The Appeal of Challenging Dogs

The troubled ones always call to me
By Karen B. London PhD, March 2018

The majority of the dogs I work with are a bit unusual among dogs. Many of them are struggling with serious behavioral problems and often emotional issues, too. People contact me for general training far less often than they do for aggression. Because the vast majority of aggressive dogs are fearful, I see a lot of dogs who are afraid, some who are very afraid, and a few who are terrified.

People don’t usually contact me if the fear is not a problem for the them. That means that the fearful dogs who run and hide under the bed when visitors arrive are rare in my work calendar. The more common situation people want help with is the dog who barks, growls, lunges at or bites the visitors. So often these dogs are conflicted. They are frightened, but they also have a tendency to go on offense—a sort of “I’ll get you before you get me” strategy.

I feel so strongly for these dogs, presumably because I have spent so much time with them. My heart goes out to them, and I love to be in their presence. My goal is to help them be the very best versions of themselves that they can be, and every baby step is a huge victory. When these dogs make good progress in overcoming their fears and are able to behave in a more desirable way around people, I rejoice with their guardians. My empathy for these scared (but so often wonderful) dogs is intense, and I am drawn to them. If I meet a family’s dogs in a social setting and 3 or 4 of them are cheerful friendly sorts, but one is afraid and perhaps acting out, it’s a sure bet that the frightened dog will pull at my heart the most. Sure, I love a well-adjusted dog as much as the next person, but I am positively drawn to the ones who need help.

It’s surprising in a way that these are the dogs who I love the most and whose company I so often seek because exactly the opposite is true for me with humans. The people I enjoy are usually happy, emotionally healthy, well-adjusted and put together. When I say that someone is stable, I mean it as the greatest of compliments. I enjoy people who are comfortable in their own skin, are happy-go-lucky, or are simply not weighed down by deep burdens. Though I feel for them, people with a lot of issues exhaust me, but dogs with issues inspire me and bring out the best in me.

Are you drawn to the dogs who are not the easy keepers?

photo by carterse/Flickr

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life