Is it really all in how they’re raised?

Malinois & Azores Cattle Dog  dog playFirst, I want to start with the fact that while a lot of things have to do with ‘how they’re raised’, that’s a pretty broad term and of course there are many different view points on what raising them right is and how to do it.  It is definitely a phrase that bugs me because most people will not ever understand enough to raise what many would call a ‘difficult’ dog well without help from a knowledgable professional.   It’s important to point out that almost every dog that comes to us with a bite history or other severe behaviour issue like extreme fear, are never abused, they are loved – in too much of the wrong way – they are coddled, given too much freedom & food for everything & whenever they want.  They have no leadership & no understanding of how to deal with our world in ways other than what their instincts tell them.  People often assume when they see their ‘before’ behaviour from our videos that ‘the poor dog must have been so abused’ when in actuality it has extremely loving owners, loving to a fault, loving in too much of the ways that feel good to us ie. feeding when they ‘give that look’, petting & cuddling when they react fearfully or aggressively etc.  Often times owners have tried to get help in understanding how to better help their dog before things worsen but are given horrible information from a lot of ‘professionals’ that end up making things worse.  Some dogs are really easy & you can get away with a lack of leadership, many of them just aren’t & require more understanding & guidance.

A lot of things will be affected by personality of the individual and the average dog trainer often only addresses obedience commands at their essence so basically, you learn to teach them some tricks.  Yes, having some solid obedience commands are important and valuable but there is so much more to raising a well mannered, happy dog who not just loves you but truly and fully respects and trusts you.  It’s also important to make sure that your obedience is being taught well from the start as well (yes it’s fixable later but more work, time and money).  If you’re being shown to teach your dog ‘sit’ for example, if the dog is allowed to pop it’s bum back up right away when receiving reward/praise then you are starting off by teaching them that the meaning of ‘sit’ is to drop your bum and stand back up.

There is so much to understand about the way they work to realize that there are other smaller rules and some soft subtle ways to communicate with them that people don’t realize and too often ignore.  This is even more important and helpful to realize and learn when you have a working breed like a livestock guardian, some working line shepherds like Malinois or Dutch, various cattle dogs, Malamutes etc. they generally tend to be more primal, made to trouble shoot and have a certain level of independence on top of being smarter then say your typical  golden retriever or lab.  All dogs no matter breed are still dogs, their DNA is still 99% the same as a wolf, they still have primal instincts and they still respond best to the communication that is most natural to them ie. body language and physical communication. But, the true difference in how they work you probably don’t fully grasp and your average obedience trainer often doesn’t either.

First we want to look at the basics of what every dog needs most and how they thrive.  So of course you have the physical exercise down (at least I would hope you do!) – yes even your 5lb chihuahua needs exercise and structure not just running around the house all day.  What is most likely missing is the psychological stuff that’s just as if not more important especially in the beginning while they’re learning.  He needs exercise yes but how is that happening?  Does he have to look to you and wait patiently before you leave the house, or throw the ball or remove the leash?  Almost every dog we meet that has some type of issue whether fear, anxiety, aggression or just plain disobeying commands and/or hyper, overexcited behaviour – they have been getting too much freedom too soon.  Some people even bring home their new pup and let if run free with no leash because initially the pup does want to stay close to you.  This is dangerous!  As they grow they become more confident, more comfortable being at a distance from you and more curious and willing to explore.  Don’t be the person calling for help because your pup got hit by a car when it decided it was comfortable enough to follow a scent or chase a squirrel for the first time – or worse, cancelling the training appointment you had made because the pup is dead (yes that has happened more than you know to people).

If you haven’t started establishing rules, boundaries and teaching very basic manners and commands from the time they come home (whether puppy or rescue), then you are teaching things you don’t want simply by allowing them.  When the clear leadership roles haven’t been established, the dog will start to make it’s own choices and for each dog of course, this can look a little different.  Example: Say you have a timid dog.  If you’re not providing clear leadership, she is not going to feel safe or trust you to take care of things or help her through things so that she does become comfortable.  This often leads to stronger ingrained fears and anxiety.  Often we see dogs between 8 months and 2 years that have developed deeper issues because they were not provided the appropriate foundation from the start and throughout they’re growth into an adult.  So as he’s starting to mature with no real guidance, he’s becoming more confident in himself and realizing that it’s ok to make choices based on instinct because he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to deal with all these different scenarios in our lives any other way.

Breed comes into play of course now as well.  Dogs are dogs and at the root have the same instincts, behaviours and body language.  Different breeds however have more intense drives and instincts depending on what they were developed for and this causes a lot of issues because so many people do not do proper research.  Meeting one dog of that breed that either was well raised and trained or just happened to be one of those easy, laid back dogs that doesn’t require much, does not at all mean you know or understand that breed and whether it would truly be a good fit for you.  We have so many clients who tell us a similar story “we’ve had x breed all our lives, we’ve never had this issue before”. How many dogs have you actually had when you’ve had dogs all your life?  2, 4, 8 maybe?  Not very many at all when you look at how many are out there – for example we work with a minimum of 120 dogs a year at this point, that number is only continuing to grow as we grow, get more help and as people continue to not receive the help they need from the initial cheap sources they seek out.

German Shepherds for example:  The most recognized police dog for years.  They’ve been ‘watered’ down quite a bit with show (ruining their hips and mental state) and pet (breeding less intense dogs often from various lines) lines being bred.  Many people get them because they are loyal, obedient and are good protectors.  But, when you don’t provide the appropriate leadership and training, as they mature they often get into a lot of trouble for attempting to guard the home, property or ‘their people’ from strange people, animals or both.  They often become very anxious because of this as well.

Cattle dogs (whether Australian or other):  They often get into a lot of trouble for biting or bite attempts usually not even because they’re aggressive.  They are bred to use their mouth to control things more predominantly than other dogs.  They are also very independent and high energy, after all, they need to be able to run the fields and stand up to cattle that can be up to 1800 lbs (vs. a 40-80 lb dog).  They are very smart, determined, independent and loyal but again, without appropriate leadership and understanding what and what not to do, they can get into a lot of trouble.  Often these are the type of dogs I see that bite out of sheer overexcitement.  The adrenaline gets to high and they need a release and the bite is just a natural reaction.

I could go on explaining things about individual breeds of course but there are so many and I would think you get the point from these examples.  Getting back to the initial question, is it really about ‘how they’re raised’?  Honestly yes AND no.  The majority of dogs could yes, be raised to be pretty damn good despite they’re breed and tendencies if they have someone who is not only a good leader but understands the personality of the dog they have.  Example: not every dog likes playing with other dogs – this does not mean they’re aggressive but they are more likely to become aggressive towards other dogs if they’re constantly being put in situations with other dogs that they don’t want to be in.

Unfortunately, there is so much conflicting and bad information out there it makes it extremely difficult for owners to know what the hell to do!  Remember that there is no regulation on dog training/trainers.  This is both good and bad.  (We have some details on different training methods on our website as well as a video and post explaining a few things on Facebook that you will find on one of our video playlists there if you’re interested in understanding that more.) Basically, if you only provide cuddles food and freedom with no guidance and rules, you run a massive risk of serious problems as your dog matures.  This is the main problem in the majority of bite cases.  ‘Oh lets let the dog think the baby is hers because it’s so cute and the internet will love us!’ – YES, some dogs are good at being with babies/kids and truly don’t mind being climbed on but those dogs are a lot more rare than people seem to think/realize.  The dogs that end up grabbing the kid or grabbing a person for coming near the kid are victims themselves of not being given the guidance and understanding they should have.  They are now killed or have to have some intense rehab just for being an instinctual canine (apex predator).  As I mentioned above the different training methods out there… There is a large number of ‘trainers’ who are basically encouraging and promoting bad behaviours and the absolute wrong state of mind for a dog to be in.  That’s a separate discussion though and again mentioned above, we have spoken on this before.

Owners:  The best advice I can give you here, is do your research well.  Don’t just go with the closest or cheapest trainer or because your friend with the laid back lab recommended them or because you met them once.  Look through websites and Facebook pages.  Look for proof of results but transparency of the process to get to those results.  Speak to and or meet with them first.  If they’re not willing to handle your dog in front of you, that’s a red flag (unless your dog has flat out attacked many people or something or has a bite history and is not wearing a muzzle).  make sure you understand the process and that you will have continued support – beware the place that’s going to take your dog, train it and when you pick it up that’s the end of everything – the dog will end up going backwards because you haven’t been taught what you need to know.  Lastly, be comfortable with the person.  If you can’t be real, if you don’t trust, if you are uncomfortable with how things sound or are going in your initial consult then that may not be a good fit.

Trainers:  Be open and honest with your clients!  Show them the work, make sure they understand how the process is going to work and if you’re not sure of something be honest that you’re not sure.  If you’re in over your head seek help or refer out.  Do not tell people to drug or kill their dogs because it’s a dog that you’re not comfortable or don’t know how to work with.  We’re all in this because we love dogs, right?   Stop bashing other trainers for how they do things and start focusing on the dogs in front of you and the new things you can learn from them and form other trainers old and new all across the world.  No, it truly doesn’t matter what tools you use so stop with the lies and scare tactics.  What matters is HOW you use tools.  And really, what you should truly understand first and foremost is how to really read a dog and how to communicate with them with nothing or at least nothing but a leash.  If you can’t do this, then you still have a lot to learn and there are many ways you can do this so go do it and work to be the best you can be.

Keep doing your thing, keep learning and growing and get out there and help your dogs!

Lead them, guide them, love them!

Justine Perry

President, Head Trainer
K9 Balance Training & Rehabilitation Inc.
Professional member of the IACP & active legislation committee member

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