Nature, Nurture, and Dusty
by Terri Florentino
“What exactly do you mean by, ‘pack mentality?’” I asked Susan.
Behind the baby gate, Dusty blinked at the three of us sitting around the dining room table, blowing our noses and deciding his fate.
“A take-charge attitude. I was the ‘Alpha,’ not Dusty.” Susan said she followed what she’d learned from the dog-training television show. “When Dusty would resource-guard something I’d try to intimidate him into releasing it. I’d get very close to him, use a sharp guttural tone and order him to, ‘Leave it!’”
“Well,” she said with a rueful laugh, “that never worked, so I did like the expert said and picked him up and angled his head towards the floor. A few times this did work. He’d drop it.” Before long, however, he began to threaten her with an uncompromising growl.
“He bit me,” Robert said. “Again and again. I’d only yank something away from him if I thought he had a hold of something dangerous. He broke my skin every time!”
Dusty had never been a social butterfly with strangers. His normal response was to walk away. As Dusty neared a year old, when people reached to pet him, he showed his teeth, growled and lunged.
“Even though he’s gotten to be such an unpleasant, and even dangerous little character, I love him.” Susan paused to collect herself, and I thought she might need another tissue. “Our daughter Sarah adores him. He’s never gone after me or the kids.”
“He’d be gone,” Robert said. “In a heartbeat.”
Susan squeezed his hand. “Look, Dusty was supposed to be our pet. The family pet. It’s not fair for Rob to live in fear in his own home, terrorized by a fluff ball.”
We all glanced at the fluff ball. He hadn’t moved. I started to wonder if he wasn’t a stuffed toy. He sure was cute.
“Now that he’s trying to bite other people, we’re at our wit’s end. We just can’t live like this. We can’t live with a dangerous dog.” She had steeled herself. She wasn’t going to cry.
Not knowing where to turn, Susan emailed Dusty’s breeder with her concerns about his behavior. To her surprise, the breeder replied that she and her family must have harmed him and ruined him. She refused to take him back, under any circumstances. “If you can’t handle him, you’ll have to euthanize him.”
“Euthanasia was not an option. I could not kill my daughter’s dog.” Susan reached for the tissues. “I started to believe the breeder was right. I must have ruined Dusty.” Even though she’d been following all the techniques of the well known television trainer, she suspected she’d only made things worse.
“Once the vet did a physical and blood work on Dusty, and everything came back normal, she told us to call you. She said your experience and motivational approach would be our best option.”
“Let’s get started,” I said. I sighed and thought for a moment. Some things were hard to say. “The first thing I want you to understand is that a certain percentage of personality traits are inherited and indelible.” I turned to Susan. “Based on your description of Dusty’s behavior right from the start, I’m certain that some of what you are seeing is his genetic baseline personality.”
“So he was born this way? And he’s always going to be like this?” Susan teared up. “I’m sorry. This is just so sad.”
“No, no! Don’t apologize. Your heart is breaking. I get it. I’ve been there. And I’m not saying things can’t get better for Dusty. This goes back to the nature-versus-nurture debate. Nobody’s entirely sure how much of each influences personality. All we know for sure is that a certain percentage of both are factored into the final product.”
Susan balled the tissue in her fist and looked at her hands. “I should’ve done things differently. It never felt right. I ruined Dusty.”
“No. It is both nature and nurture, but you still can’t blame yourself. Look, a dog with Dusty’s issues has to be handled very carefully, and you couldn’t have known that. You did your best. You’re still doing your best, and that’s awesome.”
Susan and Robert nodded. They smiled.
“Before we can teach him new skills, we need to lower his anxiety.” I recommended that they talk to their veterinarian about anxiety medication.
“You’re kidding me,” Susan said.
“That’s interesting,” Robert said. “I’d heard about it. People do it all the time. I just hadn’t thought of Dusty as anxious.”
“He’s afraid,” I said. “He was afraid before you met him.” I also explained what I refer to as, “the nothing for free concept.” This theory is based on controlling all resources. “Anything of value to your dog must be earned.” Into his daily routine we would integrate positive, reward-based motivational techniques. “All of this has to be fun, okay? Fun for you, fun for Dusty.” I turned toward the pup behind the gate and in my best, “Oh, boy!” voice I said, “Right, Dusty?”
He slid to the floor and dropped his head on his paws with a grunt.
“Fun?” Robert said. “I’m not sure Dusty knows what fun is.”
I’d love that. I want him to enjoy his little life,” Susan said.
“Okay. We make him feel safe. We set him up for success,” I said. “Deal?”
We had a deal.