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The "Rehabilitated" Dog Myth

When my dog bit a neighborhood girl almost 20 years ago, I was told by more than one person that "once a dog tastes blood," there was no hope. Fortunately, I found someone who knew otherwise and helped me make significant progress with my dog.

Since then, the pendulum of public opinion has swung in the other direction, with many now believing that any dog can be "rehabilitated" if only you use the right method. And the battle wages on, with desperate dog owners caught in the middle.

Certainly, 100 years of research has shown us that there are methods that are more effective and methods with a higher risk of making things worse. But, with all the arguments over which methods/equipment/techniques to choose, there's something very important that isn't being said:

Dogs aren't being rehabilitated.

I've learned that everyone has a slightly different definition of rehabilitation when it comes to dogs. Some define it as the ability to stop the dog's behavior in the moment with an aversive. Some define it as a dog that exhibits aggression less often than it used to. Some define it as a dog that is stiff and still, not showing aggressive behavior, but no longer exhibiting any behavior at all...for now.

My concern is that too many are interpreting it as "cured."

The term rehabilitation does not appear in any behavior texts that I can find. Not Barrows Animal Behavior Desk Reference. Not in one of the three volumes of Applied Dog Behavior and Training. Not in Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. In fact, the only definition I could find was in the dictionary:

Rehabilitate: verb re·ha·bil·i·tate \ˌrē-ə-ˈbi-lə-ˌtāt\: to bring (someone or something) back to a normal, healthy condition after an illness, injury, drug problem, etc. (a): to restore to a former capacity.

So, rehabilitation technically means to restore the dog’s behavior to a “normal, healthy condition.”

Here’s the problem:

Aggressive behavior IS normal. Aggression is not an illness. It’s not an injury. It can be caused or exacerbated by those things, but it is not something to be cured, healed, or removed.

For a dog to be normal and healthy means that aggression is still a part of its behavioral repertoire. It is an abnormal and unhealthy dog that does not practice self-preservation.

The world is a messy, uncontrollable place. People do stupid things. Collars and leashes break. Stray dogs appear out of nowhere. If something increases your dog's stress to the point that they cannot avoid or escape, they will always have aggression as an option. If a dog has injured a person or a dog in the past, the propensity to use that level of violence will always be there if things go wrong. And if things go really, really wrong, it could cost your dog their life.

If owners are led to believe that their dog has been rehabilitated - regardless of the training method used - they are more likely to risk the safety of their dog and others, believing that the dog is no longer "aggressive."

This is not to say there's nothing we can do. A dog that exhibits aggressive behavior is a dog that is under a significant amount of stress. And stress is suffering. There are things we can do to minimize the amount of stress a dog is under in their day-to-day lives and in specific situations.

We can increase tolerance and decrease the stress that causes aggression.

We can teach new behaviors to help the dog cope in stressful situations.

We can always increase safety and improve the quality of life of the dog....and their family.

If a behavior modification program provides a dog with these things, it is a success.

But if it claims to rehabilitate or otherwise solve a serious problem in a short period of time, regardless of methods, be suspicious.


Serenity Canine Behavior Ⓒ2022 Lisa Mullinax. All rights reserved.

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