It’s Not The Dog…

I’m a dog lover! Actually, I’m a critter lover, but I think dogs are my all-time favorite.

Dogs are my furry gurus. The dogs in my life have taught me so much about life and love and kindness and loyalty and integrity and strength…the list goes on and on. The elderly dogs in my life have also taught me about more about life and death than I could ever learn otherwise.

We have three rescue dogs. One is 15.5 years old. Two of them are young and energetic. They were reasonably well behaved, but our family has grown – my adult kids now have three dogs between them. Yep, that means that when we get togethers there are 6 dogs doing all the fun things that dogs do…and that includes misbehavin’.

I decided that it was time to teach my young boys a few extra manners.

I’m a long-time fan of Cesar Milan and Joel Beckman. However, I also have learned a lot from Susan Garrett, and the McCann’s (Canadian dog trainers).

It was great to find so many interesting videos on Youtube. There are many different approaches and each one has its merits. They served as refresher for me. I’ve been at it for a month and my dogs are blooming, so THANK YOU to the above noted trainers for their tutelage!

My youngest (the white one, our marshmallow) is a tad reactive. He has some Pittie in him and, as it is sometimes with that breed as well as others in his mix, he has a strong prey drive. He is good with our cats, but he would really like to chase cars. He plays roughly and loudly. He is not keen on backing down from another dog who gives him the ole stinkeye…mean-mugging as Beckman terms it.

The Cattle Dog mix (tri-color) dog needs more confidence. He is quite submissive except when it comes to cats and we have three cats.

In other words, we have work to do!

Many of the trainers online seem to specialize in getting your puppy off to a good start. That is great! Every dog deserves the best possible chance in life. However, the vast majority of dogs that come from shelters and are rescued through volunteer organizations are adult dogs. Many have had a very poor start in life. Some are scared, some are reactive, some are numb. Many are mistrusting of humans. As a result, these dogs need a lot of time, patience, and consistent nurturing to change that behaviour.

Most of the behaviours that humans disapprove of…behaviours that can cause problems in the household into which they are introduced, can be remediated.

Dogs live in the moment. They are one of the most consistent means of teaching a human being how to be present in the moment that I know…if the human is willing to accept this challenge.

It’s not the dog…it’s the human who is handling the dog.

When beginning any training program with a rescue dog it is wise to keep this in mind.

A dog is acting in line with dog nature. Some breeds have been bred to go after a target – many working and protection breeds advance in response to a stimulus instead of retreating.

If you rescue a working or protection dog breed be prepared for this to happen. Learn about your dog’s breed tendencies (or the dominant breed in the dog as far as you and your vet can determine). Start there. Test it with your particular dog. Does he or she have a tendency to advance or retreat in response to a stimulus? What do they do when they are excited?

Two different reactions require two different responses. This can be learned, by both you and your rescue dog.

What I am finding is that most new dog owners don’t have enough tools in the toolbox to deal with reactive or nervous dogs, but those skills are attainable.

Ask yourself: if you don’t know what to do in a situation, is your tendency to retreat or to wade in with both feet? When your dog shows aggression towards another dog – when they amp it up – do you feel the need to over-correct? And then feel bad about it because you feel you are hurting the dog?

Or do you try and back off, keeping the dog away from other dogs by physically blocking them or giving them treats?

Consider what we are reinforcing here. Is backing off every time another dog approaches working? Will you always be on the run?

Is it a practical approach, or does it just make you scan for trouble/threat/prey just like your dog is doing?

Nobody is in control of the situation. Nobody is confident. Your dog has triggered your fear mode, and you keep triggering your dog’s fear mode too.


We will do what we know until we know better. When we know better we do better.

Education is key. Understand that we need training to understand how to train a dog.

Consider it “training the trainer.”

This is especially important if you rescue one of the more powerful breeds who could do damage to another animal…or to a person…if you do not know how to properly address the behaviour.

Two years ago I took one of my dogs to the vet for his checkup. There was a woman and her son in the waiting room with an absolutely beautiful 4-month old jet-black male German Shepherd puppy.

He was going to be big. And very powerful.

At 4-months of age, this puppy was already showing signs of anxiety and/or aggression. He was uncomfortable and got very agitated when any other dog came anywhere near him. He watched everything – dogs and humans as well, with suspicion and “resource guarded” his humans. His humans were oblivious to the warning signs that were very obvious to me.

Because they had no clue what was happening, they were inadvertently reinforcing his behaviour.

I wonder where that dog is now. Is he locked away in a kennel or garage because he became uncontrollable? Did he bite someone and get euthanized? Is he a ticking time bomb waiting to explode? Or is he one of the dogs that the German Shepherd Rescue is trying to rehome?

I truly hope he received the gentle, consistent, firm training that he deserved. I hope he is a well-adjusted 2-yr old that his family is enjoying right now. But he could also be a 100 lb beautiful jet-black land shark.

It’s not the dog. It’s about the humans handling the dog.

It’s sad to say but many people who adopt a dog really don’t understand dog nature. They know human nature and treat the dog like they would a human child. That never works.

It also disrespects the animal and sets it up for failure. And can even get them euthanized.

If you have an easily managed rescue dog, be very appreciative, because many rescue dogs don’t have that kind of balance. Work it. Build on it – create the relationship of your dreams. Treat the dog like a dog, not a furry human. Learn their way of communicating.

Educate yourself. Learn how to understand how dogs communicate. Learn how to read dog cues. Learn how to be clear with your rules, boundaries, and limitations.

Don’t set your dog…and you…up to fail due to your ignorance of dog behaviour.

If you have a reactive dog and don’t know what you are doing wrong, please don’t mess around. Your dog’s life depends on it. You don’t want to be the one telling the sad story of how the “bad” dog was uncontrollable and needed to be put down.

Every person who rescues must begin to “train the trainer” before their dog arrives. You must learn the correct methods of encouraging good dog behaviour in a gentle but firm manner. It’s what all dogs need – for their humans to be clear.

When you are clear, you will find there is significant (and sometimes rapid) progress – trust, connection, respect, and appreciation is an act of LOVE.

This is what I have been delighted to find.

It’s up to you to know how, not up to your rescue dog. If you have a problem dog, I suggest finding a trainer who works with aggressive, larger dogs and has a track record of reconditioning aggression. Check with your local security/protection dog trainers. Watch a class. Talk to them. Do you connect with them and their approach? If not, try another trainer. These men and women will, essentially, be training you so you must respect them as a leader.

What do you have to show me today, my Teacher?


Published by Paula D. Tozer

I am a writer, poet and singer/songwriter. I am a Toastmaster, motivational speaker, personal creativity coach, and workshop leader. My most sincere wish is to share my words with others, and that we both benefit from the exchange.

2 thoughts on “It’s Not The Dog…

  1. Oh yeah, I totally agree with everything you said here. My dog isn’t so much aggressive nor destructive, but she does bark at every single sound, and my neighbours don’t like it. So I’ve been trying to find solutions high and low. Now I just ask her to come to me before she reacts, but I can’t be on guard all the time. But yeah, thanks for reminding me that it’s the humans and not the dogs! I brought her into my life, so I’ll need to be responsible and learn more. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Hey Stuart, I appreciate your comments!

    It’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly what to do. I have a couple of suggestions – when she moved home, my daughter’s Australian Terrier barked the whole time she went to work. He has separation anxiety and she consulted with trainers and vets and tried everything. He also has a furry brother to play with all day, but he still barked. She bought a collar that sprays a citronella scent every time the dog barks. It stopped his barking, and now she just needs to use it for “tune-ups.”. Even putting it in him now makes him be quiet. That may work but the collar is about $100 CDN.

    My Cattle Dog mix sometimes gets vocal and it’s definitely not his inside voice. I purchased a very basic anti-bark collar that gives a sonic sound in response to the dog barking. I just had to put it on him about three times and he stopped his excessive barking.

    These alternatives are gentle deterrents that definitely work.


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