Why you shouldn’t lie on an aggression screening form for a dog training school

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague: on lying about your dog’s aggression to get it into a dog training school
Written in: September 2018.
Privacy: Identifying details may have been changed to prevent the owners from being recognized.
Illustration credits: See end of the post

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Reading the dog training form, something bothered me…

I was reading a client form today, for the obedience class at our dog training school (OhMyDog!, The Hague) and something wasn’t quite right. She reported no aggression as such, but, reading between the lines, this dog needed more than improving their sit/stay.

I picked up the phone and called the client. Sure enough, the dog had a flurry of underlying behaviour issues that would have made his time at the school a living hell for him (not to mention a hazard for us and a disturbance for the other students). Luckily, they were open to private lessons so I am going to help them that way.

They are not comfortable conversations, but I’ll take an awkward phone call over an even-more-traumatised dog; and injured staff, clients, and dogs.

The 3 dog aggression screening questions

We screen for aggression through 3 questions on our form. We ask:

  1. Whether there is an aggression issue (and we explicitly list growling)
  2. About issues the owner finds problematic,
  3. About the owner’s objectives,

You would think that question 1 is enough, right? Actually, I tend to find out in question 3, or worse, once the dog is already in class. So why do people under-report aggression? Because:

  • Aggression means different things to different people. Is growling aggression? Do you need a bite to label it as aggression?
  • Not everyone finds it a problem. Many believe it’s normal that their dog lunges at other dogs. They think they just need help with the ‘pulling on the leash’ problem
  • People are worried about leaving a written trace of an aggression incident about their dog that could incriminate their dog
  • People worry the dog training school won’t take them on if they tell the truth

But by far the biggest reason is… profound denial.

So clients aren’t religious about reporting aggression problems. How often it does it happen? Very!

Let me share some cases we’ve had over the years.

The Labrador pup who cowered and growled when we approached

As soon as the pup walked in, we knew there was a problem. He was crawling, rather than walking. If anyone approached closer than four meters, he’d stare, stiffen and growl. Same response if anyone looked at him for longer than a second.

What happened with the dog?

I took this up with the owners discreetly, but after I heard their response, I feared I’d been too diplomatic. Hadn’t they grasped the seriousness of what I was saying?

I got in touch with them after class again, several times in fact, only to be met with the same answer that ‘He’s only young’ and ‘All puppies are like that at first’ – despite a professional taking time out of her day to assure them of the contrary.

I advised they contact a veterinary behaviourist on several occasions, but this fell on deaf ears. Week after week (when they would show up for puppy class), they would report great successes and declare the problem to be over, this despite the pup showing no improvement.

If a pup looks like this during dog training class, you know you have a problem

So our staff took every possible measure to protect him from his (many) triggers (no one could approach him & we gave him a special corner behind a screen). The staff was also instructed to privilege ‘field behaviour therapy’ exercises over the regular puppy schedule.

I even arranged for a temperament test at the Vet faculty at the University. Their findings matched ours, but, when the owners felt the test had gone very well.

What went through the owners’ mind?

I think it was hard for them to be confronted with the fact that their pup could have special needs (see Dr. Jens’ excellent post).

Where is that dog now?

We don’t know what’s happened to that pup. The owners didn’t stay in touch after their puppy course. My sad prognosis is that this dog will develop severe aggression issues around the 8-9 month margin, and that the rehabilitation work will be so daunting by then that he might be surrendered to a shelter. I hope I am wrong.

The shepherd cross with a serious bite history

Again, the form for this dog showed no hint of an aggression problem. This despite the fact that the dog in question had a rich history of severe bites (to humans) to her name.

This dog was particularly hard to read on the field and appeared shutdown. She opened up occasionally during his first lesson, but something was not right. Our suspicions were confirmed during question time, when the owner asked what to do about the aggression issue.

I still cannot believe that this dog owner thought it morally acceptable to hide a known aggression problem, thus putting my staff in danger.

What went through his head?

When I addressed the issue, the owner explained that he’d wanted help and he was worried that if he told the truth on the form, he wouldn’t get it. So he waited until he had a foot in the door to come clean.

What happened with the dog?

We converted the group lessons to an urgent behaviour evaluation consult, which revealed so many bite incidents that I ran out of paper! I referred this case out to a veterinary colleague. After a while in therapy, the owner saw that the dog was unlikely to be rehabilitated into a safe and happy city dog, and the dog was put down.

The Akita who wanted the other student-dogs dead

This dog arrived as a 6 month-old at the school. Again, the form was all blue skies and sunny days. We immediately spotted the issue as he singled out another dog and proceeded to hard-stare at him, every muscle coiled up and ready for (predatory) action.

We tactfully explained the red flags to the owners and proceeded to adopt some safety precautions (which the owners seem to find terminally silly).

These measures, despite being applied with tact, left the owners feeling singled out of course. So if you plan on having your dog-aggressive dog in group class, prepare for an uncomfortable time.

What had gone through the owners’ mind?

The Akita’s owners, had gone to a husky pup from a large-scale breeder. The breeder said they’d ‘run out’ of huskies but could sell them a dog that ‘looked the same’: a 5-month old  Akita (male).

So the breeder flogged a dog:

  • in the middle of his fear/aggression phase,
  • of a breed that had recently landed on a government list for high-risk breeds (thus increasing the owners’ legal liability and bad reputation burden),
  • and a breed known to require experienced owners

to an unsuspecting family.

My thoughts on the breeder

The family themselves saw their dog as a teddy bear (which he was, to them). They also thought the dog-dog aggression was normal for dogs.

What happened to the dog?

I held a dog behaviour evaluation consult with them and I explained the risks of the situation, the likelihood of success of improving particular character traits, and the safety measures required (by then, he had attacked another dog who needed veterinary attention as a result).

They were concerned about the information, but it did not rouse them into further action, as far as I know. They disappeared off the radar.

My prognosis is this: I would be surprised if the dog hasn’t been involved in more bite incidents yet, including to people.

The ‘protective’ shepherd mix

Imagine the form.

  • Aggression? No.
  • Behaviour problem? No.
  • Objectives? He can be ‘protective’ when strangers try to approach his owners and they’d like to address that (during an obedience course…).

“Don’t mind him. He’s just being a little protective”

What happened?

I asked for more details. It turns out the dog has always had stranger-directed fear aggression, and that it was getting worse. Thankfully, the dog didn’t have a bite history to his name (yet). I treated the dog in behaviour therapy and he is doing much better. Also, the owners are sticking to the safety precautions.

What do we mean with ‘dog aggression’?

Sure every dog can snap and bite once in a while. We all have our limits.

But for dogs to attend a group class, they need to be able to be comfortable in the vicinity of other, unknown dogs and people.

‘Aggression’ becomes relevant when you apply for a spot at a dog training school if it means your dog can’t be relaxed, happy and comfortable during group lessons.

We screen for issues that are likely to lead to defensive and stressed out dogs during class. And issues that could make our staff, students, and their dogs into potential targets.

Why don’t we let the dogs in at the dog training school who need it the most?

If your dog stiffens, stares, snarls, growls, barks aggressively or bites at people of dogs in a daily situation, giving it benign names won’t resolve it, on the contrary.

Failing to disclose the problem when you register for a dog training school is like failing to disclose that your child has profound autism and hoping that the local school will ‘fix’ it.

Dog training schools help you raise (‘opvoeden’ in Dutch) your dog (like teaching a solid sit or not to jump when saying hello). They do not treat behaviour problems (emotional dysregulation like excessive fear, anger or excitement).

We have a whole handout explaining the difference if you’re interested.

Behaviour or education problem?

Of course, there are gray areas. Take these two examples:

  • A dog has a behaviour problem that forms no safety or animal welfare issue in group class. e.g. separation panic
  • The problem is benign and responds well to ‘behavioural first aid’ measures (quick advice dispensed by dog training staff after a group lesson)

Conclusion

So why can’t the dog training school help me with my dog’s behaviour problem. Are they being difficult?

No. It’s about:

  • Sensitisation: Often, putting the dog in the problem situation (e.g. other dogs) will make things worse, rather than better.
  • Safety: You could be endangering my staff and students. Do you want it on your conscience that someone got wounded, or that a dog got traumatized, because you failed to disclose a known problem?
  • Liability: By putting your dog in a triggering situation, you could add a bite incident to his rap sheet. This has long-term consequences for a dog.
  • Effectiveness: The few minutes a group trainer can give you after class is unlikely to achieve much, particularly if the problem is profound.

So we are not being inflexible or stingy. We really need for you to be open and forthright on the form so we can help you better.

References

Illustration credits

(in order of appearance)

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