Pledge allegiance to your dog.


A friend sent me a long email message recently about some problems he was having with his dog. He and his partner adopted the little dog from a shelter some months ago. Not long after, the dog bit my friend’s mother when she tried to take a stolen Kleenex away from the dog; I got a long email about that incident, too!


I wasn’t that concerned about the first incident that my friend wrote to me about, but I’m worried now. The dog has gotten increasingly aggressive in certain situations (on-leash in busy environments), and has threatened to bite a number of different people. (To be more specific, he has actually bitten their clothing or something they were carrying. I used the word “threaten” because a dog who can grab a sleeve or hem or rip a hole in a bag that someone is carrying is certainly capable of biting that person, and yet he has chosen not to. Yet.)

I counseled my friend to engage the services of an experienced and highly recommended positive trainer, and he did so. The first few sessions went well in some ways; the dog quickly learned a number of desirable behaviors, and seems to enjoy training. But the aggressive behavior has escalated.

I asked a lot of questions about the training sessions. At some point, my friend told me that the dog also stayed with the trainer for a several-day board-and-train visit. And when I asked whether anything else had changed with the dog, he said he and his partner both think that the dog got worse after boarding. They didn’t blame the trainer; they thought the dog was “mad” at them for leaving.

I don’t think dogs are sophisticated enough to act out for weeks to punish their owners for having a nice vacation without them. The more information we exchanged, the more clear it seemed to me that the trainer – by every account a dedicated, well-educated, well-regarded, positive trainer – was not only failing to improve matters with this dog, his training tactics were getting progressively more punitive. And the dog’s behavior was getting progressively worse.

No trainer can succeed in every case. Some have a special affinity for some types of dogs or enjoy teaching only certain types of classes. I think that this trainer has been pushed past his area of expertise. I strongly advised my friend to put an end to these sessions, and start looking for a new trainer.

My friend was reluctant; he liked the trainer and didn’t want to be disloyal or hurt the trainer’s feelings.
That set me back on my heels. What about hurting the dog? He’s not only failed to improve, he’s gotten worse. He’s the one my friend needs to be loyal to. And so should the trainer. He should be the first to admit that this dog is pushing him out of his comfort zone, and that another trainer might have a different approach that would be more effective.