Bonding with a Problem Dog

Of course I love my easy dogs. They are bright, fun to train, and sociable. They don’t make me sad, they don’t make me mad, they snuggle in when I’m watching a movie and they seem to have an inborn understanding of how to look cute for the camera. They’re just plum dreamy.

But I love my problem dogs, too. It’s not quite the same as with my easy dogs...it’s certainly not better or stronger, but it is not worse or lesser, either. After working with a number of problem dogs on my own and with my dog training clients, I’ve come to understand that working through some problems with a problem dog can cement a wonderful, unique relationship that is every bit as worthwhile.

Over the years, my own problem dogs have been fearful of strangers, tricky to housetrain (a falsely tidy statement if there ever was one), and scrappy as heck. And my clients' dogs have been every imaginable combination of fighty, bitey, scared, or out of control. In almost every case, though, we’ve worked through a plan, moderated our expectations, trained like crazy, and come out on the other side. My own Timber can now pass Datson in the doorway without immediately brawling. Sitka regularly uses the great big toilet outdoors. Datson doesn’t jump up and bite our friends’ backs; Mischa doesn’t chase the cat; Sugar…ok, Sugar still buries mittens under my pillow but come on that’s just plain cute. My clients’ dogs can sit on the couch and enjoy being patted, they can meet strangers without cowering or snarling, they can be approached when they have a bone, and, well, I don’t want to brag but there are fewer Grandmas being jumped on in a one hundred mile radius than there was five years ago.

For some of my clients with problem dogs, it was not immediately clear that a bond would, or even could, form. In some cases the problem dog arrived as a beautiful bouncy puppy, and it is almost impossible not to love a puppy. But when adult behaviour pops up, and adult behaviour sometimes includes aggression or fearfulness, there can be a sense of loss (where did my beautiful puppy go?) on top everything else (I'm not sure I like this dog. I might even be a bit scared of him).

But despite all this—despite the snarling, the messes, the apologies to friends and Grandmas alike—after the training starts, a bond usually forms. It’s not immediate. It is forged, bit by bit, by stuffing Kongs and training “sit” even in really hard places and tracking successes on a scrap piece of paper and watching carefully for a thump-thump-thumping tail and putting up baby gates and setting up careful introductions and all this stuff we do to train problem dogs. The bond grows slowly like a stalagmite but in the end, when you look at your dog happily approaching previously-feared guests or showing off a trick for a previously-feared youngster or bounding towards you instead of scrapping at the dog park, you realize, much to your surprise, that it’s stalagmite strong.

It’s not always true that you “get the dog you need”. I didn’t need a scrapper, and my clients certainly don’t need or deserve dogs who are aggressive or fearful. But we do have the dog in front of us. And most of the time, with some elbow grease and time, a special bond can grow. It’s not better that the bond you’ll have with your easy dogs, it’s not worse, but it is a beautiful thing.