I like a good mystery movie. I would classify the Harry Potter series as from a mystery genre. At the beginning, you know something is going on and a deeper secret underlies the childhood innocence. What’s with that scar on his forehead? Only until the very end of the last book do you finally understand the solution to the mystery. I always assume every rescue dog I encounter might be concealing a problem that needs to be puzzled out.
This morning, I was working with a young male rescue dog in boarding. This is the third time I’ve worked with him. Some dogs present obvious issues that need to be addressed, others have issues that aren’t so obvious on the first lesson.
I find the easiest way to discover these mysteries is to start with simple training exercises. I see way too many rescue volunteers spending their precious time playing with dogs instead of having a structured program they can implement to make dogs adoptable. They are also not given the tools to uncover issues that might be roadblocks to finding these dogs new permanent homes. I encourage volunteers to prioritize lessons over play time. Besides, a motivated, happy hour of training will be just as tiring, and more enriching, than just giving a dog a play session.
For today’s session, I added a new challenge, and discovered two new issues. The first issue is that this dog has a very mild case of food bowl guarding. He will mouth your hands, and then start jumping up on you, if you pick up the bowl. He’s not growling, and he showed no indications of being aggressive, but no one has properly worked on this issue with him. Since this annoying behavior could be an obstacle to adoption, and because we don’t ever want a dog to behave this way around a food bowl, we started working on this. The second issue is that he has no self-control in, say, a Sit/Stay or Down/ Stay. That is also evident when you provide distractions in the training. He will go check them out rather than stick with the exercises. I always test dogs, off leash, to see what abilities they have developed, and which ones are missing. So, we also worked on this today.
Of bigger concern with all untested rescue dogs is whether there are hidden triggers for aggression. Every person who works with, or owns a dog, takes on risks when working with animals, whether their own home pets or rescued dogs. There are no guarantees in life. Yes, there are some typical testing situations that can be set up, such as the food bowl work we did. But sometimes you might be dealing with a dog with K9 PTSD, which might not be evident until you put the dog in just the right situation. If you gradually work with new dogs, doing simple exercises, you can sometimes see indications that the dog is tensing up. With a handful of other dogs, there will be no warning, and then all Hell can break out. Thus, I don’t think novice volunteers should be working alone with new rescue dogs. If danger signs crop up, lessons need to be immediately terminated and the dog, and training program, need to be re-evaluated. However, don’t assume that only novice volunteers are at risk. Even the most experienced professional people will tell you of the close calls they have had working with dogs. Many dog trainers have been bitten, and no trainer or rescue organization can know there is never a possibility of something bad happening. When bad things happen, the peanut gallery will share disparaging gossip all over social media, just to get the pleasure of putting others down. But rest assured, they probably would have been in the same bad situation themselves if they had been working with those same dogs. It’s easy, and immoral, to criticize and embarrass victims. Diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, and euthanasia decisions can’t be put in a simple formula. Every situation is unique, and while some patterns might be known, you must take each dog as an individual with its own history and responses, and those need to be puzzled out.
If you can accept that all dogs might have a mystery, then you’ll be much more observant and prepared to address whatever peculiarities you sense or observe. Some indications might pop up with young puppies, or in adolescence, or as adults, or as seniors. I call them mysteries since there is always a bit of an unknown with every dog during every life stage, health issue, and social encounter. The number of factors make it impossible to predict what every dog will do in every situation. We can only build reasonable confidence with a dog’s responses when we have a long mutual working history. Remember, my objective with each rescued dog is to make those dogs adoptable for selected new owners. I think the dog I worked with today is currently adoptable, from everything I’ve seen so far, provided the new owners continue enough lessons to ensure good Manners and obedience. There are more tests that can be applied with every dog, and we are only 3 lessons into this dog. Early indications are this is a nice dog. It’s about a million degrees Fahrenheit in Phoenix right now, so some things can’t be safely tested in public. I don’t yet know how he would be on a hike, greeting strangers at the front door, a walk through a pet store, encounters with off leash dogs, and a hundred other such situations. But, often, many pet owners don’t even know this stuff with their own dogs that they got as young puppies. We discover their mysteries in a similar fashion as lessons progress from simple to advanced. We can’t put dogs on the proverbial psychiatrist’s couch and ask them about their troubled childhoods. We can only train and test, test and train, each dog. If mysteries come up, then it’s our job to solve them.