This is a saying that is forever being bandied about, usually after some particularly nasty dog attack. While it is true that many serious incidents involving aggression in dogs do stem from mistreatment by humans and many behaviour problems result from inappropriate handling or lack of training and socialisation, this statement needs to be re-examined.
The sentiment expressed here is that dogs cannot have problems or do anything inappropriate or dangerous outside of the error of their owner/handler. So, whatever the dog has done, the fault always rests squarely on the shoulders of the person they live with or a person that they previously lived with.
Think about it for a minute – this is an incredibly judgemental statement. While it often comes from a place of wanting to protect dogs from the consequences of their behaviour, it assumes that any person with a problem dog is directly to blame and can cause people to feel an enormous amount of guilt when they realise that their dog has an issue of any kind.
This idea is so firmly entrenched in the minds of much of the dog-owning public, that it is quite usual for clients to express their guilt and feelings of inadequacy during consultations: “If only I was better at…” Or “I’m sure it’s all my fault, because ….”. This is not to say that guilt is not appropriate in some cases – if someone confesses to hanging their dog on a choke chain, then guilt is an appropriate emotion – but in many cases owners have no idea what they did wrong, but they feel somehow, they must be to blame, because “there are no bad dogs, only bad owners”.
But the truth of the matter is that there are dogs with problems that have NOTHING to do with their owner or their previous owner. While I would never apply the word “bad” to any dog, as to me this would attribute some sort of morality to dogs which they don’t have, the fact is that there are dogs that are born with problematic tendencies and dogs that are shaped very early on by their environment to have very serious behavioural difficulties. Again, the popular slogan “its all how you raise them” completely ignores genetics and early development, which happens outside of an owner’s control, before they acquire the dog.
While I am not going to go into enormous detail, for the sake of keeping this article short and easy to read, I want to mention just a few things that can contribute to behaviour problems in dogs that have NOTHING to do with the owner:
GENETICS: Dogs are not blank slates, they come with information coded into their genes. Physiology affects behaviour: levels of various neurotransmitters in the brain and the sensitivity of the autonomic nervous system (which controls fight or flight responses) will strongly influence how easily a dog can handle stress, how quickly they will feel threatened, how aroused they will become by various stimuli and how well they will cope with frustration. Numerous studies have been done which clearly show that nervousness is a heritable trait. Fear is the root of the most common aggression problems we find in dogs, so having a dog that is predisposed to fearfulness, will mean having a dog that is predisposed to develop an aggression problem. We also know that low levels of serotonin result in either depression or frustration and rage. Studies have shown a clear link between serotonergic dysfunction and impulsive aggressive attacks in dogs (https://www.scribd.com/doc/14810086/Heritability-of-Behavior-in-the-Abnormally-Aggressive-Dog-by-A-Semyonova). In fact, what used to be called “rage syndrome”, is often now treated successfully with SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) like Prozac.
PRENATAL ENVIRONMENT: Stress or malnourishment of the mother, while the puppies are in utero, has an impact on how the autonomic nervous system and the central nervous system develops. When puppies are flooded with stress hormones in utero, their autonomic nervous systems are sensitized and they will be predisposed to reactivity.
NEONATAL ENVIRONMENT: Malnourished mothers, completely isolated environments or extreme stress placed on puppies in the first few weeks of life, will have a strong impact on how a puppy’s brain and nervous system develops.
SOCIALISATION PRE-HOMING: The socialisation period starts at 4 weeks of age and ends at 14 weeks on average. Puppies are usually homed at 8 weeks of age, so a good month of socialisation time is out of the owner’s hands. Lack of stimulation, enrichment and contact with people during this time will have a profound effect on how a puppy develops and his or her ability to accept people and being handled by them.
While how we handle, train and socialise our puppies once we get them home will of course have an important influence on how they cope in life and the extent to which they fulfil their potential, one cannot ignore the influence of genetics and early environment on the long-term behaviour and general emotional state of any dog. Often the reason that someone ends up with a problem dog is not because they have handled the dog badly, but because they have been understandably fooled by the propaganda that “its all how you raise them”. They honestly believed that the puppy found in a drain pipe next to his starving mom, would be completely fine if he was just loved enough - or they have dismissed the fact that they couldn’t be allowed near the mom of the highly pedigreed German Shepherd puppy they were purchasing (because she was “a bit highly strung”), because training would help their puppy turn out just fine.
While we all need to do our best to ensure that our dogs are well socialised and trained and all their needs are fulfilled, the truth is that there are things that are out of our control. Many people are guilty of nothing more than making an ill-informed choice in the first place. Blaming them for their dog’s behaviour and denying any possibility of the dog being predisposed to problems is not helpful. It sets people up to have unrealistic expectations and to be wracked by guilt and inadequacy when things go wrong. What we should be doing is taking a good hard look at the type of dogs breeders are producing and that shelters are adopting out and put pressure on them to be more accountable and honest.