One statement I hear from responsible owners is, “I know my dog’s behavior is my fault.” It’s one I used to agree with — behavior comes from what was reinforced — but nowadays I’m re-thinking my beliefs.
First, any animal’s behavior comes from biology. My parents are amazing. They are also clinically depressed on one side and recovering alcoholic on the other. This is something that’s written into my DNA, something that has been shown over and over again to be hereditary. Are they awesome parents? Man, I have nothing but awe for my parents. I don’t think I could have done as well as they did in their situations. I always know that I’m loved, even when I’m doing crazy things like moving to NorCal with nothing but a couple grand in savings and the hope that my business will flourish. I always know that I have a safety net: my parents would take me in in a heartbeat, if something went drastically wrong, and in their role modeling so would either of my sisters. I am truly lucky.
But we don’t think of “what did this dog inherit?” when we look at dogs, quite often. Then there’s the experience factor of it: my early life experiences said “strangers are dangerous; family is safe.” (I was nearly kidnapped twice, had bullies for teachers, and in every case it was my parents who rescued me.) Today, I have a social anxiety disorder. You can’t tell in training situations, but put me in a big party and it becomes immediately obvious — without my meds, Quin (jokingly my “service human”), and/or Doc, I would be the hyperventilating, bawling mess in the corner. Personally, I’d say that if it’s anything more than hereditary, it’s the strangers’ fault.
Okay, I guess my genes predisposing me toward anxiety came from my folks. But the bit the with the strangers only made me certain my parents would protect me from strangers. My parents certainly didn’t do anything wrong in chasing down the man on the beach who’d grabbed me and was walking away, and they did everything right in sending me with an older sister and keep us in eye line as we walked (thank goodness!).
Now let’s think about your dog. Specifically, I want to think about some of the dogs who have triggered this thinking in me. Let’s look at Bobbie. (All dogs shall now be named Bob. ;-D) Bobbie was bought as a puppy from a decent, if not show, breeder. She was put into my hands as a puppy, to make sure she was socialized. We went EVERYWHERE. Orchard and Home Depot before her shots, downtown and to parks afterward. She loves other dogs. She’s TERRIFIED of humans. She’s a year and a half old now, and still dealing with this terror of humans.
Her owner is a long time client. I know for sure there has been no abuse. She hasn’t had any run ins with bad people. She HAS seen many friendly strangers, and many people who ignored her. So what causes the sheer terror?
I’ll tell you what doesn’t cause it: her owner. I can’t, in any way, shape, or form, claim this is her owner’s fault. Sure, there are things we could do that would help, that due to physical problems can’t be done. But her owner didn’t cause this fear.
“Okay,” I hear you cry. “There’s some hereditary wonkiness going on there. But what about older dogs?”
Also recently I had a session with a new client. She has an 8 year old dog, Bob, who has had problems with people all his life. She adopted Bob when he was 1, and has dealt with his human fear aggression since. To date, he goes for walks early in the morning when no one is about, and no one comes over to the house unless he’s outside. (Talk about a hiccup in your social life.)
Whatever happened to him before he was 1 was certainly not her fault. After she got him, she hired two different trainers to help. One helped somewhat with his commands, but eventually Bob became too reactive even with that person and was banned from lessons. The other suggested putting him down. That was 7-8 years ago. I could say it was the owner’s fault for not taking him out more, but really, after two trainers ditching her, I’d say she’d done her due diligence!
When I met up with her for the first time last week, she kept saying, “I know it’s my fault…” But is it? He already had problems before he met her. She worked with two separate trainers with two very different styles, and both had given up on him. What more is she expected to do?
Let’s let go of this idea that everything is the owner’s fault. Sure, sometimes things you’re doing might exacerbate a situation, but here’s another thought: a dog is no more a blank slate than a human baby is. I came into this world with all sorts of possibilities in my DNA, and my experiences then shaped that into what I am today.
We all do the best we can with the information we have. Yes, owners should take responsibility for their role in their dog’s behavior — but I don’t believe they should take ALL responsibility for their dog’s behavior. On a more spiritual level, I believe all living creatures come into this life to learn something and to teach those around them. Anyone saying an owner is to blame is taking away that dog’s spirit, as well.
So, sure. A year ago, Lily wouldn’t come until I yelled, “Lily! Get over here!” That was my fault because I never reinforced it until then, and she knew that. But her general stubbornness? That was all her — and something I loved about her. There was no ‘fault’ in how stubborn she was; that was part of her personality, and as much as it drove me crazy, it was one of the things that cracked me up. I have to give props to her for that amount of tenacity! (Note: she’s still with me, still stubborn, but now she doesn’t come because she’s almost deaf. Fair ‘nough!)
Cash, at two years old, had anxiety. Do I take responsibilty for that? Actually, yes. I created the harsh experiences that gave it to him. I ALSO take responsibility for removing it, over years, after I realized what I’d done.
Doc howls in my car when I leave. Do I take responsbility for that? He had severe seperation anxiety when he came to me; that was not my fault. It’s much less now than it was then. Could I have done more? Maybe. But in my life and within my abilities, I have done all I could. In a perfect world, that would be more. In a realisitic world, I think we’ve done well. He’s no longer forcing his way through the car windows, eating the chairs, or breaking out of crates. Do I take responsibility when he jumps my 7 foot fence? Today, yes; I know he can and will if he isn’t properly exercised. I know what causes it AND how to fix it. But the first time? Heck no. I didn’t even know he COULD jump a fence that high! And even today, if I didn’t know what caused it or how to fix it? I don’t think I could take responsibility for that, either. I could take responisbility for not figuring it out, but I can’t take responsibility for not fixing it.
So — should owners take responsibility for their dogs behavior? Yes and no. It may not be your fault, but it is certainly our responsibility to try and make things safe, figure it out, and maybe — if it’s within our capabilities — make it better.
Notice to all new clients: you don’t have to tell me it’s your fault. If you’ve called for help (whether from me, another vet, or any other trainer), you’re doing the right thing. Don’t rob your dog of his or her own place in this world, and the things they need to learn and teach. Don’t ignore hereditary behavior, even if we know less about it in dogs than people. The owner’s only “fault” is pretending like there isn’t a problem. If you see it, and you take steps, you’re on the right path. Hang in there. We may not create a problem, but the awesome thing about being human is: when we’re ready, we can help fix it.