Risking others in the name of socialisation

Well, it’s been a while and here I am, back with a rant.  A rant about owners of dogs who aren’t really sociable with other dogs.  Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with dogs who don’t like other dogs and no problem with those who own and manage them responsibly.  I’ve been there myself after all.  It’s the irresponsible ones I have a problem with.  The owners who are in denial about their dogs behaviour.  The owners who continue to allow their dogs to practise anti-social behaviour towards other dogs.  The ones who make up excuses as to why their dog is the way it is and why they’re doing next to nothing about the problem.  Or paying lip service to what they’ve been advised to do while continuing to do what they’ve always done anyway.

I don’t care what you call the problem.  Aggression.  Reactivity.  Iffy with other dogs.  It doesn’t matter.   Nor do I care why your dog is that way, whether it’s down to a lack of early socialisation, a vicious attack, being bullied by other dogs and feeling defensive.  Again, it doesn’t matter.  Quite simply, if your dog is going to rush up to another dog and attack him, whether with intent or just rude bully boy type tactics, then keep him on the leash.  If your dog is going to attack another dog that comes up to him then you need to take measures to prevent other dogs coming up to him.  Whether that’s walking at odd hours to avoid other dogs, avoiding off leash areas, learning to body block other dogs and teaching yours to stay behind you while you deal with the approaching dog or whatever.  And no, I don’t believe simply sticking a yellow ribbon or vest on the dog is sufficient precaution.  Will it help?  I don’t know, a muzzle and a shouted warning never had much effect so I don’t see how a ribbon or vest will be that effective.  I actually found that saying my dog had a contagious disease worked best to convince others that they should come get their dog.  Made me look irresponsible but meant a hell of a lot less stress for me and my dog.

I’m sure that sounds very harsh and unfeeling to some.  And of course it matters to the owner why the dog behaves the way he does and in some respects it may mean a different approach is needed when it comes to training and expectations.  It just doesn’t change the fact that the dog needs to be managed so he isn’t causing problems for others.  It is not fair on my dog to have a random dog rush across a field to threaten him.  Or even worse, actually hurt him.  It’s not fair on me as his owner to have to deal with the potential fall out from that happening.  People seem to think that if their dog can’t or won’t physically injure another (and just a note, ALL dogs can cause physical harm, I don’t care how small they are or how much bigger their victim is) then it’s okay, there’s no harm done.  Well that’s simply not true.  Very often the physical injuries are the least of it.  It’s the psychological harm done that’s the biggest problem.  The physical injuries are healed up in a few weeks, the mental scars left can last a lifetime.

But, back to the real point of this rant.  I am sick to death of seeing and hearing about people using other peoples dogs as guinea pigs to try to figure out and work on their own dogs aggressive behaviour.  Especially when they’re doing it without the knowledge or consent of other dog owners and just letting their dog interact with random dogs they meet.  Especially when they know that if things don’t play out the way they hope that other dog is likely to get hurt.  Quite honestly, I would be absolutely raging if my dog got hurt by another dog who was allowed to approach him and I found out the dog had done it before.  Not just once but many times.  And that the owner still allowed it to approach other dogs because “sometimes he’s fine”.   Yes, sometimes he’s fine.  But what about all the times he isn’t fine?  The times he hurts or badly frightens the dog you’ve allowed him to approach?  What about the effect that has on the victim?  And on the owner of the victim?

But let’s say you don’t care about the effect your dogs behaviour may have on others, I’m quite sure many don’t.  Let’s focus on your dog.  How does allowing him to practise this supposedly unwanted behaviour help him?  Simple answer, it doesn’t.  The more a dog practises a behaviour the more he’s likely to show it.  So by allowing him to keep approaching and intimidating other dogs you’re simply increasing the chances of him doing it.  Which is supposedly not what you want.  There’s also a good chance that one day he will try it with the wrong dog (or owner!) and end up hurt himself.  Or perhaps you as his owner will end up hurt.  And I’m sure that’s not what you want.  Is it?  I have to wonder sometimes.  Especially with those who used to tell me that my aggressive dog biting theirs might “teach him a lesson”.  No, it wouldn’t have.  Well, it might have done but probably not the lesson they wanted their dog to learn.  And it would have been an expensive one too as Rupert didn’t mess around with all this noise and slobber business.  Hence the muzzle.  Which apparently was an act of cruelty on my part according to many people.  Apparently “such a lovely dog” didn’t need muzzling.  Another comment I got a lot was “oh but he doesn’t look vicious!”  What exactly does a “vicious” dog look like?  I’m sure if Rupert had been a Staffie or a Rottweiler nobody would have questioned the need for a muzzle.

But again, back to the point.  I’m good at wandering off on tangents lol.  Yes, Rupert was aggressive.  I’m not going to dance around describing him as reactive or any of the other words people use to sugar coat it.  Reactive seems an odd word to use anyway, all dogs react to things in one way or another so surely all dogs are reactive?  Rupert was, plain and simple, aggressive towards other dogs.  Yes, I could probably clarify that he was fear aggressive but what would that actually change?  Nothing really, he’d still behave the same way and need working with the same way.  I worked on his issues as best I could in a world where people think it’s just fine to allow their dog to rush up to others uninvited.  Even on the main road at rush hour.  We never purposely put other dogs at risk in order to work with him though.  He was kept on a leash.  He was muzzled.  He wasn’t allowed to go up to other dogs and I did my absolute best to keep other dogs from reaching him.  He learned to go behind me and stay there while I dealt with approaching dogs.  I learned to be more proactive in seeing off approaching dogs and insisting their owners retrieve them.  I also learned to accept that Rupert was who he was.  That much as I might want it he was never going to be a “dog park dog”, the sort of dog who could be taken places and meet all sorts of strange dogs without any issues.  That he needed managing to keep both himself and others safe.

I think perhaps that may be part the problem with so many owners.  They can’t accept that.  They don’t want to accept that.  They want to wave a magic wand and have their dog be exactly the sort of dog they want.   And they want it right now, they don’t want to have to put in months or years of hard work to achieve it.  Adding to that, they’re so often told simply that their dog needs “socialising” which is taken to mean that their dog needs to be interacting with other dogs.  I see a hell of a lot of posts on Facebook and the occasional forum post from people looking for “friendly” dogs to help socialise their adult dog who “can be a bit funny with other dogs” and, perhaps more worryingly, I see a lot of responses from people offering their dogs up as guinea pigs.  I can’t help but feel they’re setting their dogs up to be badly hurt or frightened.  It’s all very well an experienced professional using carefully selected dogs as stooge dogs in situations set up to ensure the chances of anyone being hurt or traumatised is minimal, it’s quite another to have your average dog owner just meeting up with someone and hoping for the best.  Or, as so many seem to do, simply hoping for the best with random dogs and their unsuspecting owners.

I’m sure that to some I’m coming across as a real bitch.  Like someone who thinks any dog who isn’t super friendly and willing to put up with anything and everything should be locked away from the public or put to sleep or something.  That honestly isn’t the case.  It’s the complete lack of concern for others so many seem to have when they have a dog who isn’t particularly friendly that makes me angry.   I have a lot of time for those who have a dog with issues and who are genuinely working to try to solve those problems.  I have next to no time for those who constantly ask for advice and help, see trainers and behaviourists who give them professional advice, and yet continue to put the general public at risk with how they go about it because that’s the easier, more convenient (and usually cheaper!) option than going about it safely.

As I say, I’ve been there with an aggressive dog.  I know how draining and lonely it can be.  How heart breaking it is to have all your progress undone by one thoughtless owner.  I know how it feels to get the sighs and tuts, the disapproving looks and snide comments about vicious dogs being out in public.  I have a lot of respect for anyone who is genuinely working with their dog on this sort of problem.  It’s not easy.  There is no magic wand, no quick fix.  It’s hard work and a hell of a lot of management.  Same for those whose dogs who are fearful but don’t show aggression, so many people don’t see a shut down, frightened dog for what it is that the lack of reaction brings its own problems.  That’s something else I have a problem with actually.  Those who feel their frightened dogs should just “man up and deal with it” and force them to face whatever it is that clearly terrifies them.  I’ve had more than a few try to convince their obviously frightened (usually toy breed) dogs to come up and say hello to my large, bouncy Labrador.  And their embarrassed owners tell me how stupid their poor dog is for being frightened of other dogs, that he needs to grow a pair or something similar.  Same with other fears.  It makes me feel sad for the dog.  Where is the compassion?  The concern for how the dog is feeling?

Anyway, I think I’ll end that there.  For now at least.    I hope I haven’t come across as someone who thinks all dogs should be like Lassie, that isn’t my view at all.  This was inspired by seeing so many posts by people knowingly putting random dogs, and in some cases random children, at risk in order to “socialise” their aggressive/fearful dog.

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6 thoughts on “Risking others in the name of socialisation

  1. I couldn’t agree with your sentiments more Sarah. As you know Kilo isn’t easy due to being attacked and will never be a dog park dog. I accept that. I take all measures I can to protect him. I work tirelessly on him and no amount of words can really express how I feel about others who put other dogs at risk due to their own selfish actions….luckily I don’t have to as you have articulated it perfectly!!!

  2. Very well written, and I absolutely agree with you. Living in a city and having a fearful and insecure dog I have this problem regularly.

  3. I would generalize this to all owners who don’t control their dogs (and few have the control they think they do. My Spencer is afraid of many dogs and gets easily overwhelmed, but my biggest problem is the clueless owners rushing up yelling to recover their dog, who isn’t coming when called. The thing is, my Spencer isn’t dog-reactive, he’s people-reactive and having someone rush straight at him yelling, pretty qualifies as aggression in the dog world, so it’s very hard for me to keep him calm in such situations. And speaking of reactivty, I disagree with you on vocabulary. The term “aggressive” implies that the dog will always be aggressive, whereas “reactive” begs the question “to what”, which allows for a precise diagnosis, the precondition of any successful rehabilitation program.

  4. I dislike the label “reactive” really as all dogs are reactive but we do need to describe behaviours somehow so see why it is used (and use it myself). I do not see why “aggressive” implies that the behaviour can never be changed though? Lots of us have had aggressive responses to things in our lifetimes as have our dogs – but it doesn’t mean that it will always be so. It can be circumstantial and obviously if we work with our dogs we can change their underlying emotional responses to some circumstances, thus meaning that a dog who used to be aggressive when confronted with a vet examination for example can be conditioned so that vet examinations = good stuff and are therefore no longer aggressive in that circumstance. I think that terminology can really get us bogged down at times and these labels can mean different things to different people, getting in the way of the real work that needs to be done. Just my interpretation of course!!

  5. Rue

    First off, I wanted to say I stumbled on your blog a day or two ago and have been skimming through it, good stuff! how way, i wanted to put my two cents in on the “reactive/aggressive” thing. I saw it in this post and again in the comments, so I wanted to share my thoughts, I’m not responded to anyone in particular (esp. since its nearly a month old!).

    To react and reactive are not the same thing. As a science major this is how I always saw it, though I can definitely see issues then applying it to behavior. A reactive chemical is one who reacts very visibly to many different things, or it can be very reactive to one thing in particular. Much like dogs who bark/growl. lunge whatever to all dogs vs a dog that does the same but only to people with umbrellas. For me its in the visibility of the reaction. In my college chem classes, we write a big NR next to a combination of chemicals that has no visible change, for no visible reaction. Much like a dog who handles life in stride.Everyone, and every dog, indeed reacts to things, but not all of them are reactive per se. Again that’s just how I look at it. I also like the term because its new for most dog owners so as someone who is a trainer you can explain how you define it to a dog owner, without any previous misconceptions as to what it means. This difference I feel is more noticeable once you have a legendary “bomb proof” dog. I have one now, he’s amazing.

    Putting my trainer hat on now, as an apprentice trainer, the first thing we did was throw the term aggressive out of our vocabulary as much as possible when describing a dog. Why? because it denotes personality not behavior and actually tells us as trainers nothing about what the dog is doing or how its acting. We had one client who brought in her dog, saying the dog was aggressive towards other dogs it met. Upon some questioning, we brought in one of our dogs and let them meet(carefully of course) the dog turned out to be play growling. Moral of the story is, people already have their own ideas of what an aggressive dog looks like. If you use the term aggressive, they apply their own definition, hence why people are fine with an aggressive dog “putting their dog down”….they don’t understand how serious that misinterpretation can be!

    Personally, I just think that reactive and aggressive are two separate terms describing different behavior. You can have a dog that’s both, or one or the other. I do know a dog that dislikes other dogs, she definitely couldn’t live with one peacefully (she is on a crate and rotate system in her foster home), so you could consider her dog aggressive for sure, but she doesn’t actively go after other dogs and is fine on walks, even when dogs run up briefly. She is not reactive, Where as I also know dogs that freak out, bark whine growl lunge while on leash that are fine with dogs in normal situations and even once an off leash dog gets up to them. Not Aggressive.

    I really liked this post though.It really hit home for me about describing behavior rather than labeling it. Because your right, risking dogs for the sake of socialization is stupid and risky. One of my dogs is a “bomb proof dog” so people often ask me about using him in their training. But I would never want to put him in danger either. So its important to ask said person who posts looking for help, “what behaviors are you seeing?” when they say “he’s iffy with dogs” because while I do think there are some dogs who would benefit from structured play type settings, many would not.

    I’m really, really sorry this comment got as long as it did, and I hope I didn’t step on any toes, I would feel awful. Honestly, its just 3 am and I’ve been up since 6 am and I’m in a rabbit hole of dog behavior and I got wayy to excited about dog behavior and stuff, so try and forgive me if you can 🙂

  6. As I say, I don’t really care what word someone uses to describe their dogs behaviour providing they take measures to prevent it being a problem and aren’t using the unsuspecting public as guinea pigs. I don’t think using aggressive (which is a term most people understand to mean not friendly) rather than reactive implies the behaviour cannot be changed though. Reactive just seems a very odd term to use to me as all dogs have things they are reactive to. And it tells you nothing at all really, it’s just such an incredibly vague label. I could describe both Rupert and Spencer as reactive as both regularly reacted to other dogs. Yet their intentions were very, very different. One wanted to inflict as much damage as possible, the other wants desperately to say hello, perhaps have a brief play and be about his business. I know aggressive can cover a wide range of behaviours too but at least the general meaning is “not friendly” whereas “reactive” can mean anything from super friendly with no impulse control to wants to kill what it’s reacting to if that makes sense 🙂 And I also think “reactive” can make an owner feel like the problem is less serious than it is in some cases.

    But yes, at the end of the day it’s all behaviour and these vague and generalised labels aren’t really helpful. I think we often get too bogged down with labelling to be honest, we should worry more about addressing the problem behaviour than labelling it lol. The blog post was more a rant about those who knowingly put others at risk from a dog they know is going to react badly than about the terms used. It’s something I see happening quite a bit and it’s extremely unfair whether the dog is genuinely aggressive, a bully or simply friendly but lacking in manners.

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