Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dominance and Aggression. State vs Trait.

I experienced a pretty significant canine loss a couple weeks ago. Hazel is fine, it is not her I’m referring to, thankfully. I feel guilty for feeling thankful for that but I am. It’s been hard. Especially since it was not the result of accident or injury, but rather behaviour and temperament.  Also because it ultimately wasn’t my call, although my opinion was sought. I’ve tried a few times to write about it but it is difficult because I want to say everything yet I have a confidentiality agreement to uphold. 

I will be vague as to identity but as specific I can as to circumstance. Please don’t be offended if I can’t/won’t tell more. I will answer any questions as best I can. 

I can say that I eventually agreed with the decision to euthanize this particular dog due to aggression.I've been in that position before, though for different reasons. 

In psychology, we distinguish between characteristics that are traits; that is, a fundamental part of one’s character; as opposed to “states” which is how one might be in a particular circumstance. So I can be in an angry state, without having anger as a trait. In general, I would say responsibility is one of my traits, yet in certain states I can be downright frivolous (not really, but you get my point).

So the big issue was to determine if aggression was a trait of this dog, or a state brought on by the shelter environment etc.

I knew he would be a dominant dog from the time he was 5 weeks old. Rather early for such strong traits to emerge. He was the most persistently mouthy puppy I had ever dealt with, but he was learning. 

He learned everything fast. By 7 weeks, he knew several basic commands, was awesomely crate-trained and knew how to walk appropriately on and off leash. All of these things were taught through positive means and everyday life – not through drilling it into him. He was housetrained at 6 weeks. Although we still had to keep a watchful eye out, he would ask to go outside when he needed to, every time. We do tend to have an impressive track record with house training – it’s all about vigilance and I insist on it because lack of housetraining is one of the biggest reasons for owners surrendering their dogs to a shelter. Won’t happen to one of MY dogs, unless the new owner is an idiot. 

But none of this matters if the dog cannot adapt to the average life. This dog was never aggressive in my house. He displayed dominant tendencies but my husband and I quickly adjusted our own behaviour to make it clear to the puppy that humans were leaders, not him. This can sound rather ominous but really doesn’t require much difference in terms of how we handle the dog or conduct ourselves. 

I am sure to be consistent. With some dogs, you might have the luxury of being slow off the mark before your morning coffee, for example. With this guy, I made sure I behaved consistently no matter what. I carry my head a little higher, keep my back straighter, and keep my shoulders back. That is pretty much all that is needed to communicate that you are in charge. Of course, there is a projection of attitude beneath all that posturing, and it must be calm and confident. 

For two months, this dog made me laugh every day. He was tiring, to be sure, but so full of life (and mischief!). His mouthy behaviour improved by leaps and bounds and I was more confident than ever that he would find a great home, as long as the new owner had experience with dominant dogs. 

Unfortunately, this dog changed rapidly once outside our home. He became aggressive at every approach, especially during feeding. His behaviour assessments were re-done several times and he failed miserably. Perhaps more importantly, he began lunging at anyone who tried to correct his behaviour, no matter how they approached him. He bit hands and lunged at faces. 

He was only 14 weeks at this point but it became clear that his behaviour was more trait than state.  While I understand this is not a dog that a municipal shelter can allow to go free, it is hard to know that it didn’t necessarily have to be this way. He might have been fine in my household...but he might have also turned on someone else at some point. Hazel was never really comfortable with him and had to discipline him regularly – not something she does if the dog is stable. 

At the end of the day, practicality wins. There are more dogs that need homes than homes available. Especially knowledgeable homes. As much as it has hurt to lose one that was under my care, I far prefer euthanasia to many of the other fates this dog might have realized. I have never believed in a "no kill" approach as long as there are limited homes and funds.

Still, that dog touched my life and I have been grieving. I’ve gone through the “what if there was something I could have done different” to knowing that we gave him the best possible opportunity to be a good companion. I won’t ever be quite the same but I will be more knowledgeable and experienced myself, as a result.

So there. I’ve been grieving.

(comments welcome, including dissenting ones).


Anonymous said...

Very sorry - it's sad but it sounds to me as if your decision was a good one. A dog who feels the need to be consistently aggressive isn't only a hazard, it's likely the dog wasn't happy inside either. To do what you did was the responsible decision.

We've had on one occasion to euthanize a horse for severe horse on human aggression issues - this was not a horse that had been abused nor was it a hormonal or training issue but rather we suspect some sort of neurological/sensory processing issue. She would be fine one instant and then would snap and attack. It was very sad but I believe we did the right thing - she could have killed someone.

Jason said...

I agree with Kate.

Sometimes doing the responsible and necessary thing doesn't make us feel very good about the outcome. It was still the right thing to do, IMO.

HorseOfCourse said...

I am so sorry, RB.
A very tough decision.
Still I do believe it was the right thing to do. Dogs, as well as horses, have to be safe.

Laura said...

I'm very sorry to hear that you guys had to go through that - I know you are very serious about how you care for animals that you are responsible for and you would have done everything in your power to change the outcome.

...that being said, it sounds like it was the right decision to make, but that wouldn't make it any easier.

RuckusButt said...

Thanks everyone. It hasn't been easy but I do know that the decision was the right one. I should be clear that the decision wasn't ultimately mine - I am consulted but don't have final authority as I'm only fostering the dog. I like to think I would have done the right thing but it might have taken me a little longer before coming to the decision if he stayed in my home.

Kate, I agree that he probably wasn't happy inside and likely wouldn't be in most circumstances. I remember Miranda and your struggle to understand her, so I know you understand what it's like.

With this pup's history, any number of causes/triggers are possible. Likely a combination of everything.

RuckusButt said...

Jason, HoC and Laura, thank you. You words of support are oddly comforting. Laura, those are very kind words and you're right - knowing it's right doesn't help in the short term but it does help to be at peace with the decision.

Melissa-ParadigmFarms said...

With a situation like this it is easy to drive yourself crazy with "what if" and "maybe if I did X" scenarios. I do agree with kate, an animal that consistently acts this way is miserable in their own skin. It doesn't make this any easier on you though.