It’s Not So Glamorous
By Katie Genier KPA-CTP
When I meet new people and tell them I am a dog trainer the most common response is, “That’s so cool! You get to play with cute puppies all day!”
Yes, I do see a lot of puppies come through and that is definitely a perk. But the truth behind being a trainer, or working in the animal industry, is that in general it’s difficult, and many of us fight compassion fatigue on a daily basis. We see people that don’t care about their pets, people that abuse their dogs, intense stress or fear in dogs that could have been prevented, and clients we want to help, but for one reason or another we can’t. We get jumped on, scratched, nipped at, covered in gross bodily fluids, and our eardrums blown right out of our heads.
So sometimes the cute puppies are just enough to get you through the rest of the crap you have to endure as a dog trainer. The literal dog crap as well as the mental toll that being a dog trainer takes on you. I’ll admit, I’m saying this with a bit of emotion in my words because today I was attacked by a dog. A dog that I didn’t even interact with. A dog I walked past without even looking at. A dog I had never even had the pleasure of knowing.
When I say “attacked”, I mean the kind of attack that keeps you awake at night, writing a blog at two a.m. because the adrenaline and pain from the event still hasn’t subsided. The kind of attack that took two people and a wooden bite stick to pry the dog off of you. It was unreal. The only way I have been able to convince myself it even happened is by feeling the throb of my bandaged, stitched, and bruised arms.
It is likely that the dog that attacked me today due to a combination of brain chemistry abnormalities and past trauma. If you were wondering if this type of behavior is common, the answer is no. However, less severe bites are fairly common. Despite what Hollywood might have us believe, our dogs still have normal animal instincts, and all dogs, including the sweet one cuddling on your couch right now, is capable of biting someone. While not all dog bites are preventable, a lot of them are. So we can, and should do everything in our power to prevent them. Here are some ways that you can start making important changes in the lives of the dogs you interact with, the people in your life you want to keep safe, and the pet professionals that help you with your own dogs. Seriously it’s like super-duper important. So please listen and take this to heart.
- Where you get your dog, matters. This dog’s original owners probably thought they were getting a sweet innocent puppy just like everyone else. Here is the reality. In Indiana, there are very few laws on breeding dogs. So anyone can breed hundreds of dogs a year. My dad lives in Kentucky and he saw a link on the web just the other day that said “10 easy ways to make money in KY”. The number one thing on this list was to start a puppy mill. True story. In fact, there are breeders who purposely choose traits that are harmful to the dog and go as far as inbreeding dogs in an effort to breed a certain trait. A common example that I often see is “double Merle” dogs which are a result of two Merle dogs being bred together. Each puppy in the litter has a 25% percent chance of getting the double Merle gene which most of the time effects their sight, vision, or both. Sadly some breeders don’t care because the dogs have a striking coat that is high in demand. Dogs should be bred for temperament and health. If you go to a breeder, ask questions, tour where the puppies are kept, and ask to meet the parents. I have a whole blog on the Uptown page on how to find a good breeder. Read it. Memorize it. And no matter how much you want to save the sweet puppy from a mill, buying the puppy isn’t the way. It keeps dangerous and unethical puppy mills in business and helps those “breeders” profit from the misery of those dogs and the people who end up with them.
- Don’t approach dogs you don’t know and intrude their space, even if the owner says they are friendly. You wouldn’t walk up to a random person then hug them, lean over them, stare into their eyes soulfully, and reach over to stroke their head, so don’t do it to a dog. Give every new dog you meet time to adjust to you no matter how adorable and fluffy they may be. Dogs bite when they feel they need to protect themselves. Don’t send them mixed signals by invading their personal space.
- Learn to understand body language. In this situation, reading a dogs body language may not have helped me since I just happened to be passing by and I didn’t look at the dog. However, most dog bites with mentally stable dogs can be prevented by reading the dogs body language and knowing they are stressed long before they are ready to bite. Did you know not all tail wags mean the dog is happy? Learn more about body language. You owe it to your dog for a lot of different reasons. Brenda Aloff has an awesome book on body language, but if you aren’t much of a book person, a quick search on YouTube, or talking to a positive reinforcement trainer can help get you started.
- Early socialization is the key to a happy and well-behaved adult dog. Socialization is like a behavioral vaccine. The more you expose a puppy to, and in a positive way, the more confident they feel about the world, so they will be much less likely to bite out of fear later. Let your puppy approach things on their own without force, using lots of treats, praise, and play. Take them to the vet for fun. Practice touching their whole body. Get your puppy groomed frequently. Set up opportunities for them to meet confident well-behaved dogs that you know and trust. Play firework sounds on your phone. Think of all the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Read books, listen to podcasts, and talk to a positive reinforcement trainer for guidance. You’ll thank me later.
- Practice Caution. Following leash laws is important even if your dog is perfect off leash. If another dog attacks your dog, you will want to be close enough to do what you can to stop, or prevent, the fight. Also, you can never really guarantee how your dog will react if something new comes along. If that still isn’t enough to convince you to keep your dog leashed consider this: If another dog runs up to your dog, and a fight happens, you are liable if your dog wasn’t leashed. If you really want to be safe on your strolls around the block, learning how to split up a dog fight is a must and packing things like spray shield (a harmless but strong-smelling citrus spray) can help keep you safe.
I tried to do it all right with my Australian Shepherd, Havoc. Unfortunately, he had an accident when he was younger where he jumped over a fallen tree and a branch left a deep puncture near his groin. This event was very traumatic for him, not to mention other emergency trips to the vet for allergic reactions. So now, a year later, we are still working to get him comfortable at the groomer and vet, and I have no doubt if we pushed hard enough that he would snap at us.
These things can happen to anyone, no matter how hard we try to get it right. We can only do so much to control the world around us. It is up to us to do what we can to keep our animals stay safe and happy. We owe it to them as their caretakers and their friends. Whether you plan to get a dog from a breeder, or adopt from a shelter, base your decisions on more than how cute the dog is. Take the time and care to be patient, waiting for the right dog for your family, and helping dogs find the family that is right for them. Your life, and their life, depend on it.