I have seen a host of threads on social media about how dogs seem to be having more problems now than in past decades. I think I have come up with a few reasons why. Let’s start when I was a kid.
When I was a kid, things were different. I grew up in a working/middle class, Boston suburb, 1970’s and 1980’s. Many of us had a parent who stayed home. If both of our parents worked, there was often a neighbor or grandparent who watched us after school and over the summer. Our dogs got a lot more socializing and exercise. I remember heading to the cemetery, exploring trails by reservoirs, walking to parks and fields, etc. My dog and I walked to the local hardware store to get gumballs then to the local donut shop for day-old donut holes. Now the training used was harsher, positive training meant a harsh correction and a “Good dog” after – maybe a cookie. That was all we really did decades ago when I started working with dogs. Luckily many of us crossed over and became trainers who work to avoid fear and pain. However, when I was a kid, we were out all the time with the dogs. Muffin and I would wander for hours. When I got my license, it was even more fun. We would head to Gloucester, Marblehead, Salem…
When I was a kid, we were taught self discipline and self control. We knew dogs were a separate species and not little humans in fur coats. We knew a dog could and would bite if provoked. Our parents held us accountable for our actions. They would not wait for an incident to happen before addressing our actions. They were not afraid to parent nor were they trying to be our best friends. We were not allowed to torment our pets the way some children today do. We were taught not to sit or climb on dogs. If they were crated, they were to be left alone. These were thinking and responding critters.
When I was a kid, we placed dogs better. I remember my mother putting in an “order” with the late Tatsuko Danforth when she lived in New Hampshire. All Mom wanted was a blue merle female Sheltie who would be good with kids. Well we also knew that our work was crucial, but the basis both genetically and environmentally started at the breeder is important. Mom and Dad were experienced with the breed already and us kids had been raised well with dogs.
I spent most of my teen years working at a shelter. Known risky dogs were not placed. A dog with a bite history was not placed. I worked at a private shelter so we could turn dogs away. I even remember after I got my license being the one to drive a couple dangerous dogs to the public shelter a few miles away for euthanasia. They were dogs that had been returned to us and had been worked with by a behaviorist but just deemed to risky to place. Owners seemed more likely to put down a dangerous dog than try to re-home. Yes we had a couple people lie when they surrendered a dog, but in general, why a dog was being given up was pretty honest. If the behaviorist we referred to felt a dog should be put down after being worked with, it was done. If the dog was a severe biter, it was put down. Sadly now, many are being placed.
There were fewer people breeding “bad-ass” dogs to go with their macho image. There were fewer people breeding designer dogs with little concern for temperament. The only designer dog then really was the Cock-a-poo. Now we have some pretty interesting and even scary crosses being made all for the sake of a dollar. No exceptional breeder will sell a breeding dog to someone wanting to make crosses. Then there are the myths and lies perpetuation about crosses that have been proven scientifically not to be real. Hybrid Vigor, Hypoallergenic, etc., do not exist in domestic dogs. Then there is the “Perfect for all lifestyles”, “Does not bite,” and so on… Some of these have been around for decades – but they have worsened with the invention of social media.
We understood and respected the need for good breeding as well as good rescue. We knew you had to do what was best for your family, breeder or rescue. There was no “You have to adopt him or he will die” or “All he needs is love and his problems will stop.” Breeders and rescuers worked together to help owners find the best match for the needs of the family. They understood not all dogs should be placed and were willing to act responsibly – even if it means putting a dangerous dog down.
Somewhere between my childhood and now middle age, things changed. I have had clients who got dogs simply to appease a whining child. I have had parents tell me dogs have to learn to deal with what their child wants to do – even if it hurt or scared Fido. There are more people breeding dogs solely for owner image. They overshadow the people trying to maintain good type and temperament in breeds. There are rescuers feeling every dog must have a home. Some dogs cannot safely or sanely go into any home. Expecting owners to take on some of the behaviors I have seen is not fair or morally right. We have people blaming owners when truly bad placements fail. I have had clients all but threatened by less than ethical rescuers and breeders when it was clear the placement was not going to work.
I have had parents accuse me of stifling creativity because I will not allow my children to do certain things with our dogs – especially when my children were younger. There was a reason why: I did not want my children to become a statistic. I wanted my children to grow up as I did. Now, training methods are much different but the need for good child behaviors and good work with dogs has not. When I was a kid we had those lessons.
When I was a kid, things were different. They were not the idyllic “Mayberry” with little Opie or Timmy and Lassie. Things were different and there is no reason why it cannot happen again even with our changing lives. The question is: are we willing to make the changes?
Karen Peak owns West Wind Dog Training and founded The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Prince William County.