No Bad Dogs, Just Bad Owners
Updated: Oct 16, 2021
Our socially-challenged, rescued Bichon Frise, Kirby, has always walked us. Whose fault is that? In all fairness, we are much more trainable than he.
Kirby is eight-years-old and has always had a difficult personality. In the beginning, we chalked his behavior up to the trauma from being abandoned. But after a while, we decided he could have been surrendered because the difficult personality was in his DNA. By the time we figured out that he was not going to change, it was too late. We had already fallen in love.
When Kirby walks us, he pulls full-steam ahead, until he catches a scent in need of investigation. After thoroughly sniffing, he’ll urinate and take off again. Upon identifying a threat—any person or animal who is not us—he locks a laser sharp gaze on the subject and bolts like a sled dog intent on winning the Iditarod. While still several yards away, he barks warnings and pulls with his entire seventeen pounds toward the threat.
During the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, walking Kirby was slightly easier. Mainly because fewer people on the beach or trails meant fewer targets. But as people started venturing out once more, Kirby morphed into a Tasmanian Devil.
There is a saying that there are no bad dogs, just bad dog owners. Each time Kirby acts out, makes me a bad dog owner. I don’t want to be a bad owner, so I searched for a trainer for aggressive dogs. The best I could come up with was a local dog walking group.
Needless to say, I was nervous as I drove to the first meeting. There would be a lot of new people and new dogs—a lot of new targets.
To protect the innocent, I have changed the names of the pet owners and the pets in the group.
Ron—one of the group’s leaders—and his Black German Shepherd, Tucson, take new dogs aside to evaluate them before they are allowed to participate. Kirby followed several feet behind Tucson, sniffed where Tucson peed and then peed over it. Ron is soft spoken. He observed Kirby, but didn’t try to engage him. He gradually allowed Kirby to catch up to Tucson until they were close enough to sniff each other. Kirby behaved beautifully. While walking, I had explained Kirby’s normal behavior, but he showed no aggression. Ron probably thought that I was crazy. Kirby passed the interview, and we trotted off to join the group.
The group leader was calling out forward, left, right, or about face. Kirby and I joined a healthy distance behind the pack. I dragged him as best I could in the direction indicated. When the direction called was about face, Kirby dug his feet in as I tried to turn him in the opposite direction. The rest of the pack swarmed around us. Kirby lunged to his right and barked a warning. The dog owner flinched. As I pulled him away another command was called and Kirby lunged and barked at another dog. Soon we’re caught in a kaleidoscope of dogs and owners. Kirby went nuts. I yelled, “I’m sorry!” to everyone. I felt like I had been dropped into an episode of I Love Lucy, and I melted down. A couple of well-meaning owners politely suggested that I keep Kirby off to the side of the pack until he gets used to the group. I held my tongue and didn’t tell them that was what I had tried to do.
Next, the group lined up with owners and dogs about five feet apart. We took turns weaving in and out of the line. Kirby barked at each dog when they weaved by us and at each of them when I dragged him through the weave. Toward the end of the activity, Kirby was so tired that he only barked at about half of the dogs.
By the end of the hour, I was exhausted. After witnessing Kirby with the group, Ron asked to take Kirby’s leash to show me some tips. I gladly turned him over. Kirby panicked and pulled toward me with all his might. Ron tried putting a little distance between us. Kirby pulled so hard that his back feet were on the ground and his front pawed the air, like he was a reindeer getting ready to take flight. He didn’t pay attention to Ron at all. After several minutes, he brought Kirby back and said since Kirby was so focused on returning to me that he couldn’t work with him. He explained that when Kirby barks at other dogs or people, he’s doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do, protect me. I need to relax and let him know that I don’t need protection. According to him, Kirby sensed my anxiety. Ron instructed me to jerk the leash sharply when his behavior is undesirable. Since he wears a shoulder harness, the action won’t hurt him. It just gets his attention. He went on to say that as Kirby attends the group more, he will start to feel like one of the pack and will start acting like the pack. I left dejected.
When I pulled up to the next meeting, all the members smiled and waved. But I was certain they were thinking, oh no, the Bichon’s back. No one has ever said anything to make me feel that way. It was my anxiety of being a bad owner.
Little by little Kirby barked at the other dogs less and less. But he almost always barked at Monty, a fifty-pound poodle mix. So I avoided Monty when I could and tried to distract Kirby when we couldn’t avoid him. Ron suggested that I walk Kirby in a circle as we approached Monty to break up his focus and then gradually get closer. Kind of a slow introduction. In theory, it sounded like good advice, but Kirby refused to walk in a circle. I ended up dragging him in a circle while he kept his eyes trained on Monty the entire time.
During some meetings Kirby acts very well and I puff out my chest and congratulate myself on what a good dog owner I am. Then the next meeting he arrives in a bad mood and starts barking before we even get out of the car, totally bursting my balloon. After one such unpleasant meeting, Ron suggested Kirby and I stay after class for a little more help.
Once again, Ron told me that I needed to relax because Kirby picks up on my mood.
To which I replied, “I am relaxed until he starts acting out.”
Ron calmly explained that Kirby’s only doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do, protect me, and that he really doesn’t want to protect me. Ron was very nice and worked with us for fifteen minutes or so.
But I think Ron’s wrong. I think Kirby very much likes acting like a big dog. First of all, when he targets a threat, he drags me toward it. If he was really protecting me, he would lead me away. And after he thinks he has frightened the threat away, he gets a little pep in his step and struts, like he’s saying, “I’m bad.”
Discouraged, I didn’t want to return to the group, but I did. Everyone in the group encourages us. They all act so excited—like it’s a badge of honor—when Kirby’s calm around them and their pets. They shrug it off when he’s grumpy.
I believe the odds of me winning the Powerball are more favorable than the odds of achieving the status of a good owner based on Kirby’s behavior. But I believe exposing him to the dynamics of the group is good. Sometimes he even acts like he enjoys it. He wags his tail and walks on the fringes of the pack. Other times he balks and tries to pull me in the opposite direction. This may be as good as he gets. I’ll just keep working with him and love him as he is.
Upon a little introspection, God may feel the same way about me as I do about Kirby. On a day when I’m irritable and may have lashed out at someone who didn’t deserve it, God is in heaven shaking His head in disappointment and thinking, I really thought she had overcome this. How many times is she going to keep repeating this behavior? But He doesn’t abandon me. He loves me as I am while encouraging me to do better. It’s the least I can do for Kirby.