Killing with Kindness

The vast majority of dogs we see from rescues, evaluate in shelters and get in for training that have fear aggression, aggression or reactivity issues have two main problems...certain genetic factors and lots of kindness shared with them.  


This is a tough one to communicate properly, though the concept is simple.  Dogs that are not taught a solid “no”, but get lots of love, pets, play and treats end up in shelters, passed to another family or worse.  Dogs, just like people, need to learn boundaries and a fair “no” taught from a house that they mostly respect with a relative balance between fun and freedom vs structure and accountability.  Notice I didn’t say tons of structure and discipline.  That isn’t required for most dog’s initially...and I mean that truly!  I’m not this person that believes in a ridiculously strict protocol for how dogs live.  BUT I have to teach that to try to help owners reshape their relationships that are often born of freedom, love and treat work only.  It’s not forever for most dog’s (some exceptions with human aggression towards owners) but after our program, owners will always need to find that aspect of mostly respect with a relative balance between fun and freedom vs structure and accountability.  That balance will be different for each individual dog in their situation.  Even where they live makes a huge difference.


Now I know that many of you share love through kindness and discipline.  If so, this post is not for you.  This post is to explain most dog’s we see for training where the owners got a puppy or a shelter dog, gave the dog pets, maybe couch time his first night, showed the pup where the food and water was, left the crate open to make the dog comfy, let the dog explore the house, let the child hug the dog, left lots of toys and chews on the floor, let the dog pull to meet the neighbors and neighbor dogs, started treat based only classes and let their dog explore where they want to get comfortable.  Lots and lots of kindness right?! Sounds like a pretty good life ❤️


It’s not.


It’s a life that breeds insecurity through a lack of guidance.  It encourages seeking defiance through lack of properly taught boundaries with accountability and consistency.  When dogs are given freedom, their brain gets accustomed to that and they push and push as a natural animal instinct.  They feel they are in control, won’t listen to anyone when it matters and can become aggressive or very insecure.  They need your help.  They need your love to also mean leadership through guidance and discipline.  When people hear discipline they often think punishment.  I mean discipline as many things.  Discipline is consistency so you don’t breed anxiety.  It’s sharing your praise and your “no”s at the right time.  It’s knowing how and when to reward and how to communicate “no” properly.  Otherwise you get stuck in this pattern of freedom and fun with emotional high’s of disappointment, yelling and not understanding why your dog does the things he does.  

I say this because I know many of you out there have fallen into that trap getting a dog from a rescue or shelter or have had to give up your own dog raised as a puppy because of serious issues that developed.  If you are wondering what happened, it’s possible you shared the wrong type of love.  This post is not to blame anyone.  I have met with so many tear stained faces over the years when their dog killed their cat, bit their child, drags them down the street and they fall or the are getting evicted because of barking.  All of these things are difficult for anyone to navigate and I understand not everyone can keep their dog or overcome the issues that developed.  I hope that this post serves more as a future lesson for some of you and provides hope for many others that they CAN turn their lives around with their dog.  They just have to be willing to change…and sometimes those changes have to be big.  


The photo I used is of a rescue dog we worked with for 1 month named Dutch.  He was fearful and showing signs of aggression at the shelter when pushed.  It took him a LONG time to warm up to us.  He wouldn’t warm up to anyone.  It was evident we weren’t going to gain his trust anytime soon, even with food.  He was on a food strike even though he was already very thin.  This worried us and we needed to get him comfortable and eating quickly.  It wasn’t love and freedom and food.  We gained trust with him by being a strong leader and gaining respect.  We did that by teaching him place command and not being allowed to get up when-ever he wanted.  We taught him to respect us by teaching him to walk next to us and not smell where he wanted.  We also taught him to respect us by not allowing him to check out every dog he saw (he would bond with dogs quickly, but not humans).  These are pretty large boundaries we had to re-enforce daily.  It made him grow in confidence quickly because he was learning what he could and couldn’t do.  The biggest effect seemed to be him learning to trust us because since we were controlling his environment, he wasn’t so scared of walking by people, bikes, noises, etc.  He knew we consistently would guide him and hold him accountable and in return, that made him feel safer.  This was all before he’d take food from us and work for food.  Before long he was looking to us for guidance and eating eagerly, even from our hands.  By week two we were counter conditioning petting him on the head with food, working on “come” and by week four he was seeking out new people to smell with all of our food counter conditioning work we did.  Everything works together.  The concept is simple, but the execution can be hard.  He is a true success story and went to an incredibly dedicated family that already has a good deal of experience with dogs and animals. 

If anyone is wondering where I have seen the things I am explaining…it comes from working with dog and animal owners since I was very young, more then 20 years and working in rescues for a decade.  It is challenging, but rewarding work.  I just want to help people and keep dogs in their current homes.  It also comes from knowing animal control officers over the years and other trainer’s experiences.  In our current culture, most dogs right now, we are killing with kindness.  


Bethany Wilson

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