Taking Risks with Your Dog (Part 2)
We often think about the risks to our own dog - but what risks might our dog pose to other dogs? What's the ethical and responsible thing to do if your dog fights with other dogs, even if he doesn't hurt them?
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Because there is no such thing as a cure for behavior, short of euthanasia. This is one reason why the Certified Professional Dog Trainers’ code of ethics bars us from guaranteeing results. The best that behavior modification and training can accomplish is to switch around your dog’s behavioral repertoire so that more appropriate behaviors are front and center, while problem behaviors move to the back burner. Those behaviors may never move to the front burner again, but we can’t take them off the stove completely.
It’s true that any dog can be pushed to the point of inflicting a damaging bite. But a dog who has already done so in the context of normal social interaction presents a much higher risk of causing future injury than a dog who hasn’t. We can’t play games with other dogs’ well-being.
Should You Ever Let an Injury-Causing Dog Play with Other Dogs?
It may still be possible to allow your dog off-leash time and even play with other dogs. The off-leash time could take place in a securely fenced area. Your dog might be taught to enjoy wearing a high-quality basket muzzle with little chance of slipping off, and then have closely supervised play time with a dog friend. But even that latter’s a bit of a gray area. Make sure the other dog’s guardian understands your dog’s history so he can make an informed assessment of the risk to his dog.
Dogs Who Squabble Often
What about a more marginal situation? Consider a person who blows her stack often. Even if she never hits anybody and doesn’t carry a gun, we still might think she has an anger problem. What if your dog squabbles often at the dog park? Should he continue to attend, even if he inflicts minimal injuries or none?
To answer a question with a question: Are physical injuries the only thing we should focus on here? If Zippy has the canine equivalent of a hair-trigger temper, he’s taking the fun out of off-leash time for many other dogs. Dogs who have experienced one or more of his explosions may feel anxious when he shows up again. In a very large off-leash area – I’m talking acres and acres here – they may have plenty of scope to avoid him. In a typical big-city dog run, they’re stuck dealing with his outbursts.
Behavioral Damage to Other Dogs
Also, some dogs, more sensitive than the average, may suffer long-lasting behavioral damage after being on the receiving end of an unexpected explosion. As an example, suppose Zippy is hot-tempered and possessive of sticks he finds on the ground. Dogalini wanders by, at a distance of 10 feet and taking no interest in Zippy or his stick, but Zippy reacts by springing up, snarling, and knocking her down. After this experience, Dogalini starts shying away from other dogs who look like Zippy. Not a good outcome.
Now, if you’re Zippy’s guardian, you might be tempted to argue that a delicate flower like Dogalini isn’t best suited for the free-for-all of public off-leash areas. And you have a point. But the fact remains that Dogalini’s behavior at the dog park was not harmful to other dogs, whereas Zippy’s behavior did do harm.
It’s Hard to Be Honest About Risk
As you can see, judging risk is an ethical question as much as anything else. Because dogs are so sociable and for the most part get along well with us and with each other, it’s easy to forget that – like us – they can sometimes behave in dangerous ways. Maybe it’s especially easy to forget that, when so many dogs are bred to be “cute” and when tabloid celebrities use them to accessorize. It’s also tempting to deny potential dangers if we equate “behaves aggressively sometimes” with “is bad.” But it’s more than possible for a dog to be a valuable and well-loved member of your family even if an honest assessment of his behavior tells you that it’s not safe to let him interact with other dogs. My dog, Juniper, is wonderful with people but even as a puppy was aggressive toward other dogs. He can make friends with some dogs if carefully introduced, but he can't safely mingle at the dog park. So I don't take him for off-leash play in areas with other dogs. Period.
Next week, the hottest of hot subjects: How dangerous are dogs to kids? And how should we respond to any risk? Meanwhile, stop by and see me (or at least my avatar) on Facebook, and you can also write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future episodes. Thanks for reasing and listening!