The Dog Knowledge

The Magic Pill


Weekly we are visited by concerned dog owners who have “issues.” More importantly, these well meaning owners have fallen victim to watching quick fixes by TV whisperers who with a session of strategic “shhhssing” commands transform a snarling vicious dog into the perfect pet.

So the other day I was thinking about how best to make pet owners understand what they are communicating to their dog and what they can and can’t do regarding “issues.” Suddenly I had an Ah-ha moment, an analogy or illustration that might make sense to dog owners wanting rehabilitation for their dog’s unwanted behaviors.

First of all, let me share one fact that all dog behaviorist agree on; 98% of ALL dog aggression whether it is dog to dog or dog to people is fear based. The cause of the fear we can guess at but fear it is. Usually this fear follows a predictable course. The fearful puppy takes refuge behind their owner or lurks in the shadows hoping not to be seen. As time progresses and the fearful puppy begins to mature he experiences a terrifying world. Sometimes he can avoid his worst nightmares but sometimes he is cornered. Once cornered he is faced with 2 choices, Fight or Flight. Since flight is not an option he gives off warning signals, a growl, a snarl or even an air snap. The source of his fear retreats. The fearful teenage dog realizes his first confident moment. His actions resulted in persuading his nightmare to go away or step back. The fearful dog practices this behavior until one day he feels more confident in his ability to scare away his demons. As he reaches maturity the day comes when what he fears comes a little too close a little too quickly. The fearful, now mature dog takes the next step. He attacks.

If this is your dog, this is usually when you find yourself sitting across the table from me asking the question, “Can you fix it?” I respond, “How long did it take your dog to get to this point? And you want me to guarantee that I can ‘fix’ your dog in 3 weeks? The good news is that 90% of the time we actually can ‘fix’ your dog. Can we change his perception of the world. The answer is yes but there is only one way, one ‘magic pill’ as I call it.”

That magic pill is as simple as it is difficult. A fearful dog doesn’t enjoy his frantic state of mind. A fearful dog would love to know that he was safe in the care of someone else. But like the gawky teenager that attends their first prom without a clue about what to wear or how to dance, a fearful dog simply doesn’t know where to turn for the answers.

The answer is obedience. A dog taught obedience with positive reinforcement will learn to trust his handler to deal with the demons that confront him every day. I try to preach to clients that they can’t correct a dog for attitude but they can correct a dog for disobeying their obedience by breaking from a heel, breaking from a sit, jumping up from a down. If you try to correct a dog for growling at an approaching stranger or jumping toward an approaching dog then you will only intensify that dog’s fear. In other words, every time your dog sees what he fears the most his handler tenses up, pulls hard on the leash and talks in an excited voice. Proof enough that there is reason to be fearful. If a dog truly knows how to heel and remains in a heel with a confident handler by his side, he will learn that passing an oncoming stranger or dog means absolutely nothing. In fact, sometimes it results in a tasty treat. No big deal.

So how does one go about teaching a dog the kind of obedience it needs to help him gain the confidence he needs. Well that’s where we can help.