Podcast Episode 46: Problems without Resolutions
This episode discusses problems without resolutions. A skilled dog trainer can address many challenges with dogs successfully. However, with experience comes perspective and a deeper understanding of what can and can’t be addressed through training. Some problems are simply not fixable. Sometimes management is the only viable option, and failing to understand that just causes frustration. Also, in some cases, a dog may be inherently unsafe to live with, and the answer is, unfortunately, predetermined. We discuss some unfixable scenarios that are easy to manage and some sobering, sad cases where euthanasia was the only responsible solution.
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Podcast Transcript: Problems without Resolutions
This podcast transcript was created using Sonix.ai.
Hello, this is Ralf from Happy Dog Training, and welcome to another episode of Dog Talk. Today we’re going to talk about problems without resolutions. Well, what do I mean by that? There are a lot of things we can fix with dogs. There are a lot of training solutions. We can apply a lot of things. We can train a lot of things. We can suppress a lot of behaviors. We can modify things.
We Can’t Fix Everything
There are also many things where no amount of training will change anything. And some of these situations are the most heartbreaking. But others are just unfortunate and relatively easy to live with; if you can just come to terms with that, some management is needed. I want to talk about some of my experiences over the last 19 years and what I’ve seen. The things I’ve learned and how my views and opinions have changed.
Dog Trainers Need Humility
Further, I want to provide some insights and perspective on how to look at behavioral problems in dogs because that’s usually what we’re dealing with when we’re talking about things that may not have a solution like we’re looking for or what we’re hoping for. So first thing, I’ll be the first to admit that when I was a less experienced trainer, I was newer to the business or the industry, maybe five years in or so. I thought I could fix anything. This seems like a dog trainer disease. And I had it.
I got cured of that by being humbled by dogs. So the more experience you have, the longer you do this job, the more dogs you meet, and the more situations and problems you see. And the more you learn about genetics and ethology and evolutionary biology. Just the limits of what’s possible and understanding the root of some of these scenarios better, the more you realize that some things are just not meant to be.
And it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It’s not that we’re always talking about terminal solutions where the dog has to say bye. This is not even about that. Sometimes we as dog owners must accept that our dog is more of a special-needs dog. And some things are just not realistic.
Challenges with Insecure Dogs
The most common thing is probably insecure dogs. A lot of people rescue dogs from shelters, and that’s a beautiful thing. There’s nothing wrong with it. I rescued many of my personal pets from shelters. And if you’re looking for a companion pet, this is a perfectly fine thing to do. The equation changes somewhat when looking for a working dog, but with a pet, rescue. No problem. But many of those dogs you get from the shelter come with insecurities. There is a broad range of reasons why these dogs have insecurities.
There is no one size fits all answer. And it can be as simple as a dog moving in and out of the shelter, being adopted, coming back. That creates insecurity. Several families are rejecting the dog. He doesn’t know where he belongs. It is not necessarily good for a weaker mind.
In contrast, that would probably not affect a very solid mind. But most dogs don’t have that, so they are more in the normal range, and being rejected a lot impacts them. But that’s one factor that can play into it.
The Role of Genetics
Then there’s genetics, which is always a factor when it comes to insecurity. A solid, secure dog will not be as affected even if the environment ends up sucking or not finding a good home for him. If the dog is sound, it probably won’t affect him that much. But if a dog is somewhat mellower or softer genetically, all these things have a more significant impact.
And you only realize that once you’ve seen some well-bred dogs and seen how they recover from things and what they are faced or not faced by. To understand the difference, you have to see it. Because until you see it, it doesn’t really make as much sense. Understand how much genetics plays a role in this. If the dog is solid and sound, there’s not much you can do to change that or screw that up.
Building Confidence in Dogs
But okay, there are many reasons why dogs may be insecure. But let’s say you have an insecure dog in your home and hire a dog trainer. You want to build your dog’s confidence up. These are all good things. And dog training can help depending on what approach you’re taking. There will be a limit on how far you can take it. You can always make a dog better. That has always been the case with any insecure dog I’ve had as a client. They always get better. How much better? You don’t know until you start.
I tell all of my clients that we will run up against the limit eventually. And it’s going to be slower in the beginning. Most likely, the dog has to build some trust. And then we’re going to see the confidence rise. And at some point, we’re going to plateau. And we may increase a little bit further, and we’ll plateau. But at some point, we’re going to hit a plateau we’re not going to go past. And the dog will probably not be a social butterfly at this point. So he’ll be better at this point if it’s done right. But he probably will not be as secure as the dog owner may have hoped for.
Setting Realistic Expectations
And this is a conversation I always have before I even take dogs like that on as clients because it’s a bad idea to set unrealistic expectations. But again, something that comes with experience. A less experienced trainer often promises the blue out of the sky and says we can fix everything. When in reality, well, maybe we can fix some of it. But it is unlikely that we will fix all of it with regards to insecurity.
Now, surprises are always possible. I’ve been surprised that dogs have gone further than I thought they would, and I’ve been surprised with dogs that didn’t go as far as I thought they would. So it can go both directions, although the ones that go further than I think is more common, probably because I’m more conservative in my estimates. But I’ve had a case or two here, but a dog didn’t quite get as far as I thought. That is possible but not the most common thing. So that’s one thing.
Insecure Dogs Can Have Great Lives
And when you have a dog like that, you have to be okay with that. There is no solution beyond building him up to the extent possible. And then the dog will have a good life with his family. He maybe has a couple of dog friends. Perhaps he makes a few more. He may have a couple of additional human friends. Maybe he makes some more, and that’s it.
And he has a great life and can have some freedom within the realm of what he can handle. And that’s his life. And that’s a good life. There’s nothing wrong with that. Can he go to every coffee shop with the owner? Probably not. Can he go to every dog park? Probably not. Will he like everybody? Most definitely not. But we can be okay with these things if we adjust our expectations. There is no resolution to fixing that dog because there’s no more confidence in there. We’re going to run up against limits. It’s the thing that has become politically incorrect to say out loud. But it doesn’t change the reality that genetics set limits.
We All Have Limitations
I’m a very talented person. I can learn lots of things. I could learn how to play the piano probably reasonably well. I will never be Beethoven. I will never be Mozart. It’s not in me. I don’t have that. I don’t have that special ingredient that made Mozart, Mozart, and Beethoven, Beethoven.
Same with tennis. I enjoy playing tennis. I’m not that great at it. I could probably get better if I played it more regularly. I’ll never be Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, or whoever is at the top of the charts these days. These are all the names from when I was younger, but I will never be at that level because I’m not a tennis genius.
We All Have Areas of Expertise
And this is with so many things. I have my specialties. I have fields in which I shine, areas where I’m better than others. These are my specialties, and dog training is one of them. There are limits to how far anyone can go. Even though we can learn lots of things and we can explore.
So if you even take it from a human perspective, many people go to Toastmasters to become better at presenting. Presentation is an excellent skill, and you can improve at it. You can gain some confidence in speaking in front of groups, and maybe you become an expert and end up loving it. It’s possible. But most people become confident enough to do what they need for their job. And that’s that. And they never really love it. They just become comfortable enough so they can do it without anxiety. And that’s their limit. There is nothing wrong with having some limitations. You have to be okay with them.
You don’t have to know everything and be able to do everything. That’s not realistic. Nobody can do everything and knows everything. So nobody can learn everything to the highest level of skill. And that’s the same with a dog. So we have to be okay with these limitations. There are no other resolutions beyond that with an insecure animal.
Challenges with Food-Aggression in Dogs
Let me give you another example before we get to some more sober situations I have in mind. Another one I mentioned, we have a whole podcast on this, and I don’t want to rehash that here, but it’s food aggression. So with food aggression, this is often a genetic predisposition. Now, if it comes in a package with other possessive, aggressive behaviors, you can fix those possessive, aggressive behaviors through training. And it could end up that the food aggression goes away with that. Or it could be that the food aggression sticks around after the possessive, aggressive behavior resolves. Because if it is a genetic predisposition, you’ll never get rid of it.
Nonsense on the Internet
And then you have these situations, especially with more inexperienced trainer groups, where we have the ones who want to come at it with prong collars and e-collars and other tools and suppress it at the moment where the dog shows the aggressive behavior towards the food item or the person or towards the other dog. And it can be successful at the moment to suppress a behavior like that. And other people will suggest, and the Internet is full of this, and this is silly advice, but hand-feed the dog. Stick your hand in the food bowl when they are puppies. Show them you are the boss and can take their food so they don’t become food aggressive. These are things you read on the Internet.
False Sense of Success
I’m not giving you this advice. I’m just saying these are things that are out there. And when you mess with a puppy’s food, you’re far more likely to create food aggression than prevent it. Please don’t mess with your dog’s food; let them eat peacefully. But if a dog is food-aggressive, none of that genetic predisposition can be changed by doing any of those things or even suppressing aggressive outbursts over food items.
Yes, you can stop it at the moment. But you have no guarantee that it won’t happen again. You could even get to a scenario where he stops doing it for a while over bones. Then all of a sudden, it comes back. So if it’s a genetic predisposition, you’ll never have the safety and security of eradicating it because it’s impossible. If you just come to terms with that, your dog must eat in a separate room or his crate, and you won’t bother him until he’s done; you’ll be a much happier dog owner. Your dog will eat in peace, and you will have no problem because food aggression does not branch out a whole lot. If it’s a genetic predisposition, that’s what it is. The dog is food-aggressive. Let him eat in peace, and you have no issues.
Most Food-Aggressive Dogs are Awesome Otherwise
Food-aggressive dogs tend to be awesome outside this one thing, so just don’t bother them while eating. It is straightforward to manage. It’s not a problematic thing to manage at all. You just have to come to terms with that. That’s who my dog is. So I just let him eat in peace, which you should be doing anyway, because we shouldn’t mess with our dog’s food. Just let them eat in peace. Just with a food-aggressive dog, it’s paramount that you don’t screw up on that front.
But they usually give you a look first that indicates; don’t touch that. So you can generally catch yourself if you forget your dog reminds you in this scenario. But this is not something you can fix. So it’s not a fixable problem. It’s just who your dog is.
Food-Aggression is an Evolutionarily Successful Trait
And it’s not an uncommon trait either because food aggression is an evolutionarily very successful trade. It’s a good attribute for a dog to be food aggressive in the wild. Defending your resources and being willing to do it is very beneficial. So there are benefits to a dog being food-aggressive. There are plenty of dogs that are. Keep in mind that when we live in a Western world where the dogs live in our homes with us, and there are not a lot of strays, this is not the norm on the planet.
There are probably three-quarters of a billion dogs running around. And only a third of them live in homes with people. But that’s like half a billion dogs running around in this world in the wild. It’s an evolutionarily successful trait for them to be able to defend their resources. So it’s not that we’ll see that go away anytime soon. It’s a thing that we, as dog owners, have to come to terms with. And don’t despair. There’s nothing to worry about. Just understand it and manage it. It’s straightforward to manage. Nothing to worry about if you just pay attention to that. So that’s a couple of things, anxiety, aggression.
Challenges with Medical Causes of Aggression
Now, let’s talk about other, more tragic things that are not fixable. You could end up with a dog, even from a breeder. Not uncommon. That ends up being wacky, and wacky is not a scientific term, is it now? But what I mean by being wacky is you could have a dog with neurological problems. And his neurological issues could lead to sudden aggressive outbursts. That’s not that common. I’ve probably worked with 1500 dogs in my lifetime as a dog trainer for over 19 years. And I’ve seen 4 or 5 of those, and I’m just one person. There’s a good number out there. Based on extrapolation to all the dog trainers and dogs out there.
Dogs with Neurological Problems
If I see five in nineteen years. I don’t know the average, but there’s more than that. But you can have dogs that are just wired wrong, and they have sudden aggressive outbursts. You don’t know that necessarily initially. You can’t even determine that if the dog is from a breeder and has, per se, decent genetics. You look at the parents; you look at the grandparents, and there are no behavioral issues. So, in that case, it’s unlikely for that to be the case. But it’s not impossible. So you could end up with a dog that is just off. And it could be that just one dog is a little off. Or it could be the entire litter that has this problem.
t becomes a little easier to identify if it’s all the dogs in the litter because you’ll see a pattern. But it could be just your dog while the others don’t have that, or they have it to a lesser extent. So I’ve seen several scenarios where that was the case. And on one particular case, it was the entire litter, and all the dog owners figured that out at some point. And I think they sued the breeder. And the breeder may not have done anything wrong either. It’s not even that the person was at fault. I don’t know how it ultimately ended. I know the dog was euthanized, but who knows if the lawsuit went forward? But it’s a thing that can happen.
There’s a genetic defect that can happen. And it will take a while to sort out because when you first see it, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. You’re approaching it from oh, my dog is showing some aggressive behaviors. They’re not going to explode from one day to the other. And he’s not going to try to kill someone, most likely, from one second to the next.
It’s just going to start with minor things as the dog matures. And you’re thinking, Oh, okay, let’s get some training. And your trainer comes in, you start working, maybe even see improvement. But if it is a genetic defect. That training will ultimately not be able to prevent that. It’s just going to blow up at some point. And I had a scenario once with an Akita. He was a nice dog, and he seemed to respond to training.
He had a lovely family. And they loved their dog. The dog was about 14, I think, 14 months old or something like that. If I’m not mistaken, he could have been even younger and ten months old. I forgot. It was a long time ago. At least over ten years. That dog ended up being neurologically damaged. Or genetically damaged.
The Entire Litter Had The Same Defect
The entire litter he was from was, was not right. So by the time my clients contacted the rest of the dog owners who adopted or purchased these dogs from the breeder. I think it was six in total. Three had already been euthanized. The fourth one was going through similar issues. They ended up euthanizing their dog because it was too dangerous to live with this animal.
The Incident That Changed Things
Just real quick, what happened? So you don’t think it was just something minor? It was not. The dog was lying on the floor while the whole family was sitting in the living room. And all of a sudden, there was nothing, nothing going on. I mean, no TV on, no talking, just reading. It was a quiet evening, and the dog was lying on the floor at one end of the room. Suddenly it got up, ran across the room, and tried to kill the teenage son. Luckily the father was a strong, big guy. I think he is ex-military, and he could grab this Akita, wrangle him to the ground, secure him, and throw him out outside and save his son. But that was a completely unprovoked attack that has no explanation.
They went through medical testing. I suggested a thyroid test because that’s one of those things that can drive aggressive behaviors; thyroid dysfunction, over and under function. And if that’s it, there’s a medication that’s easy to deal with. You just have to give the medicine and you’re good. But the thyroid was okay in this case. The other options are brain tumors or neurological damage. Genetic damage in this case.
It could also happen from an accident, just like with a person. People have become violently aggressive after brain trauma. So it’s things like that occur in the human realm as well. But in this case, it was genetic. And it was a very sad story. And the decision for the family was difficult. I was there for them the whole time, and we talked a lot, but there was ultimately no answer. It was when this happened. This incident happened. You just knew there was no safety to be had here. It is entirely unsustainable to live with this animal. He will seriously injure or kill somebody if you do not euthanize him, and you can’t put him anywhere else, either. It was just one of those stories where there is no fixing it.
Often It’s Noones Fault
And it was, per se, not anyone’s fault either. And as I said, I don’t know how at fault the breeder was. If the breeder bred something he shouldn’t have, I don’t know. But let’s assume not because it’s not necessarily a given that the breeder screwed up. I wouldn’t start with that assumption. There would have to be some evidence that that happened. But there’s not necessarily anybody at fault. And it’s just a very, very sad situation.
There is no resolution other than, sadly, to euthanize the dog. And that’s, again, a situation that has no different answer. Because what you have to do is not a solution; it just ends the problem. But it’s not what you’re looking for. You’re not fixing anything. You just need to make sure you’re safe. And there are other scenarios.
Challenges with Dogs Without Impulse Control
I once worked with a dog that was willing to attack when he didn’t like something. Most dogs, when they don’t like something and let’s say you want to try to put them in a crate and they don’t like it, they’ll turn around and try to nip you. That’s not uncommon per se. That’s fairly normal. But this dog I’m thinking of, that wasn’t his response. His response was, “You must die.” That was his response. So his response to I don’t want to do this is, I’m going to kill you.
And I had a great relationship with this dog. I’ve worked with this dog for a while, and he loved me. We had fun playing and working. We had a great relationship when this happened. It happened out of the blue. It was very unexpected. It surprised me. Obviously, I made it. I’m still here. But it was a serious situation that arose at that moment, and we didn’t know it before because the case had never happened.
I just asked him to go in his crate, and that day he decided I didn’t want to. The same crate he’s walked into many, many times. No problem. That day he decided I didn’t want to. And if you try to make me. Well, you got to go. It’s a situation where you just in good conscience cannot give this dog to anybody if he’s willing to do that to someone he likes and enjoys being with. In a blink of an eye. What is he going to do to a stranger? Right. Somebody who doesn’t know how to handle a dog, protect himself, or secure a dog. Make sure you don’t get bitten any further.
And it’s a situation again that is super sad because I really liked this dog. This was a very sad day for me, but it was a dog that belonged to a rescue, so I had to talk to them about this and said, you cannot adopt this dog out. It’s just not going to be safe. It’s going to end badly, and somebody ends up dead, if you do that. It’s one of those things that is sad, super unfortunate. It’s unfair to the dog, but you can’t live with this animal.
You can’t have anybody else live with this animal, either. It’s just not safe. And you can’t have an animal like that in your house that could potentially end your life. The dog had to be euthanized, and I was there with him. All the way, to the end, because I did like this dog a lot. To me, that was actually a cool dog. But. It’s just not something you can safely live with human beings in a home anywhere.
Dog Trainers Must Understand Their Limits
So it’s situations like these where dog trainers come in being very cocky about what they can do and what we can accomplish [cause real harm]. We can punish this and suppress that and fix this and fix that and change this behavior and change that behavior. Be wary of people who promise you the blue out of the sky. There should always be a nuance in any behavioral discussion that you have. It’s not that you do this one training thing, and suddenly everything’s perfect. It’s usually a process and a journey if things can be changed. And there’s a possibility that you only get to some degree of where you want to be. And you can’t fix it to the entire extent you want.
And the same goes when you end up on a medication route. It’s like the veterinary behaviorist with all the drugs. It’s unlikely that that will fix anything. Yes, you can dull the dog’s mind, and maybe he becomes more sedate, but anybody becomes less active when you partially sedate them.
So it’s not really a solution. The dog can’t tell you that it feels horrible. Now, a person could tell you these drugs make me feel weird, right? A dog can’t tell you this. A dog will just be sleepy or will not walk as much, or be less active. And maybe because of that, less jumpy. But is he better? Not really. Well, it’s like a false sense of the dog’s better.
But again, veterinary behaviorists often promise you give this drug, and it’s all going to be fixed by this drug. And no, it’s not. It’s another thing where we can’t fix everything. Not everything has a resolution that we would prefer because you want your dog to be happy and healthy, live a great life, do as much as possible, and have a rich experience, be a happy family member.
Dog Owners Deserve Honesty
So when you seek help in training, with a behaviorist, or whatever path you choose. You’re hoping for a resolution that gets you what you want. And if somebody tells you, I don’t think you can get there. This is realistic, but what you’re looking for is probably unrealistic. Maybe we get lucky, but we can get 80% of that. That’s perhaps a more realistic answer than somebody who comes in telling you, well, we can fix everything, and you have to be the leader, and we suppress this, and we suppress that, and it’s all going to be okay. You just have to be the leader.
It’s Important tTo Be Realistic
That’s unrealistic, and it sets you up for disappointment as a dog owner and your dog up for failure. It’s just not fair to either one of you. Being realistic about what we can fix and can’t, what we need to manage, and how we best do it is critical when dealing with behavioral issues. And as I said at the beginning of this, we can fix many things. So it’s not that you have to live with and manage most behaviors, but that seems to be advocated a lot by the veterinary behaviorist crowd these days; manage everything. And I’m 100% opposed to that. So if you listen to the last podcast on animal welfare, I think it’s an animal welfare problem to believe we must manage things. We should fix what we can fix.
This podcast is about being realistic about what can be fixed and what can’t be fixed. 90% to 95% of problems you may have with your dog can probably be resolved successfully. This is more about the 5% where you really can’t. And about seeing what those are. Identifying what those are. And it is not making your life more difficult and being disappointed and frustrated by not getting to the promised solution by a so-called professional. So be wary of the we-can-fix-it-all solution. That’s my whole message.
We can fix a lot, especially skilled trainers, when we have a lot of experience and worked with many dogs. And that’s the thing. A lot of working experience with dogs, from start to finish, goes a long way. This is the biggest downside of going to a veterinary behaviorist, especially initially, because they don’t interact with dogs. You have a consultation that’s half an hour, and then you end up with a prescription, and that’s it. That’s not understanding what normal dog behavior is. Dog trainers who interact with dogs all day know what behavior in a dog is normal and which is not.
A behaviorist who reads about what’s standard may not be able to judge that well because reading about it is one thing; working with dogs is another. The more experience, hands-on experience someone has with dogs, the more likely they’ll give you a realistic assessment of what’s feasible, realistic, and elusive with a particular situation. A more balanced and nuanced answer is more likely closer to the truth. There are always exceptions, but as a general rule, nuanced possibilities are more realistic, even if they ultimately do not apply to your dog, and you get lucky, and things work out.
Being informed of what could potentially happen, go wrong, or not work out is what professional people will usually do when they have consultations about presented challenges. It’s just like a doctor trying to tell you about all the side effects and risk factors of a procedure you may have. If you go to a highly skilled surgeon and have a pretty standard surgery at a reputable hospital, the risk they outline will be very low, just not zero.
Suppose you get a surgeon who came out of medical school last year and works at a community hospital with an average reputation. In that case, the risk of these side effects or these injuries from that surgery is probably higher. There is an average for a reason. Some are higher. Some have lower. So it’s always about the skill set of the person you’re talking to get an assessment of what’s realistically going to happen or what potentially could go wrong or not work out. So look at it in the same realm.
Okay, so that’s it for today. It was hopefully insightful and gave you some perspective if you’re dealing with a dog challenge on how you should look at it and what you should look out for when you start interviewing dog trainers in your area that you may want to work with on this. I hope you found it interesting. You got something out of it, and I see you again next time. Bye.