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Excuses…Excuses

From the archives of The Canine Chronicle, February, 2010

by Gay Dunlap

We’ve all done it, myself included. Back in the mid-to-late seventies I placed a handsome young dog with a family willing to have him shown. In fact, the husband was open to the idea of handling the dog himself. The pup had a rather strong personality and I soon found myself regretting the placement. I became acutely aware that the pup was getting away with murder, the owners giggling over his stubborn and rather headstrong demeanor. They adored the dog and there was no way of convincing them to return him to me. He finished handily (with me showing him), going Winners Dog every day over our national specialty weekend for three five-point majors. He settled in to become the household pet but a year or so later I began to receive calls asking for advice about such behavioral anomalies as, “He doesn’t like to go out in the rain.” “We can’t go near his food dish while he is eating,” and then, “We have to lock him in his crate when we have company.” My advice appeared to go unheeded and I realized that they simply were not equipped mentally or emotionally to follow it. Although the resolution was a difficult one, I convinced them to return him to me. His interaction with me was without problem but I came to the conclusion that my kennel help was in jeopardy and in the final analysis my only choice was to euthanize this beautiful dog. It was a crushing decision and even after all these years, I am loath to think about it. As I recount this tale, is there an underlying message that the blame for his aggressive behavior is being placed solely on his environment? I seem to be suggesting that the dog’s owners, albeit without intention, let the dog down by failing to deal with his strong personality. And yet, can I be certain of this? Am I creating a story that lets me, as his breeder, off the hook?

In the late 1960s I bought a beautiful Yorkshire Terrier show bitch from a very respected breeder. The breeder told me that all she needed was a little TLC. What did I know back then? If someone said that to me today, I would know right off that we were probably dealing with a little temperament issue. As lovely as this bitch was, she was timid and shy and could never be shown.

Has there ever been a “shelter dog” with temperament issues, usually of the timid and fearful sort, that was not “abused” by a previous owner? What I am suggesting is that most of us, even those working in animal shelters, are prone to lay blame on environment when a dog displays unfavorable personality traits. When we can blame the environment there is this core hope, belief or assumption that aberrant behavior can be reversed. If the causative factor can be proven to be environmental, I do not doubt that this could be the case. But it’s often hard to prove.

Our shelters are filled not only with some lovely dogs of all varieties but also some of the worst. And many of the folks that run these shelters, well meaning as they may be, are imbued with little or no training in animal behavior. They rely upon not much more than their love of animals to give credence to their ability to determine what is and what is not acceptable behavior. It was my experience, when I worked with an animal shelter a few years ago designing monthly posters, that they also have a penchant for trying to match dogs to a specific breed or breed-cross. Thus it might be determined that a terrier/poodle cross would be a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier. A white dog with black spots might be, at best, a Dalmatian or at the very least, a Dal cross. What this means is that before breed rescue groups can set about to rescue a dog they must first determine if the dog thought to be purebred really is. AKC affiliated clubs have been involved in breed rescue programs for some time. As much as they might like to save the world, most of them draw the line at rescuing any but purebreds.

Several months ago the unthinkable happened to a “case worker” who accepted a dog into her home for evaluation prior to permanent placement. The dog was a known biter but was accepted by a club’s rescue committee anyway. This rescue committee’s policy determines that a dog with a “known history of biting” is unacceptable for adoption. I am not sure how one would define “known history.” To my way of thinking, a dog that has bitten a human being, even once, should be carefully weighed as a candidate for adoption. In this case the dog suddenly attacked her without provocation, inflicting serious damage to her face and arms. Some of the damage is permanent and so severe that she has been unable to return to work. It is my understanding that the chairman of this rescue committee has begun to work with an animal behaviorist. Still, it is impossible to expect a trained expert to be all places at all times across our broad land.

Doubtless, as parent clubs, we have the best interest of our breeds at heart when we undertake a breed rescue program. Our collective hearts are in the right place. But are we really doing the right thing when we take on potentially dangerous dogs? I think not. As a “transferor,” defined as the seller, adoption agency, shelter, rescue organization or dog owner who places a dog with a new owner, one has certain legal obligations which, if not met, can result in civil liability. Kenneth Phillips, in his Dog Bite Law, states that, “There can be criminal (emphasis is mine) consequences if a dangerous dog seriously injures or kills someone in its new home.”

While speaking to a fellow fancier earlier in this writing, I listened to her story. Her dog was a biter. I have no idea how many times he bit but she recounted at least four. Interestingly, in most instances she was able to provide grounds for his behavior. The excuse for one attack was that instead of putting the dog in his crate, her husband tethered him in the yard and the dog didn’t like it. This dog lived out his life of some fifteen years totally in charge of his environment. Another breeder laid blame for her dog’s aberrant behavior on a mean-spirited, heartless former owner. This dog was euthanized after he bit both of his new owners (stitches required) before they could even get him out of their car. In still another case, the owner of a “difficult” dog agreed to return him to his breeder when she realized that she had become a prisoner in her own home. With him came a two-page document listing how to handle and live with him…suggestions such as, “give him a piece of food while putting on his collar.” The dog was frighteningly vicious and the breeder took him straight away to the vet to be euthanized.

Then, there’s the story of a couple that purchased a lovely Rottweiler puppy from a reputable breeder, sweet and well-behaved. Here is where a little excuse creeps into the story. I was told that, as a young dog, he spent a great deal of time alone as they were building a house and he would spend the night in a run before they finished construction. As he matured, the husband worked with him in Obedience and Shutzhund training. He became more aggressive as he aged and they had to be careful feeding him. One day the wife put his food bowl down before his water bowl. He grabbed her arm and wouldn’t let go. She had to bang on his head to get him to let her go. She had a huge tear in her forearm that required many, many stitches. They kept the dog and blamed themselves for putting the food down first. Some time later, as she would lie by their pool, he would come up and stare at her menacingly until she could distract him and run into the house. A few months later he assaulted her father-in-law. They could not bear to put him down and instead placed him with the Shutzhund trainer.

There is a re-occurring theme here. And it is that most dog owners simply cannot handle euthanasia. They sit trapped in their own homes, thinking they have done something wrong, blaming themselves for their dog’s behavior, essentially living out a nightmare. Sometimes, adding to their self-flagellation, their own breeder may lay a guilt trip on them as well. And who is to say they are wrong? Breeders make excuses and owners blame themselves. If the owners can’t handle euthanasia, if there is no breeder offering to take the dog back, and if they are unwilling to continue living the nightmare, what recourse is left for them? The only way out is to surrender the dog to a shelter. And this is how so many problem dogs end up in shelters.

One way we, as responsible hobby breeders, can serve through our rescue programs is to be listening. Those who choose, rightly or wrongly, to buy their pets through pet shops, commercial or back yard breeders generally have nowhere to turn; no one to offer advice or counseling. There is a void to be filled here. Parent club websites would be well-advised to offer counseling of this nature. Speaking with a breeder recently who has served in this capacity for her local breed club, she made it clear that there is nothing more painful than counseling those dealing with serious behavioral issues. “It is far more difficult than dealing with physical diseases, even those where death is imminent,” she said, adding, “But it must be done.” We have a duty as protectors of our breed to not only support rescue programs but to support and counsel owners, regardless of who bred their dog.”

Meanwhile, the time has long since past for us, the fancy, to own up to the fact that many of our breeds exhibit serious deviant temperament issues. It is nothing new. In my own breed, back in the ‘50s a terrier man imported a couple of Wheaten Terrier bitches that he described as “mean as snakes.” They were subsequently put down. A few of our breeds have, unfortunately, become legend because of overly aggressive temperament. And a bit disconcerting is that some breeds being considered for acceptance into AKC’s world of purebred dogs have rather daunting temperament descriptions such that a number of judges are loath to want to judge them.

In the final analysis, brushing behavioral issues off or sweeping them under the rug is contrary to all that we as respected hobby breeders stand for. We must own up to dogs we feel would not make suitable sires due to unstable temperament. We take genetic disease very seriously in our breeding programs. But we tend to overlook or brush aside aberrant behavior because it is easy to make excuses for it. This has to stop; as breeders, producing dogs with sound temperament must become our primary focus and goal.

Short URL: http://caninechronicle.com/?p=206

Posted by on Jun 28 2020. Filed under Dog Show History, Editorial, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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