When dogs attack, who is to blame?  Is it the dog, or is it an irresponsible owner?

Some feel that dogs are born good, essentially a blank canvas for owners to work with.  Others feel that there are bad dogs.  Or in the case of dog attacks, they blame an entire breed of dogs for the actions of a few.

I meet a lot of puppies.  We foster puppies, meaning that we can compare one puppy to another and compare behaviour between them.  All of them live in the same home environment.  This means, the variation in their behaviour while here is due to one thing – the dog’s temperament.

If dog aggression was 100% the owner’s fault, then I should be pumping out those foster puppies like toasters on an assembly line.  One quality doggie foster after another…wrap ’em up and ship them out.  Each dog going through my home should arrive as a clean slate, destined to become the exact same type of dog.

Dogs are not toasters rolling off an assembly line.  There is variation.  Each dog is unique and different.  As each new foster arrives, the first step is to honestly evaluate, “Who are you?  What makes you tick?”

Nature gives a starting point.  Owners influence what happens from that point forward.  Owners can make this better or make things worse.

Some dogs are easy.  Some take a little work.  And yes, some dogs are messed up and aggressive from birth.  Sorry to burst your bubble, but there are puppies that won’t let you touch them.  Others growl, snarl and bite – hard and with intent.  They come that way.  If it makes you feel better, chalk it up to oxygen deprivation at birth.  All I’m saying is that seriously aggressive puppies do exist.

Easy puppies make experienced trainers look like rock stars.  It’s why many performance dogs are hand picked with great care.

That same easy dog can be ruined if subjected to repeated mistreatment, or even repeated mistakes.  Some dogs are so easy, so forgiving, that they give humans another chance despite abuse and neglect.

Challenging dogs in the right hands can become pretty amazing.  However, despite excellent handling, they probably will take longer to get there.  Even with the best care, they might always have some quirks.  Placing a challenging dog into an irresponsible home is a recipe for disaster.

My Kip was seriously challenging.  There’s a reason we called him the ex-crotch ripper.  Instead of focusing on performance or normal puppy socialization, we started by dealing with a whole host of problems that you can read about in a previous blog.  Despite all the work, he will never be like our Kaya – a dog that passed his therapy dog testing at one year of age.  Kaya was easy while our mantra with the ex-crotch ripper was, “Aim for sane.”  He’s turned our rather well despite the rough start.

Had the ex-crotch ripper gone to a different home, I have no doubt that he’d be dead by now.  I believe that he would have died even if placed in an average, caring home.  Love, compassion and best intentions are not always sufficient.  You need to know what you’re doing.

This is because problem puppies perpetuate future problems with their own behaviour.  The puppy that lashes out aggressively isn’t going to get petted as often as the social butterfly.  This inhibits progress.  The challenging puppy is not as forgiving as an easy one.  There is less room for error.  Inexperienced owners understandably will make mistakes.  Owners need a stubborn streak and the foresight to say, “We need to deal with this now.  I will not let this fester and I know where to get really good help.”

Experienced and responsible owners also know to avoid risky behaviour.  They ensure their dog, and the community, is kept safe while the puppy learns.

What should owners take away from this?

  • If you have a tough pup, don’t panic.  However, do get to work.  Challenging puppies are not destined to be bad dogs.  Having a genetic predisposition does NOT mean the dog’s behaviour is set in stone.  You can make things better.  If you do things really well, you might even be pleasantly surprised.
  • Do not become jaded.  Challenging puppies are….challenging.  When frustrated or scared, focus on the dog’s talents and positive attributes.
  • Owners of easy dogs – do not sit on your laurels.  Sign up for puppy classes.  Make the effort to socialize your puppy.  Socialization is behavioural insulation.  If you fail to put in the effort, a few negative experiences can ruin the best dogs out there.
  • People facing extremely challenging behaviours need professional help immediately.  It doesn’t take an irresponsible owner to mess these animals up.

Most importantly remember that the dog versus owner blame game is a false dilemma.  Dog aggression is a complex question.  Don’t be so quick to judge and blame – whether it be the dog, owner and especially the breed.  There’s a full history there that can and should be explored to find out what really happened.