Trainers say treat dogs as dogs, not ‘babies’
Owners need to provide pets with structure, experts say.
For The News-Leader
Everyone knows parents whose kids can do no wrong, and when it comes to pet owners, the same “perfect child” image persists for some.
But if the recent controversy in Springfield involving Barty the pit bull is an indication, there are dangers to looking past what others say is a problem.
It can be hard to look into the eyes of that cuddly companion and see anything but a loveable pet, but dog trainer Skye Poitras says that’s a deceiving mind-set.
“I think the problem is people think their dog will be good if they just love him enough,” Poitras said.
In the Springfield case, a pit bull named Barty allegedly terrorized his neighborhood last fall after escaping from his owner’s home. The dog attacked three neighborhood pets, killing one and injuring two others.
After charges and hearings in the case, a final determination to euthanize the animal was made by Kevin Gipson, the health department director.
Barty’s owner, who still maintains that her pet was not at fault, faces criminal animal abuse charges involving the animal. She’ll be in court on Jan. 14.
Trainer Rick Dillender said some problems he sees in pets stem from an idea that the animals are the owner’s “babies.”
“When people say their dogs are like their kids, what they really mean is that they want their dogs to be like their grandkids,” Dillender said. “Kids have rules and structure and chores and homework and those kinds of things. Grandkids get spoiled and then sent off to someone else.”
He said the key for an emotionally healthy pet is structure, and the problems arise when that dog is always treated like the grandkid and never gets the rules that the pet needs — and wants.
“A dog does not want to be loved first,” he said. “They don’t even want food first. What they want first and foremost is to know who’s in charge, because everything in a dog’s behavior is a reflection of where they see themselves in the pecking order in the home.”
Dillender, a trainer from New Mexico, said many pet behavior problems can be remedied by changing the owner’s behavior.
Poitras, of Salt Lake City, Utah, is part of a network of trainers across the country designed to address pet needs.
She recommends having the right balance between affection and structure.
“If you want to see it more, pay attention to it, if you want to see it less, make sure you let your dog know that there’s a consequence,” she said in regard to good and bad behavior.
Poitras is part of the Community Training Partners program, a project of Best Friends Animal Society. That group’s hotline gets more than 60,000 calls a year about pet issues, said program director Mike Harmon.
“Sometimes people are on the right track, but if you don’t have that kind of experience or they’re not necessarily dog-savvy, then it’s hard for you to give accurate information over the phone,” he said.
So the Community Partners Program was born to address more serious issues face to snout.
Currently pilot programs exist in Chicago, Salt Lake City, New Jersey, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Harmon said the program seeks to team owners with trainers to take care of behavioral problems and prevent the dog from being sent to a shelter.
He said the program also teams with local shelters to train dogs in their care to make them adoptable and decrease the euthanasia rate.
“Ultimately the community pays for euthanasia, so this really is a community problem,” he said.
Eliminating euthanasia is one of their top goals, so when Best Friends learned the pit bulls seized in quarterback Michael Vick’s illegal dog fighting case were set to be euthanized, the organization stepped in and took 22 of the dogs to their Dogtown facility in Utah.
“By nature pit bulls are very people-loving dogs,” Harmon said.
He said pit bulls are subject to unfair stereotypes and media messages.
“The problem is, every time there’s an incident with a pit, it makes the news, and that’s not the case with other breeds,” he said.
Harmon said it’s all about the environment the animal learns in, but that doesn’t mean it’s wired that way for life.
He said many of the animals they get calls about have issues with anxiety or fear, and many can be taken care of by training.
He did say, however, that sometimes there’s nothing that can be done.
“There’s a very small percentage of cases that we’ve seen where it is genetics — where the wiring is off,” he said. “But most of the time there are things you could do to work with the dog.”
Poitras said owners who feel their dog is becoming dangerous should consult a professional.
Dillender said many behaviors like aggression and extreme fear should be taken care of, but he warned not to automatically think the dog is troubled.
“Giving people a laundry list of signals that says, ‘this is a problem, this is a problem, this is a problem,’ is setting a lot of people up to get really paranoid about their dogs for no good reason,” he said.
He said owners should be aware of what is normal for their dog. He said dogs are complex creatures that cannot be easily put into categories.
“A dog’s behavior is always contextual,” Dillender said. “One behavior in one context can mean one thing and the exact same behavior in a different context can mean an entirely different issue.”
Harmon said any change in behavior should lead the owner to get a medical check. He said sometimes animals have increased anxiety when something is physically wrong.
He also recommended getting animals spayed or neutered. He said it tends to limit aggression and has health benefits, like preventing certain diseases.
He said the best way to tell if your dog is troubled is to look at how it interacts with its environment. If the dog is spooked by strangers, overly aggressive at times, nervous during walks or barks excessively, that dog is communicating that something is wrong — and eventually that dog will try to remedy the situation, dangerous or not.
Debra Horwitz, a veterinarian and veterinary behaviorist, said it’s all about communication.
She recommends thinking from the dog’s perspective.
“People have become less aware of what normal pet behavior is,” she said.
She said something like growling isn’t necessarily a red flag for a bad dog.
“What it means is that the dog is uncomfortable with the situation,” she said. “It doesn’t mean the dog is bad.”
One of Poitras’ latest cases involved a dog that was communicating anxiety, but was considered by others to just be a bad dog.
Poitras came in to the situation after the verdict had already been decided –Zero had to be taken to a rescue facility or be put down.
Zero had repeatedly gotten out of his 6-foot outdoor kennel and ran through the neighborhood. The last time he had, he chased after a boy on a bike.
The judge had decided Zero was a dangerous dog, but Zero’s family wasn’t willing to give up, so they called Best Friends.
After numerous letters from the organization, hiring a lawyer and getting a new judge, the family was eventually allowed to continue their work with Poitras to see if it would help.
Poitras recognized that Zero was so attached to his family that he had severe separation anxiety. After a few weeks of training, Zero was given another hearing.
On the condition that he and the family continue training sessions, Zero was deemed a safe dog.
For people looking for more information, Poitras recommended visiting the Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s Web site at www.apdt.com. She also recommends “Dog-Friendly Dog Training,” a book by Andrea Arden.
Dog trainers in the area
- Cathy Hawkins, Certified Pet Dog Trainer, 862-3248
- All About Dawgs, 844-7506
- All Dogs and Company, 883-3485
- Springfield Side Kick Dog Training, 866-6490
- Carolyn Krause, 866-2088
- Paws Express Dog Training, 848-8863
- Bark Busters, 724-0907
- On The ‘Spot’ Dog Training, 581-2787
Hmm…it is interesting, but I disagree with some of it. My two inside dogs are my children, but they have to follow the rules of the house. I completely understand that dogs run in a pack & in order for them to be happy they have to know who is boss & where they stand in the “pack”. I teach all my dogs the same simple commands, & they all learn to follow them or there are consequences. Yes, there are some dog owners that believe that their dogs can do no wrong, but not every single owner that considers their dogs their children think that. I sure don’t I am actually stricter with my dogs then I am with my adopted daughter.
Hmm…not my two. They know when I say sit, they sit. When I say bedtime, they go to their room. When I say no or drop it, they will either stop what they are doing or drop what they have in their mouth. I taught them this from the very beginning. Along with taking things from my hand with a soft mouth. Also they learned that no matter what they had I would & could take it away from them. It doesn’t matter if they had a piece of raw meat, if I wanted it back, I could reach down & take it from them & put my hand right next to their mouth without saying a word & they wouldn’t do a thing except let me have it. The same goes for my 70lb. Siberian Husky/German Shepard mix outside. All you have to do is show them who is the pack leader & where they stand in the pack. I never had to have a dog trainer for that. My dogs do it because they choose to do it because they want to. I am a mistress not a owner. There is a difference.