aaron Hotchner, I wonder if the tragedy could have been prevented—could be prevented. What could we have done to change the outcome for the young Shepherd puppy? And what can we do to prevent a further tragedy with the new puppies?
First, we must remember that our job is not only to train dogs, but to educate people. We must educate all who are involved in the breeding, raising, and training of the dogs we share our lives with. Perhaps education would have had an impact on the breeding program that produced the fearful Shepherd puppy. Imagine if someone had spoken to those breeders on the impact of genetics on behavior, of providing early socialization and stimulation for their litters…They might not have listened, but imagine if they had?
Next, we must listen and communicate clearly with our clients. My frustration with these clients because of their lack of focus during our initial session certainly did nothing to improve the situation. If I had put aside my negative emotions, tried harder to communicate, would the situation have had a better outcome? Would I have had a chance to work with the puppy? We must always remember that clear and effective communication is the most powerful tool in any trainer’s toolbox.
Finally, we must accept that we, the trainer, may do everything right, but we have no control over the actions of the owner. The owner may do everything right. Or, they may not do anything we ask of them. And yet, even in doing everything right, the outcome may not be what we had hoped. Our clients may still be facing, or even creating, a tragedy…