When the dog/human bond breaks down…What can we do?

101_3749With about 62% of households in the US owning a pet and over $55.53 billion spent every year, clearly Americans have proven their love for animals. Dogs and cats of course hold a very special place in our hearts with respectively 78 and 86 million of them living by our side. Dogs are considered fun, playful and loving additions to the family and surveys have showed that we get them for companionship first, then for exercise, protection and finally for breeding (Jagoe & Serpell, 1996)

Yet, as we acquire increasingly more animals and spend more and more money to feed and pamper them, right under the surface lies a gruesome reality. According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP), 5 to 7 million cats and dogs are dropped off, every year, in shelters across the country, and over half of those will be put down (60% of dogs and 70% of cats), mostly for behavior reasons. Many of those behaviors could have been treated or avoided altogether.

So what’s going on? When does the dream of sharing our life with an animal that we love and care for gradually become so difficult that we make the ultimate decision of surrendering it. Some won’t think twice before dragging their pooch to the closest shelter, but for most owners, passing the leash over to the attendant is a gut wrenching experience.

Behavior problems stand out as the primary reason why the relationship breaks down. Most problems have to do with aggression, separation-related behaviors, escapes, house soiling, fear based behaviors, destructiveness, excessive barking, disobedience, digging and chewing.

These statistics show without a doubt that loving dogs is not enough. It certainly doesn’t guaranty that we’ll be able to provide our pet with optimum conditions, manage unwanted behaviors or that we’ll know how to develop a trusting and fulfilling relationship with him. Dogs are complex, intelligent and emotional beings whose behaviors will be influenced by their genetics, their

Saarloos Wolfdog male Polski: Samiec by Elżbieta Wojtko Orinek7

background as well as their living situations. As emotionally driven ourselves, we sometimes make choices based on how the dog will make us feel and what his looks or reputation will say about ourselves, not on whether or not his particular breed or lineage is suited for our lifestyle. We fall in love with the cute husky puppy behind the window store or buy wolf hybrids because owning a wild animal is cool. Border collies are beautiful animals and amazingly smart, yet unless we’re ready to give them a job, they’ll develop neurosis and problematic behaviors from lack of stimulation. We’ll acquire beagles and terriers when we live in an apartment and work 8-10 hours out of the house then wonder why our neighbors complain about the barking.

Let’s face it, us humans often mean well, but just don’t always make the smartest of decisions. In our defense though, when we do try to educate ourselves, the information available can be very confusing. Figuring out which TV personality to follow, which breeder or pet store clerk to believe or which books to read becomes quite challenging, as the advice is often contradictory.

I’m a strong believer in the power of information and proactive measures. I love that shelters exist and we have to give credit to the incredibly dedicated and committed animal lovers who run them. However, it’s on the front end that we’ll really make a difference.

Once the animal is surrendered, suffering has already occurred!

So what can we do? Where should we put most of our efforts to inform the general public and to promote better breeding and training habits? I’d love to hear about your opinions on the subject as well as what you may already do or consider doing to make a difference.

Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (MedicalMutts.com), a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (SmartAnimalTraining.com).

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3 comments on “When the dog/human bond breaks down…What can we do?
  1. Cat says:

    I don’t know if there’s one answer to that question. I think the people on the front lines of animal adoptions are likely the best bet. Being brutally honest about what it takes to have a companion animal does change the minds of most people who haven’t done any (or very little) research. The people I know who work at pet stores or animal rescue organizations have a lot of stories of deterring people from adopting animals they aren’t ready for. As an example, a woman pre-purchased a rabbit at a pet store. When she came to pick it up, the pet store refused the sale because the woman insisted she could keep the rabbit in a dog crate with no bedding, and would feed it iceberg lettuce from WalMart. Still others refuse sales to people trying to put large fish into tanks that are entirely too small. These are the people who can make the difference.

    I like the idea of shelters who have the prospective owner come in for a few sessions to get to know the animal, too. But in the end, we have to make sure we all practice what we preach and give our animals the best quality of life we can by doing our research, and providing top-notch care for their behavioral, medical, and emotional needs.

  2. Certainly, there’s nothing like an ‘one-fits-all’ answer. Dogs may be by far the easiest of all pets to handle because they do learn / ‘speak’ the human language, are pack animals, and if not spoiled by any human or ill, they even need no formal training to behave well. I’m 60 plus, had all my lifetime dogs (exclusively German Shepherds), all of them lived in my home, escort me to restaurants, lived with me in hotels, do travel with me on vacations (mostly by car or train today, but before 9/11 on flights literally around the world). I did a little exercise so they learned the 4 basic commands (sit, stay, down, come). Tell them twice or a little more often (gently but consequently) not to climb on furniture, beds, armchairs, etc. or not to enter a specific room like the kitchen, etc. and they will understand and follow. Teach them the rules (simply but with no exceptions) and they’re the perfect companions. My dogs walk with me unleashed and even don’t leave the sidewalk if not asked to do so.

    On the other hand any owner must have a good understanding of the needs of their dog which varies from breed to breed. It means sufficient time to play, to walk, to chat … and food supply for his furry friend according to the dog’s activity. And frequent medical checks are required and may be costly. It’s all-in-all not hard to have a well-behaving dog BUT …. each dog is an individual and has his very own characteristics. For example, I know that my GSD (a male, not spayed or neutered as this is a crime and cruelty – or do you know anyone of parents, friends, relatives, etc. of humans whio are castrated?) is very good with most other animals including cats (indeed he is ‘owned’ by a small feline) and other female dogs can do anything to him but male dogs (this includes neutered ones, of course) are seen as rivals and the chance is 50:50 of tolerating them. I feel it my responsibility to know such a behavior and keep an eye on it. No problem at all if one takes some precarious measures.

    People owing a pet must also have patience, patience, and again patience. I strongly believe that the foremost lesson to the public is teaching them patience. Any pet will learn at his own pace, some quickly, some need more time (as it is with us humans).
    With clear rules to be given with firmness but not harshness any dog will be just perfect. And the humans have to stick themselves to their own rules, also this lesson has to be learned. Last but not least public in general should be made aware that they have to respect any animal and to be careful particularly in a first time meeting a strange creature but should not have any fear.

    And I do have little – better say, no – understand if any owner surrenders his loyal companion to a shelter or whatsoever. Except for death or serious, incurable illness there is no excuse to do so. If living conditions (including home, housing, income, etc.) will change I will demand that first of all my four-legged friends will be taken care of. Anywhere, at any place, is a way to take my furry friends with me. Maybe I have to accept a lower salary, or less luxurious home, etc. but I will never abandon my pet. And that is something people should take into consideration when going to have a pet.

  3. Cathy Armato says:

    Excellent post, and so true. We get many owner surrenders at the shelter, largely due to people wanting a certain type or breed of dog that just didn’t make sense for their lifestyle or abilities. Education of owners is critical. At our shelter we try to discuss the breed of dog they’ve asked to see and have a list of questions we ask them about their living situation and lifestyle to attempt to make a good match. They don’t always listen, but we try. Knowing breed attributes is critical. If any information about the dog’s personality, behavior challenges, people/dog friendliness etc is known it should be shared with the adopter. Education is the key.

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