I've been in a back-and-forth on an email list about this very subject the last few days, and it made me think of some more things to add to my diatribe.
Why are we not allowed to blame the dog, again? When dogs bite, and especially when they bite aggressively, with purpose to maim or worse, it is ALWAYS because the owners "did something wrong"?
They didn't socialize the dog when he was a puppy. They didn't train him. They overtrained him. They trained him too harshly. They trained him too wimpily. They used the wrong type of treat/training collar/leash/attitude. They fed him food with too much protein. They fed him from a stainless steel bowl, when they should have used plastic. They fed him from a plastic bowl. They fed him too much/too little/too often/not often enough. He was hungry. He was itchy. His feet hurt.
They crated him too much. They didn't crate enough. They let their kids tease him. They didn't let their kids interact with him enough to make him understand the kids were "in charge." They should never have gotten a dog because they had kids. Didn't they know Fido doesn't like kids?
The people worked too much, and were gone all the time. They didn't work enough, and were home all the time. They petted the dog too much. They didn't pet him enough. They paid too much attention to him. They didn't pay any attention to him. They tied him up. They didn't tie him up.
They named him a silly name. They didn't take him to the vet. They neutered him too early/too late/not at all. He wasn't vaccinated. He was over-vaccinated. They fed him Ol' Roy. They fed him top-of-the-line food, but it was crap because it wasn't raw food. They fed him raw food when he should have been eating kibble.
They dared to walk into the kitchen one day, nowhere near the dog's food bowl or toys, or the actual dog, and the dog launched himself across the floor and leapt up and went for the face of the teenage girl, and latched on, shaking back and forth, knocking her backward, and would not release despite her father beating him with a chair. He would not release until the hold on his collar made it hard for him to breathe, and he opened his mouth to get more air, and he was propelled backward. After the father shoved him across the kitchen and bent over his daughter--who had never done anything to the dog but interact normally with him--to try to stop the bleeding from the gash, the dog came back for more and the father had to cover his bleeding daughter's body and take several slashing bites to the back and arms before someone mercifully leashed the dog and threw him in his crate.
I KNEW I had left out something from the previous list of wrongs committed by this stupid, clueless, never-should-have-owned a dog family: walking into the kitchen!!
People are so dumb, right? How dare that girl walk into her own kitchen. She should have known better.
My brilliant, inspiring, and astute friend Sarah Wilson is, among other things, an author, trainer, teacher, lecturer, student of the human/animal bond, and wise sage when it comes to dogs and people. Her definition for serious aggression is the most succinct way I've ever come across to express it.
"When normal life events cause offensive aggression with little or no warning, that dog is not a pet." ~Sarah Wilson
So, when a dog bites without warning over normal life events, whose fault is it?
It's not an easy question to answer, but I will not lay blame at the feet of the teenage girl walking into the kitchen.
Perhaps the family was inconsistent with this dog, and he was truly confused as to who was the leader in the home. Perhaps he absolutely believed he was ruler, and she had no right to cross "his" property without permission. Perhaps any number of things from the above laundry list of "sins" dog trainers often bemoan were happening in the house.
Maybe he had a brain tumor, or some other medical issue that contributed to his vicious, unprovoked attack. If they had just taken him to the vet and had a full blood workup done, the vet might have found something. Neurological disease? Cancer? Thyroid imbalance? These can all contribute to aggression.
And perhaps, just perhaps, the dog was genetically wired wrong. Maybe it's the breeder's fault? Mother Nature? Zeus? Charles Darwin?
Does the picture above make you think, "Awww! How sweet!" or does it make you cringe?
A popular book amongst a subset of dog trainers (those who call themselves "positive" or "all positive") is Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog! Originally published in 1984 (I believe), it is a slim volume from a dolphin trainer-turned-dog-trainer that points out some of the misconceptions about dogs and behavior. It was the first book I remember reading that specifically exhorted dog owners to blame themselves for their dog's issues, not the dog. Other authors have done this, too--and for good reason. Most of our dogs' behavioral "problems" are indeed our fault. We are lousy communicators with species other than our own (and not even so great with our own, right?)
We get frustrated and angry at our dogs over things we should have trained them not to do. Dogs do not have morals or ethics, they simply have behaviors. Some of those are acceptable to us, and some are not. Training is about instilling the behaviors we want and teaching the dog to abstain from the behaviors we do not like. Since many of these "bad" behaviors are normal for dogs, it can be challenging sometimes.
Certainly, we cannot expect the dog to learn our language--we must learn his, and speak it to him.
When we fail to do this, problems can result, aggression among them.
So we must hang our heads in shame as a species for our arrogance at thinking the dog "knew better." After we flog ourselves, we need to get on with the business of being better communicators with our dogs. Modern dog training is about building relationships based on trust, and it allows humans and dogs to coexist quite peacefully the vast majority of the time.
But training cannot override everything. It cannot trump DNA or disease. When it squares off with genetics or medical issues, training by itself often does not come out victorious.
That is why blaming the dog is sometimes necessary, and when serious aggression is on the table, the dog must often pay with his life.
I know what it feels like to love a dog or two. And I know what it feels like to grow attached to dogs one does not own. I have been in the animal sheltering world for more than 10 years now, and working with animals for almost 30 years. I've loved and been attached to many dogs in my life.
I know what it is like to have to euthanize a dog I love who is no longer safe. The pain and heartache is overwhelming. Euthanasia of a beloved animal is never easy, but when the animal is in obvious pain, or simply no longer has a quality of life, at least we can clearly see the need to humanely end that life (and so can everyone else).
Euthanasia of aggressive animals is less clear-cut, so much so that I've had clients tell me their own trusted vet would not do perform the procedure on their dog after its aggression had reached unsafe levels. To the vet, the dog looked healthy. But the vet didn't have to live with what the dog had become. He or she did not have to walk around on eggshells in his or her own home because the family pet could "go off" at any given moment. Vets, like doctors, are taught to do everything possible to save lives, not destroy them.
Is the pain of euthanasia worse when one is made to feel guilty for it?
How do you think it feels to the family of the dog who attacked the teenage girl to be told by their vet that euthanasia is not appropriate for this dog, that they must have done something to provoke the dog, and that putting this dog down would not be fair to the dog? Perhaps the maimed young woman should be the one to, oh, I don't know, maybe take the "healthy" dog to an obedience class after she heals and get him the training he never got. Her scar(let letter)s could be an abject lesson for all to see: see what a lack of training gets you?
Until one has lived with a truly aggressive dog, has lived with the fear that the dog might hurt a family member or a friend or a stranger, or might escape the yard and maul a child, it is hard to imagine what it feels like. It's something that keeps decent people awake at night.
And from the often-grim insides of a rescue or shelter, teeming with unwanted animals that have, through no fault of their own, been cast off, treated poorly, abused, or simply neglected, the thought that the dog deserves another chance is not as uncommon as you would think.
After all, it's not his fault, right?
When it comes down to it, a homeless dog with a known bite history is a huge liability for anyone with which it has contact. Good shelters and rescue groups know this, and will not put up for adoption animals with known bite histories.
(NOTE: ANY dog with a bite history is a liability. But my main beef is with groups housing and adopting out homeless aggressive dogs, NOT owners who have such a dog and are trying to manage the situation while keeping the dog. That is still an issue, one based on personal choice that should never be taken lightly, but there is a difference.)
Fault is not the issue here--knowledge is. And knowledge can be a painful thing.
Good shelters understand that people deserve better than a pat, facile, "It's not his fault."
Some shelters and rescues who ignore this dictum and believe all dogs are salvageable claim to give "full disclosure" to adopters about the dog's history. They say that "some people want to adopt these damaged dogs, so we should let them." They think that disclosure will shield them from a lawsuit, but it won't.
And it wouldn't matter if it did. If the known biter bites again, more lives will be changed forever. The damage will be done.
Is it POSSIBLE to adopt out known biters and have them managed safely so that they never bite again? I suppose it could be. Is it ethical? I do not believe so. Is it kind? No. Are most adopters equipped to deal with this sort of dog for the rest of its life? No. Should they have to? No.
Some of these "rescuers" decide that Fierce Fido isn't safe for the average Joe, but he would be fine for a dog trainer to adopt and work with. How many of us do you think there are walking into shelters on a regular basis, looking for such a liability-er, project? Very few--we already have multiple dogs.
Doing something unethical and quite possibly dangerous "because some people want to" is not a recipe for a successful enterprise. And, here's a shocker--MOST people do NOT want it. They don't want to own an aggressive dog, they don't want to live next to an aggressive dog, and they don't want aggressive dogs in their neighborhoods.
So these "save 'em all" rescue groups are endangering the majority to make themselves (and the mysterious "people who want to") feel better. Since it's never the dog's fault, they think what they are doing is humane. But what they are really doing is eroding the rights of dog owners, little by little. They are creating a culture of fear with dogs, so that children are growing up afraid of dogs--a fate that should not be visited on anyone, much less a child. These groups are turning people away from adoption (or dog ownership in general) in tiny little increments, which affects all animals in shelters. It has been said that only 10% of the animals in people's homes came from shelters. Do we want that number to decrease even more?
(And that leads us down another slippery path towards the "Abuse Excuse" and its ramifications.)
The truth is that some dogs are just not pet material. And until shelters and rescues get their emotions pushed aside for just a minute and realize how their inaction with aggressive dogs ripples out community-wide in mostly negative ways, they will continue to blame the owners, the breeders, the pet store proprietor, the puppymiller, and Jesus, Joseph and Mary for the dog's aggression.
It may not usually be the dog's fault, but it is all our problem.