A case of “the bad becoming the norm”?

In Temple Grandin’s book “Animals in Translation” she describes a phenomenon she calls “the bad becomes the norm.” She gives the example of a man who raises chickens for food and over the course of a breeding program to achieve optimum meat production, his roosters become violent when mating. He describes them as rapists who harm and sometimes even kill the hens when mating. When asked about it, he is almost confused by the questioning, and it becomes clear that over time he has become desensitized to the behavior and has come to accept it as normal.


I am troubled by a trend in the companion dog world that seems to be on a similar track. There seems to be a belief that any behavioral issue can be fixed and the life of a dog takes priority over families, communities and other companion animals. I will be blunt, I personally spent 6 years trying to fix a dog with serious issues and have met several people in the past few years, who like me, have made significant compromises to the quality of their own lives, their relationships and financial stability to “save” a dog. They have put their families, other pets and members of the community at risk of injury because they underestimate their dog’s issues or are unable to manage their dog. In those rare moments of honesty, they have told me they are stressed out all the time and miserable; which is exactly how I felt. They feel like failures, guilt ridden and helpless because despite their best efforts, they can’t “fix” their dogs. These feelings are compounded by well-meaning friends and family who are quick to tell them what to do differently, recommend some wonder person or method, share a miracle story of success or give a pep talk. For illustrative purposes, I want to use a human relationship analogy. If a family member brought home a potential partner who exhibited violent or verbally abusive, unpredictable behavior, possibly, *only* toward “other” people or animals, would you encourage that family member to pursue that relationship? Would you join in with excuses about why the behavior might be justified, how amazing you think that person is for giving the person a chance or recommend methods they should try to “help” the other person? I hope not. If that family member had children or animals that were going to live with this person, would you encourage your family member to put those children and animals at risk? Would you tell your family member that violent, abusive behavior is “normal” for humans? Would you want this person to take on this responsibility because they *really* love this person and want to make the relationship work? If your answer is “yes”, you should do some research on domestic abuse and the probable outcome for your family member.

Hopefully, you answered no to the questions above and you recognize that what this person is pursuing is an unhealthy relationship. So, why are we telling people who have dogs with clearly “anti-social” behaviors they can fix them? I have not been able to find objective statistical data to support the claim that aggression in dogs can be cured. We tend not to dig deeper into the miracle stories. But, if you do, often you will find parallels again with the abusive relationship. A lot of denial; the dog is doing “better”. It has been months since there was a serious incident. The dog is such a wonderful dog except for this problem. The dog owner assuming blame for incidents either because they “caused it” or didn’t prevent it. The truth is that the average dog owner has as much of a chance of fixing their dogs as the person does of fixing an abusive partner. Why aren’t we honest and tell them, the more likely scenario is that *they* will be the one to change to accommodate their dog, to find ways to protect themselves and others, at potentially great monetary, emotional and physical cost to themselves and their families.

I hope that we have finally evolved to the point where we understand the difference between training/learning skills to do tasks, cultural norms, personality differences and mental illness in humans. Why don’t we think the same lines exist in animals? You can teach a dog obedience commands, they can adapt to living with us in our homes, and they should be allowed to have individual preferences for play, treats, exercise, how and how much they are touched, etc. We know dogs are hard wired with genetic traits through breeding to perform various “jobs”, but when they exhibit behavior that jeopardizes the safety of their “pack” or family, there is a serious problem.

“We need to be realistic about our limitations and take responsible actions that are based in reality.”

We can debate the range of normal and we can try to match environments to needs that come from personality and genetic traits, but why are we encouraging people to keep dogs that are dangerous or soanxiety ridden they self-mutilate? Why do we expect dog owners to be successful with dogs in a way that we have yet to achieve with people? People don’t usually go into these situations knowingly, and it is usually the kind person who feels obligated to keep trying. It breaks my heart to watch these people struggle and get pressured to keep trying in ways that get close to the line of bullying.

What started out as a movement to change the punitive, dominance based dynamic between human and dog to a more positive one has, in my opinion, taken a wrong turn; a turn that is promoting unhealthy relationships and unrealistic expectations. I did a search on aggression in dogs and “treating” this has become a booming business so clearly, there is no shortage of people seeking help, but is this really what we people want from their relationships with dogs or is this a case of “the bad becoming the norm”? After my experience, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted a dog again. When I did decide I wanted a dog in my life, I did everything possible to stack the deck
in my favor to find a dog whose baseline did not include fear, aggression, resource guarding or anxiety. I went with a responsible breeder and a gentle, family oriented breed. I have continued to try to stack that deck with regular socialization, training, using positive re-enforcement methods, etc. So far, so good, but I don’t look at dogs the same way I did before. I spent the first 6 months with our new dog looking for “signs” of trouble. I am finally relaxing and truly enjoying our dog. But still, when I am out in public, my initial reaction to a dog, particularly one off-leash is fear and sadness.


Written by our guest blogger Cynthia Hiatt. Longtime shelter volunteer, foster and animal rescuer who has worked on the rehabilitation of many dogs, including her own dogs.

A case of “the bad becoming the norm”?

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