The story I am about to tell you is true, the names have been changed to protect the foolish (albeit well-intentioned).
I was contacted by the owner, I’ll call her Sally, of a large, live stock guarding, mixed breed, dog. The dog had recently started biting her boyfriend Carl, who was also a member of the household. I was recommended to them by their vet who understood that aggression is often a by-product of, or caused by fear. There was talk of euthanizing the dog.
When I arrived at the house I saw a dog who though not very engaged with the people he lived with, did not appear extremely anxious or fearful. I asked Carl to call the dog and Fluffy complied with the request, his reticence understandable given the sternness in Carl’s voice, but he did go to him and once there seemed happy to accept pets and scratches. I found myself thinking, “The dog actually seems to like the guy.” The biting incidents, which had never torn clothing or punctured skin occurred either during or soon after Carl rolled the dog over on his side and held him down. The target of the bite was Carl’s arm. The reason for Carl’s behavior was because the dog would not ‘calm down’ when greeting him, or would not respond when aroused by other dogs going by outside the house. I also learned that Fluffy had been diagnosed with a tick-borne disease, one of the symptoms being ‘painful joints and neck’.
I didn’t need more information to come to the conclusion that the ‘alpha-rolling’ needed to stop. Whether the dog had finally gotten fed up with being restrained (it’s important to note that it requires a fair amount of force to hold down an 80lb dog who does not want to be held down), was being scared by the handling or the illness had made it physically painful, didn’t matter. The technique is not useful and as they were seeing, dangerous. Fluffy, in my opinion, had shown a lot of restraint himself. A dog his size could have easily separated Carl’s nose from his face, had he been inclined to do so. And Fluffy’s life was now on the line.
I offered other suggestions regarding how Fluffy’s life could be improved and everyone could be happier, but I could sense resistance from Sally and Carl. Both were skeptical that Carl’s handling of the dog was responsible for Fluffy’s response, he was just doing what the ‘people at the 7/11’ had told him to do. I will repeat that in a different way. Carl was following the advice given to him by people who either worked or shopped at a local convenience store.
Many of the opportunities we have for networking using social media is like the 7/11, it’s convenient and we often find what we need. If you’re reading labels on over the counter medications because your toddler has had a fever for two days, isn’t eating and is lethargic, you might bump into a pediatrician who can give you good advice. But the best advice you’d get is, “Your kid is sick, call your doctor.”
Online chats and forums can be great places to connect with people:
“I love cocker spaniels too!”
“Found a great deal on dog treats.”
“Check out this cute video.”
Using them to find solutions to potentially dangerous medical or behavioral problems is as the saying goes, “Penny wise, pound foolish.”
According to Dr. Karen Overall more dogs are euthanized because of behavioral issues than medical ones. That being the case, seeking the assistance of a professional in regard to challenging behavior is as important as consulting with a vet when a dog is sick. When you have questions about how to handle behavioral issues with your dog seek out professional trainers who have a solid foundation in reward-based training techniques. There are plenty of self-described trainers, behaviorists, dog psychologists and whisperers who may only make the problem worse.
A good trainer will help you diagnose the cause of the problem, based on an education in animal behavior as researched by scientists and ethologists, not on current pop knowledge of dogs and why they do the things they do. They will provide you with techniques to help you manage your dog, without using pain or intimidation, while you progress with skill building and changing responses. They will also not hesitate to direct you to another trainer who has more experience with a particular behavioral challenge, especially dangerous or life threatening ones.
When your dog’s life or safety, or the safety of those around her are on the line, you, or your dog, may end up paying too much for free advice.