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Dog Tales: Falsely accused: Dogs behave how they're raised

The first editions of Dog Tales have been inked and the comments are coming in. Thanks to each of you for your readership.

I have been asked to write about "mean" dogs, the bad boys of the canine world. We each have our own image that comes to mind on this topic. Michael Vick and his dog fighting program no longer have current event status, but are still readily recalled when vicious dogs are the topic.

Vick's dogs, predominately American Pit Bulls, were vicious; they were bred and trained to fight. Their fight instincts ran so deep that natural canine courtship was not even a safe activity.

Yet another character strike to a breed already black balled by the insurance industry. And not without cause as bully breed lists didn't just materialize on someone's blotter. There is history that precedes the character and behavior traits that makes these animals eligible for "the list."

Breeds commonly thought of as bad boys include many of the terriers (Pit Bulls, Bull Terriers, etc.), Akitas, Dobermans and others. Heads are nodding, some nasty dogs there. Add into that the Chows, Rottweilers, Boxers, German Shepherds.

Wait a minute, the loveable, laughable boxer? And not Rin Tin Tin!

Most everyone in the dog industry can create their own list, by name, of wonderfully tempered animals from each of the above mentioned breeds; a list that includes certified therapy and service dogs, working dogs and trusted family pets. Did you know Pit Bulls in England were originally bred as nannies in the nurseries? We can also create a list of nasty tempered Labs, Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds and Chihuahuas.

Genetics -- Traits common to the breed

Before dismissing the breed as bad or aggressive (you are not prejudiced, right?) consider what the breed was originally intended to do; what was its job? Pit Bulls that were bred to fight are aggressive toward other dogs, not people; they are generally very devoted to their human families.

Attack training and abuse bring out the aggression toward humans. I see very few people aggressive dogs come through our city pound; more often I deal with those that are dog aggressive.

My favorite breed has long been the German Shepherd Dog, bred to herd, guard and protect. When I was finally able to purchase my first GSD in the fall of 1980, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, train him as a police K-9.

I picked a ball of fur with a lot of attitude, dubbed him Ranger and watched him grow into a handsome, black and rust, 95 pound protection machine; exactly what he was bred and trained to do.

Training a police K-9 -- A beginner's mistakes

How did I train Ranger? I encouraged his confidence. When he barked at people, I praised and rewarded him. When he pulled out in front of me to greet people, I encouraged him. When Ranger was reluctant to give up a toy, I played tug of war rather than requiring he give up the toy on my command.

I built his confidence, but unfortunately, did not focus equal time on Ranger's obedience skills nor did I make sure he acknowledged me as pack leader.

What was the result? For the first couple of years we worked relatively well as a team. Yes, I did notice times when Ranger challenged me, but we seemed to work through them. His work ethic was good, not great.

Then I changed employment between law enforcement agencies, and Ranger went into semi-retirement. We still met and trained with other law enforcement K-9 teams, but he did not get to work. He lost his job.

Now bored, Ranger really challenged my position as pack leader, over food, on recalls, in general. At that time I did not have the skills to correct these problems; I made the decision to donate Ranger to a larger law enforcement agency with more experienced K-9 handlers. Sadly, Ranger was not able to make the transition and was eventually euthanized.

Was Ranger a bad, vicious dog by nature? No. And here is the lesson I learned.

Ranger was a dog that received encouragement and rewards for the wrong behaviors at the wrong time in his training. I screwed up, and my screw up eventually cost Ranger his life. How many "bad dogs" are unmanageable due to poor training or a complete lack of training? How many Rangers are out there? From my experiences with lost and abandoned animals in the city pound, I know the percentage of genetic bad boys is very small. The vast majority of problems are training issues, things that time, patience and proper training can correct.

Not breed specific

Out of control animals are not limited by size or breed. We tend to be more fearful of large dogs just as we would be more fearful when confronted by a linebacker than when confronted by a ballerina. The smallest dog that I am aware of causing a human fatality was a Pekinese, certainly the exception, and not a regular on the home insurance black lists.

Do I believe there are dangerous dogs? Absolutely I do. But my experiences indicate that the vast majority of these "bad boys" are man-made. The best advice I can give is to enroll your dog in obedience classes early and often. If your dog is out of control, contact a professional trainer before a bite incident scars a child or costs your pet his life.

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