The Pets Doc

Dr. Kevin Watkins, DVM

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Lessons of ‘Jovie’ – Instinctual action banishes dog to farm

I began the study of animal behavior in 1999. My husband and I were attending a veterinary conference, and I had the good fortunate to attend a week-long series of lectures by Dr. Rolan Tripp. Tripp has been a veterinarian for years, but he is also one of the nation’s leading experts on animal behavior.

After the first hour in his class, I was hooked, and I spent the next week soaking up everything he had to say like a sponge. I came home armed with new knowledge, and the enthusiastic, albeit somewhat naive, goal to improve every dog’s life that I possibly could, one owner at a time.

Since then, I’ve learned that not every dog is going to be a success story and that I can’t save them all. Usually, it the owner’s failings that create an undesirable dog, but sometimes it simply comes down to an individual dog’s personality and the way they are wired. I was thrilled at the opportunity to hear Tripp speak again recently. His topic was the diagnosis and treatment of canine aggression. I learned that there are 25 sub-types of aggression, and I know people are experiencing these problems with their dogs every day.

Canine aggression has many faces and is triggered by many different situations, so sometimes it is impossible to see it coming. In spite of my knowledge and years of experience in dealing with canine behavior, I could not prevent a devastating event that took place among our own pet family this past summer. In the months since, I have experienced guilt and grief over our loss, and it was the reason for my leave of absence from writing this column.

As a pet behavior counselor, I felt like I should have prevented this tragedy. In our case, our dog, Jovie, exhibited food guarding aggression, and in one horrible instant, a beloved kitten was dead. When I consulted with Tripp about this event and its consequences, he confirmed what I already knew to be true and validated my grief.

What Jovie did was an instinctual behavior, but in our house, it was unforgivable. Had I been his canine mother in a wild pack, I would have responded to this event the way dogs do. Jovie would have been shunned and banished from the pack for killing a young, helpless member, and there would have been no emotion involved.

When he came to live with us at six weeks of age, I became his two-legged mother. So, being human, making the decision to banish him from our pack was one of the saddest things I have ever had to do. But I also knew I could never trust him around our kittens again and that he had to leave us.

Jovie wasn’t a bad dog. In fact, he was incredibly intelligent and sweet. He just needed more than we could give him in a 50×100-foot yard in downtown Madison, Ind. He always struggled against his “low man on the totem pole” status, and I had to work every day to keep him there.

He really wanted to be an Alpha member of the pack, but because of his personality, I knew he could never be allowed to assume that rank. The upside of this story is that Jovie went to live on an 80-acre farm with a couple who wanted a young, well-trained dog that had already been through the puppy phase. That is exactly what they got. He doesn’t have to compete for Alpha status because he is their only pet and their kids are grown. I hear he loves to run and play Frisbee.

After talking with lots of canine owners over the years, I have come to the conclusion that we all have a tendency to humanize our dogs. But because dogs are going to be dogs, this is not always a wise thing to do. I know that canines and humans share a lot of common thoughts and emotions, and so, in my humanness,

I miss Jovie and wonder if he ever thinks about us, his former pack. I know we will never forget him.

Margo Watkins, Pet Behavior Counselor

Pawsitive Pet Behavior Blog