The Blame Game

The Blame Game
December 3, 2010 by Steve Duno
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Take heart, dog fans; it's not always your fault.

The current thinking today likes to put the blame for dog misbehavior solely upon the owner's shoulders.  I'm here to tell you that, often, that's just a load of horse pucky.  Yes, we humans can be notoriously naïve of canine behavior and needs; I'm the first to go off on humanizers, coddlers, doggy democrats, the breed blind- all manner of goofy mistakes made by people who love dogs but don't have a clue about their truer natures.  And those who abuse, hurt, ignore or deny dogs- they too can do irreputable damage to a dog's future, and should be ostracized.  But, frankly, I'm tired of humans taking it on the chin all the time, as if dogs were faultless orbs of immortal light, who stray only at the hands of human incompetence.  It just ain't so.

With the increase of dog training shows on cable, and training info all over web and print, it's become popular to think that any dog's misbehavior can be cured in 22 minutes, if given the right input, environment, socialization, and enrichment.  Time and again I see all-knowing TV trainers fly into the beleaguered home, quickly point out the human-based problem, whip out a bag of treats, and "fix" the situation.  The dog is rarely blamed for anything; it's the people, stupid.  You just haven't given your delicate flower what it needs to flourish! 

Poppycock.  First of all, it is a facile position that insults the dog.  They aren't simple organisms, but complex mammals, with sophisticated social systems and relatively big brains.  To suggest that one can cure an engrained canine behavioral problem in seconds with a bag of goodies is simply smoke-and-mirrors. 

When a person exhibits a profound phobia toward spiders, for instance, he or she cannot be cured of it in an hour, with careful application of a pastrami sandwich.  It takes months of slow desensitization.  Same goes for someone with attention deficit, bulimia, or unpredictable self-destructive tendencies; it can take years to address these issues.  And in the case of genetically-triggered aberrant behaviors, sometimes it doesn't ever get better. 

More and more, geneticists are discovering how much of a role DNA plays in behavior.  In human psychology, we used to think that the "nature vs. nurture" balancing act was pretty evenly distributed; today we know that genes play a much larger role in determining future behavior than once thought- more so than upbringing or environment.  If it's true in humans, it's true in dogs, too.

I've watched dogs develop from the time they emerge from mamma to the time they move on to the great hydrant in the sky.  I can tell you that some dogs, from the moment they open their eyes, show profound differences in conduct from their littermates.  Some will be brave and confident, while others are timid and anti-social, right from the get go.  It has nothing to do with how mom or anyone else treats them- it's genetic

Genes help determine personality, and behavioral profiles.  So, if you have a timid border collie, for instance, it could very well be a trait set in stone, to be artfully managed, rather than cured with a rip of chicken meat and a walk in the park.  Some dogs are aggressive right from the start; some happy, some brilliant, some dopey.  You have no control over this; all you can do is manage what you have, as smartly as you can.

I have friends who are outgoing, vibrant, and engaging.  I also have friends who can't look someone in the eye, who prefer to be alone, who have little patience, who are prone to temper tantrums- the whole spectrum.  They are all still my friends; I just treat them differently, according to their behavioral templates.  Dogs develop varied personalities too, before they ever enter your home.  Whether a combination of genes, history, breed, or kismet- they can be just as quirky and diverse as any human.  Personality is something you won't likely change with training; you learn to use it, or work around it. 

My dog Lou, star of Last Dog On The Hill, had an outgoing, courageous persona.  I could do almost anything with him, from hiking with wolves or filming commercials, to working therapy or helping to socialize profoundly aggressive dogs.  My dog Flavio, on the other hand, has been from the start a meek, sweet-hearted dog ever lacking in bravado, and always concerned for his safety.  I could never do the things with him that I did with Lou; he'd have a coronary. 

You have little or no control over your dog's personality.  It's engrained.  If your dog cowers when a person tries to pet it, it's isn't a failure on your part; all you can do is manage it, and, over time, try to slowly desensitize the pooch to what it fears.  But to blame you for this is, frankly, silly.

Breed matters.  A Cairn terrier is completely different in almost every way from a Saluki.  A Chow Chow and a Maltese might as well be from different planets.  To invent some sort of fictional template that suggests that breed does not help determine a dog's behavior is, again, unfair and insulting to dogs.  It's another example of humanization- the desire of certain dog lovers to democratize the dog world, and avoid the word "profiling."  For anyone to suggest that an Australian cattle dog, with its heritage of herding excellence, is exactly the same as the desert-ranging greyhound in behavioral potentials, is again, naïve at best.  And so, an owner with an Akita, for instance, is much more likely to encounter anti-social tendencies than will the owner of a Golden retriever.  It doesn't mean that all Akitas are anti-social; it just means that breed profiling, in general, works, and must be respected.  Pit bulls are different than Basenjis; Shibas different than toy spaniels.  Each has a particular behavioral profile that can make owning them hard, if the owner isn't prepared for it.  Certainly, one must try to choose the right breed-type for one's lifestyle- to get the wrong dog is an example of owner error.  But to suggest that an owner is responsible for a specific breed tendency- well that's just unfair.

Sometimes a dog will just be too much for a person.  I once had a client, a sweet older woman who'd had Westies her whole life.  Dogless for a while, her husband of fifty-plus years then passed on.  Not wanting her to be alone, her son went out and got her a male Rottweiler puppy, which, by the time he was seven months old, became entirely too strong and willful for the ninety-pound lady to handle.  The dog began acting out, knocking people over, growling and nipping at strangers.  It was not the lady's fault, but simply a terrible mismatch.  We found the dog a better home, and got her a seven year-old female spaniel mix.  Problem solved.

Other factors that are out of the owner's control?  Changes in home territory, accidental occurrences, an adopted dog's history- many things can affect a dog's behavior, apart from owner ignorance.  But for people to suggest that owners should always take it on the chin for their dogs' misbehaviors- well, it's unfair, and frankly, very un-doggish, if that's a word.  Perhaps we need to be as forgiving with each other as our dogs are with us.

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