A fearful, unsocialized animal can communicate this history through behaviors such as hiding, cowering, growling, and more. These are all signs of communication that serve a purpose for the animal.
Many times I am asked, “What is the hardest animal you have ever trained?” My answer may surprise you, then maybe not. It’s not a certain species. My answer is ‘the ones with a long, unenriched, unsocialized history’. Those can also be the most dangerous to the uneducated public. Along with these histories come the labels as ‘unpredictable’, ‘neurotic’, ‘odd’, ‘aggressive’, ‘dangerous’, and more. I would also not call the training ‘hard’. It’s labeled that because it takes time, attention, and planning. All of which people call ‘hard’ because they are inconvenient to the lives of the people taking care of them. When shown the small signals to look for in behavior change, this isn’t hard at all. Many times people want too big of behaviors too fast. ‘Too big’ means, the animal doesn’t understand what you are asking or your intentions, because they haven’t yet been communicated through training and learning. These examples are often the cases of numerous returns to the shelters, euthanasia, chained to the garage, or covered in a cage in a basement.
Each animal is as individual as each person and should be approached as such. We, as caretakers can fall into the trap of expectations in wanting or adopting the animal we have in mind. No person or animal comes with a guarantee. We work with what we are given and we can do better for them and their future with us by recognizing this. I was recently contacted by someone that adopted a dog with fearful behaviors. This person told me “This is not what I wanted.” I responded by saying “You have what you adopted… a unique individual.”
The above conversation correlates to a recent example I heard someone describe. It is relative to a teacher saying “Sarah just graduated from the fifth grade and therefore I expect all fifth grade students named Sarah to be exactly alike. This worked for my last Sarah. Why isn’t this working for this one?” Genetics, history, nutrition, environment, medicine, and experience through consequences all play a major factor in the behavior of the animal.
That lunge, the bite, and not coming out of its cage are all signs of communication that the animal may not understand your intentions and the consequences it will bring. If that animal can see, hear, smell, or feel us…we are training it. The key question is “What are we training?”
Education is key, yet often not a priority which can result in continuous returns to shelters, labeled as ‘unadoptable’, resulting in preventable accidents, and more. When knowingly dealing with a behavior issue, why not focus on the behavior? These behaviors are serving a purpose for the animal. No behavior happens for no reason. Training is teaching. Teaching is learning. Learning is communication. When we know better, we do better. There is much room for the area of education to do better. Let’s do better!