AGGRESSION MYTH #15: ALL AGGRESSION CAN BE “CURED”
This may be the one myth I wish most of all were true. Would I like to believe that every reactive or aggressive dog can be “cured?” Yes. Would I like to believe that there are enough homes who are interested, willing, and able to rehabilitate each and every one of these dogs? Undoubtedly, yes. I don’t believe either of these things.
Yesterday, I listed many factors which effect the prognosis of rehabilitating reactive or aggressive dogs. The sad fact is that for some dogs, even all the training and management in the world may not be enough. None of us are perfect. There is a high chance that management can and will fail, and the consequences of management failure must be considered – you may have a dog who is aggressive toward children and now you have a new child in the house. Sure, baby gates and muzzles may be a (stressful) but effective way to manage the situation. But equipment fails. People make mistakes. What level of risk are you comfortable living with?
Perhaps you live with two females that fight like they want to kill each other. Behavior modification may solve the problem, but on the other hand, it may not. The dogs may need to live on a “crate and rotate” basis for the rest of their lives. This is highly stressful for the dogs and humans involved, possibly resulting in skyrocketing cortisol levels which will increase the chance that if something goes wrong, it will go disastrously wrong.
Also, no matter how good you may be at managing your dog, you cannot manage the world. Once I brought Cuba home from the classroom and as I was unbuckling his seat belt to get him out of the van, a neighbor’s off leash dog ran into the van and jumped in. Luckily, I was able to get that dog out quickly and there was no altercation – what if that happened with your dog-aggressive dog? I can’t imagine what would have happened if that shih-tzu decided it was a good idea to jump in the van with my dog-reactive Saint, Monte, inside. What if you were caught in a van, one dog tethered, without help, trying to break up a dog fight? It may sound silly, I mean, how often does that happen? But the bottom line is that every family wanting to rehabilitate an aggressive or reactive dog must be mindful of the worst-case scenario and whether, should that happen, it is something they are willing or able to live with. It may well not be.
Even if owners follow protocols diligently, the dog may never meet their highest expectations. A dog that has hospitalized 10 other dogs will likely never be a dog park diva. My personal opinion is that dogs who have displayed aggression toward children should never live with them, the cost of failure is far too high. My business partner’s dog had killed a number of cats and was highly reactive to both dogs and people before moving in with him. She now lives quite happily with his two other dogs and his cat and is able to be well-managed and responsive to training in public environments. Can every dog with an extensive history of cat-killing live peacefully with a cat? I don’t believe so, sometimes even despite the owner’s best efforts. Again, individual prognosis may vary.
Sadly, there are no guarantees with dog behavior (which, coincidentally, what makes dog training guarantees so absurd). I can’t guarantee what I will do tomorrow, let alone what your dog will do five years from now. Sometimes, living with a reactive or aggressive dog is like living with an alcoholic – managing the environment and exposure levels can be like moving into a bar with an alcoholic and making sure he never drinks. All it takes is one “fall off the wagon” to leave you back at square one. Much like alcoholics are never “cured” but “recovering,” so often are dogs with reactivity and aggression problems. Many humans will struggle with mental illness throughout their lives – why would dogs be any different?
It would be a challenge to find someone who loves dogs, dog people, and hopes for the welfare of both populations more than I. While my heart is firmly in the idealist camp, my head is firmly in the realist camp. Not every dog’s behavior problems can be “cured.” Some dogs may not be “cured” but may be well-managed. The consequences of management failure must be considered.
I actually believe that those dogs who cannot see significant improvement are very much a small minority of all dogs, but I do believe that these dogs do exist. A slightly larger minority consists of dogs who can see significant improvement but for whom behavior-savvy households are unavailable. Some trainers would like you to believe that a busy single mother, working two jobs and raising three kids, should be willing and able to solve even the severest of aggression problems. Some will say that even an 90 year old grandmother weighing 80 lbs with severe arthritis should be able to modify severe aggression in a working line Belgian Maligator who really enjoys using his teeth, and not politely. Might there be a trainer who can rehabilitate these dogs? Certainly. Might there be situations which even the world’s best behavior professionals can not bring to a resolution? Absolutely. Much like even the best of oncologists cannot cure every case of cancer they see, even the best behavior professionals are not miracle workers.
To deny these dogs’ existence would only be setting both dogs and their owners up for failure, frustration, and potentially, great harm, none of which fall in line with my professional ethics.
For those dogs who may not be “cure-able,” sadly little hope exists. However, it is this trainer’s hope that people like me who love these dogs will be inspired to continue the great foundation science has laid in understanding behavior, aggression, and behavior modification techniques. Perhaps, through continued research, idea sharing, experimentation and exploration, this small minority will become even smaller.
Again, friends, until tomorrow with more aggression myths!