Our Permissiveness With Dogs is Always the Issue
As I write this, our country is again divided on an issue around dogs. This time, one or two dogs in Utah ripped off a boy’s arm and possibly ingested it. The news has created many sides of the story, but let’s go with what the parents are saying because the father was the only one that directly witnessed the events.
What they claim is that their son was playing near the fence with mittens on. At one point, one of the dogs, apparently Huskies, reached under a small breach in the fence line near where the little boy was playing, grabbed the boy’s hand and began pulling it back under the fence. The boy’s father couldn’t get the dog to release the boy until he distracted the dogs from above the fence enough for whichever dog had hold of the arm to release it.
The fate of the dogs is at stake, the boy and his father are most certainly traumatized, and this young boy’s life is forever changed.
What I know is that barriers, including fences, doors, windows, walls, and even leashes, can be significant breeding grounds for frustration. That frustration can incite acts of aggression in a dog that might not otherwise act out with such intensity. Nearly every single day in most parts of the country I’ve been to, I come across dogs behind barriers who are completely pent up with frustration. In my own neighborhood, several dogs spend entire days in yards behind fences barking all day long. The dogs are so frustrated that their owners no longer attempt to control the behavior. They know that their dogs won’t listen to them.
This behavior is a common problem. As a dog trainer I have heard many a story of dogs who were non-aggressive and were never a concern to their owners, but over time they began to show increasingly distressing behavior behind a barrier. One day they had an opportunity and showed aggression at that barrier. I am not making a judgement about the dogs in this now nationwide news story, but aside from the egregious damage, this incident sounds much like the tale almost every trainer who works with aggressive dogs has heard throughout their career.
I’m going to take some time now and use this opportunity to discuss what I see as one of the most significant problems in dog ownership in the U.S.: permissiveness. Somehow allowing a dog to do what a dog wants to do has become paramount. Truthfully, I find this a degree of insanity. If a dog is unable to do what they want in all circumstances, a sort of human hysteria ensues. We too often forget that dogs are animals that quite easily tear flesh and crush bone, and even when a story like this arises we just seem to ignore those facts.
We are becoming a soft and entitled society that really is undeserving of having these animals, as wonderful and magical as they can be, in our homes. I say this because we are often unwilling to raise these dogs to handle the pressures of society, we are often unwilling to tell dogs that certain behaviors are unacceptable, and we are far too often unwilling to tell dogs that they cannot do whatever they want to do.
My life with my dogs is a very free one. We hike every day in off leash areas, my dogs train and compete in sports that fulfill them on on the deepest levels. They have tons of freedoms, eat the best foods, get expensive treats almost daily. They have a damn good life. But I hold them to a very high standard, and I hold them accountable. As someone who loves them, I want them to enjoy life and do things that they want to do. But I draw a very hard line when the things that they want to do negatively impact others.
My dogs are unable to fence fight. Period. My dogs may not harass or scare other dogs. Period. My dogs may not scare people while we are out in the world (my dogs are allowed to bark at people who come to my door or very close to my car but must stop when I ask them to). They may not bark at anything when we are walking on leash unless I expressly ask them to because I feel we’re in danger. Period. If another dog is eating something in close proximity, my dogs may not approach them or make them uncomfortable. Period. When I ask my dogs to return to me or stay in a particular spot for their own safety, they must do it. Period. My dogs earn their freedom and lavish lifestyle by modeling good behavior when we’re out in the world. And if I determine that something they want to do is inappropriate, dangerous, or puts others at risk, they may not do it. Period.
These rules don’t mean my dogs are perfect. It doesn’t even mean they have never done those things, but it does mean that when they have, I took responsibility to teach them that it’s not a path they could continue on. I have very clear rules of what is permitted and what is not. When lines are crossed, I train my dogs.
Even with one dog, it can be hard work, and I’m certain it’s why so many dogs are out of their owner’s control. That difficulty gives rise to permissiveness. The culture that we can never reprimand our dogs for any behavior, no matter how dangerous the behavior or how it affects those around the dog, is literally the most dangerous one to raise animals in as this too gives way to permissiveness. Our inability to understand our dogs and our disinterest in learning their language gives rise to permissiveness. Permissiveness is and should be recognized as the greatest threat to the harmony between people and dogs.
Let’s take, for example, a dog I worked with who bit a delivery person at the fence line of their home. The dog had a history of running the fence line and barking at passersby. The dog, who was considered social off the property, became increasingly frustrated at the fence line. One day he was just able to reach the delivery person and bit him fairly seriously. The family was sued, the delivery person traumatized, and the dog was deemed aggressive and then unable to leave the property save for veterinary care for several years. There was a lot of permissiveness in this case, and some rules around the dog’s behavior could’ve saved everyone a lot of heartache.
Sometimes the circumstances are not so clear because permissiveness is often the hallmark of the relationship between the owner and the dog. One of the reasons my training programs are lengthy is because I recognize that dogs’ behavioral problems get out of control because the owners are too permissive in nearly every circumstance. And people often infantilize dogs to such a degree that it takes them months to recognize the ways in which they are permissive, and to develop the habits and patterns to change the ways they relate to their dog.
People believe permissiveness is an indication that they love their dogs. But the truth is that most dogs love and respect having boundaries and clearly understanding what those boundaries are. Beyond boundaries, we have to recognize that a number of the behaviors dog owners are routinely permissive about are expressions of a dog’s stress or lead to increased and sustained stress. Barking and lunging at things, for example, whining incessantly or destroying the house when alone, building frustration around barriers - all are signs of stress. When one understands what they are really about, permissiveness becomes more about apathy or naivety than love. Because what person would allow any being that we love unconditionally to be in a sustained state of stress throughout their lives?
Permissiveness is a silent destroyer. It feels good in the moment and the harmful effects it produces may not immediately show. But it gives rise to so many of the behaviors that surprise and terrify us in our dogs. And if we want to keep those bigger, scarier behaviors at bay, we need to recognize the permissiveness within and raise our dogs to higher standards. So often they will feel better and more confident, and they deserve the credit of being completely capable of being at their best with us all the time.
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