Once upon a time there was a tap that dripped and underneath the tap was a big bucket. Every day, drip, drip, drip, water leaked out of the tap, and every day, drip by drip, the bucket began to fill. The song birds in the garden would sometimes stop by, and perch on the rim of the bucket, and dip their beaks into the bucket and take a drip or a drop out of the bucket, but bit by bit, the bucket began to fill. Once a fox happened along and took a big drink from the bucket and dropped the level down quite a bit, but overall, the bucket continued to fill.
One day, the water reached to top of the bucket, and in turn, the bucket began to drip over the edge. At first, the soil below became damp and a few plants began to grow there, but day by day, drip by drip, the soil became saturated and the soil became muddy and nothing was able to grow there. As the season went on, the rains came, and the dripping bucket was eventually surrounded by a puddle. The birds came and bathed in the puddle, and insects visited, but the puddle got bigger and bigger and bigger, and the yard became muddier and muddier and muddier.
In the house attached to the tap lived a little boy who loved to play in the yard, and who particularly loved to play in the mud by the puddle around the bucket. His mother was less enamoured of the little boy’s favourite practice-and she stopped allowing him to play in the yard. This resulted in the little boy spending more time in front of the television, eating snacks and staying clean while he became less and less healthy every day.
Eventually, the water bill came in and the mother noticed that she was using a lot more water than she thought that she ought to be using so she called the utility company to come out and investigate. Of course the plumber they sent noticed the bucket right away, tipped it over, looked at the tap and recommended that a new washer be installed in the tap in order to stop the leak. The washer was installed, the tap stopped dripping and the bucket went along to a new career as a goal on the ground for a random version of basket ball that the little boy and his best friend to play with in the now dry yard. The little boy sat still less often, the tv was turned off and everyone lived happily ever after.
And what does this have to do with dog training? A lot.
When I have a veterinarian refer a client to me for puppy class because the pup is tremendously fearful, and the client decides not to attend, then the family misses out on the support they need to help that puppy overcome his fears. When the pup is six months old, and he begins to have big problems with anxiety, this is a dripping bucket. The fears add up, drip by drip. And then...they tip over to become a bigger problem. When that same dog doesn’t get help, drip by drip the anxiety he had becomes overwhelming until he just cannot cope and bites someone. Drip by drip. Behaviour problems don’t usually appear over night. They appear drip by drip until the people who live with the dog with the problem finds themselves in the middle of a giant muddy puddle.
When this same dog ends up at the shelter, and someone there takes a shine to him, he might be placed in foster. Let’s just say that he is placed into a foster with a family who doesn’t have the skills to recognize the problem. Maybe this is a family who has never lived with a dog and they don’t recognize that the dog is afraid. Drip by drip, the dog settles into the family, and is afraid, but the family doesn’t know enough to prevent the dog from being exposed to the things that frighten the dog. One day, the fearful dog tips over into anxiety, and then tips again into aggression. The dog is sent back to the shelter, and the staffer who took a shine to the dog protects the dog and places the dog in another family on a permanent basis. Drip. Drip. Drip.
The first family, the foster family, is now turned off dogs. The drip of fostering this dog is that they now don’t want to foster dogs, they don’t want to adopt a dog, they don’t want a puppy, and when a family member gets a service dog, they won’t visit that family member. Drip. Drip. Drip. One drip at a time, the effect of a fearful puppy who didn’t go to puppy class builds. Now he has passed through the family of origin, to a foster family and both families suffer because of the fear that he lives with day in and day out.
The next stop on this poor dog’s journey is the family that took him on a permanent basis. If this family is any more savvy than the foster family, they will avoid some of the things that frighten him. But drip by drip, this effect changes the family in ways they had never anticipated. Drip by drip, the family stops having visitors-the dog is too afraid to meet. Drip by drip, this means that the kids cannot have friends over any more. Drip by drip, this means that mom cannot invite her friends over for coffee. Drip. Drip. Drip. The dog has to be put away when contractors come in to work in the home. Drip. And still the dog lives in fear and anxiety, all day, every day.
Eventually, the inevitable happens and the dog bites again. And this time, the family decides to euthanize the dog. DRIP. And the family gets another dog, but their middle child, the victim of the bite, is afraid of dogs for the rest of her life. Drip. Drip. Drip. The dog has three known bites on record, the family of origin is traumatized and the foster family is traumatized and lost to the world of rescue, the family of destination is also traumatized and one person in that family will never trust dogs again. Drip, drip, drip. And in the end, the dog pays. Drip.
Rescues are full of dogs like the one I describe; an amalgamation of three dogs on my case load in the past year. The problems are sometimes resolvable. They are often avoidable. And when a dog like this comes into rescue, there are other dogs in the shelter who don’t have behaviour problems. Here is another small problem-a drip. When this dog is placed in foster a behaviourally healthy dog looses the chance to be placed. Drip. And when the fearful dog comes back into the shelter, that is another behaviourally healthy dog that looses a chance. Drip. And when the fearful dog is eventually killed because he has bitten a member of the destination family, several behaviourally healthy dogs lose their chances to live in that family. Drip. Drip. Drip.
Dogs are interesting. They co evolved with us around about the time we started living in villages. They hang out. They eat our leavings. And in some cases they live closely with us. They are frighteningly similar to us. They have similar social behaviours, and similar developmental schedules. Some of them live successfully and without significant stress on the periphery of our societies. Some of them live happily and contentedly as working dogs who accompany us as guides, as searchers, as sentries. Others live in our homes as pets. No one way to live is the “right” way to live; dogs are able to fill all these many niches within our various social spheres. The net effect is that when we breed and capture dogs, we create situations where the drip effect begins to hit our joint destiny.
When we indiscriminately breed dogs predisposed to behaviour problems of any kind, the drip effect results in pups like the one described above. When we spay and neuter indiscriminately and we lose valuable genetic material, and more drips happen. When we fail to properly socialize pups, the bucket drips over. When we place dogs in families who are not prepared for fearful or aggressive dogs, more drips happen. When dogs who have behaviour problems are accepted into rescues and shelters, more drips occur. When dogs with behaviour problems are fostered out, then more drips happen. When these dogs are placed in families, more drips occur. When dogs are stolen off the streets and beaches and a tourist takes one such dog home, another drip falls out of the bucket that is the problem we face with dog populations today.
I see one hope for the dogs who are currently sitting in rescues and fosters and shelters. It is time for someone to come along and replace the washer in the tap. That someone, or those people in fact are the consumers of pets-we don’t eat them, but we do purchase them and adopt them and take them in. It is time for a consumer revolution that will stop the need for rescue. When families begin to choose dogs based not on needing to help the dog, but on making a good match for both the dog and the family, we will have put a washer on the dripping tap. This means that we as a society have to begin to make better choices about who our furry family members will be. We need to do this on a system wide basis, but like the green movement, we have to make small local choices that will have big global effects.