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I just read this blog post from Suzanne Clothier, and felt I had to share it. Many of you know the struggles I've had with Shanoa since we first brought her home. She is not, and more than likely never will be, "normal." We work very hard with our veterinary behaviorist and several trainers to help her live the best life she can live, but it's an ongoing struggle that is emotionally exhausting a lot of the time.

I wanted to share this because I think what Suzanne Clothier says is both true, and so important. That not all dogs are born "normal," and it's not the owner's fault. You can do everything right and you still have a dog with issues. I do see and hear owners being blamed, sometimes. I know it's happened to me. Most of us owners with dogs like this already feel tremendous guilt, and blame ourselves. So I think this is a really important read and I wanted to share it for those that don't read her blog.

From Suzanne Clothier's blog, here: Perfectly Normal? | Suzanne Clothier

______________________________________________

Perfectly Normal?

"All dogs start out as perfectly normal puppies,ready and eager to learn, as malleable as clay."

~ Dr. Ian Dunbar

Sigh... this came across my desk today, as the tagline for the Dog Star Daily Woof from Dr. Dunbar and staff. As a breeder working on her 7th generation of German Shepherds, it made me roll my eyes, as it is a typical statement from non-breeders who seem to have a very skewed and unrealistic view about puppies and what they are or are not. But then I had a stronger reaction, as a trainer. The more I thought about it, the stronger my response.

“Perfectly normal”? Coming as it does from a veterinarian who is also a PhD in behavior, I’d hope that Dr. Dunbar’s pronouncements would reflect an awareness that there are so many ways in which puppies can start out far less than normal. Even setting aside his considerable education and experience with dogs, it might be fair to assume he’s seen or at least heard about? read about? a range of human babies, some of which are born far less than "perfectly normal." (For example, hard to escape the sad statistics regarding autism these days, but perhaps he has.) It is hardly rocket surgery, this notion that even in the best of situations, Nature never produces 100% viable or normal beings. Whether sponge or spaniel, genetic or developmental aberrations can and do routinely occur, affecting mental, emotional and physical aspects of animals.

What most bothers me as a trainer is that his underlying premise puts total responsibility on the owner. The unspoken message is that since the pup was born “perfectly normal” if you just train enough and in the proper way using approved methodology, you will not wreck this “perfectly normal” puppy and he can grow into a “perfectly normal” dog. In essence, it’s all yours to lose. If it goes wrong, the fault lies squarely with the owner for failing to train enough or properly or soon enough or long enough or using the right techniques or . . . you get the idea.

To say this is an unfair and unrealistic message is an understatement.

Though Dr. Dunbar’s been at it longer than I have, we both are trainers who have worked with Joe Q Public and JQP’s dogs for a long time. Apparently, our experiences differ. Because as both a breeder and a trainer, I’ve seen dogs who were not perfectly normal from the get go. I’ve worked with countless owners who diligently did their best for their dogs, followed all advice given to them, and still had an abnormal dog. And it is so difficult to describe the scope of their guilt and shame at somehow failing the dog they loved very much. A dog that perhaps had to be euthanized because no amount of training could bring the dog even vaguely close enough to normal to be safe, or able to live with something resembling good quality of life.

Dr. Dunbar's comment regarding “perfectly normal” has the same unspoken blame that is contained in the idea that people get sick because of “sin” or that they don't heal because they lack “sufficient faith” or aren’t “positive enough.” It may be worth remembering that not so long ago, mothers of autistic children were actually blamed for the autism, which was believed to result from the mother’s “emotional coldness.” I doubt Dr. Dunbar intends this undertone of blame, but I also have to wonder if he’s really considered what is unspoken beneath this sound bite. Like many sound bites which make a nifty quote, his tagline implies a great deal which simply isn’t true. As sound bites do, it neatly truncates a complex truth into something simple and easily swallowed without needing any mental mastication or even digestion. And we all live happily ever after.

Sad news flash: Some dogs are not born "perfectly normal." A few times in a long career as a breeder, I've had to euthanize puppies who were clearly not normal. This is always a heartbreaking choice, made only after wishing and hoping and praying in the face of the inescapable reality: this puppy is not normal, cannot live a normal life, will suffer needlessly or will live a short life filled with illness and pain. The majority of these pups were physically malformed (cleft palate, persistent aortic arch, incomplete development resulting in non-existent structures).

But one was wrong from a neurological/behavioral response perspective. Pick her up, and at times, she cuddled into your hands. Other times, she would stiffen and scream, impossible to console or comfort, no relaxation possible until after she was put down and left alone for a prolonged period (10 or more minutes). No amount of careful massage or touch work or contact changed this response in any way. This began around 3 weeks of age, though she had seemed unusual in her responses prior to that as well. For several weeks, we kept hoping against hope that her rapidly changing body would develop through and out of whatever was behind this abnormal response, but by 7 weeks of age, it was terribly apparent this puppy was not going to "get better" and that it would be irresponsible to place or sell her into any home. With great sorrow, after caring for her with diligence from the moment she took her first breath, we euthanized her.

30 years later, I still remember this puppy, always will. Long experience has taught me that it was very much the right decision. In the intervening years since her death, I have worked with far too many loving dog owners who have had their heart broken by a puppy they bought with joy and hope. They had the very reasonable expectation that love, appropriate training, good husbandry and proper socialization would help create a healthy, happy canine companion. And then reality hit. Their bundle of joy was also a bundle of abnormal responses, some of which could be modified or managed but not necessarily trained to normalcy, never mind perfectly normal. (And this is just the folks who bought a puppy, the theoretically “perfectly normal” puppy Dr. Dunbar refers to. Another whole story can be told of the people who acquired older dogs.)

Dr. Dunbar has spent most of his career working hard to promote happy relationships between people and dogs, effective and fun training, and humane methodologies. He has been one of my great mentors, and I am forever grateful to him for what he’s done for dogs. However, there are times when his simple messages become simplistic, and in doing that, he rob dogs and people alike of important nuances and distinctions. His message might be better served by a more realistic message which acknowledges that training is just one part of the picture. Dog owners can use training wisely to help dogs become their best possible selves, even if that best self is one with limitations or less than “perfectly normal” responses. Holding the image that all dogs were born “perfectly normal” is unfair to the dogs themselves and to the people who love them.
 

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I have run into a few dogs that were not normal working as a dog bather and doggy day care. Some people have the time, resources and patience to give those dogs what they needed to live comfortably and other had to be put Down because everything they did didn't work. Sad to think that back in the day that mothers were blamed for their child's autism. Thanks for sharing.
 

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Wow. Just wow. This is so right, on so many levels. What an eloquent and insightful approach she has to the subject. I think it's true, it's easy to see dogs and puppies as merely a product of the humans around them, and forget that they have inherent differences, physical and mental, just like we do. Thank you for sharing this!
 

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I think most people have not encountered a "not normal" dog. That's a good thing, let's be honest most people wouldnt have a clue what to do with that. It is a unique challenge, and the "happy go lucky" puppy owners who think it's like you did something wrong... Probably on their first dog and taught them to sit are now experts make it all the more difficult.
 

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I think most people have not encountered a "not normal" dog. That's a good thing, let's be honest most people wouldnt have a clue what to do with that. It is a unique challenge, and the "happy go lucky" puppy owners who think it's like you did something wrong... Probably on their first dog and taught them to sit are now experts make it all the more difficult.
That's very true. I guess what I meant is like the people in my neighborhood that don't understand why I didn't want their off leash dogs running straight at my leashed fearful dog (puppy at the time.) Then blame my dog's fear for their dog trying to attack. That was a really fun day...
 

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That's very true. I guess what I meant is like the people in my neighborhood that don't understand why I didn't want their off leash dogs running straight at my leashed fearful dog (puppy at the time.) Then blame my dog's fear for their dog trying to attack. That was a really fun day...
Your dog (puppy) has every right to feel fearful in the "charging off leash dog" situation. Totally normal! :)
 

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It all goes back to the nature vs. nurture debate, but funny to think vets and/or trainers wouldn't see that puppies are clearly born with differences in temperament and issues right off the bat. Its just like people who suffer from mental health problems, why should we think dogs brains/emotions would work differently? Some are just a little off.
 

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It wasn't just normal young puppy fear though. Her reactions to other dogs were really severe (i.e. screaming so that neighbors were coming out of their houses) and after a year of having a private trainer she is able to go to agility classes but it's definitely a work in progress.
 

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Not all people are normal either.
In my job I see a lot of" not normal" children. What I find heartwarming is that most of the parents accept the child for who they are while providing the best techniques they can to help the child thrive. Some children do very well and are able to compensate for the issue and some just never get any better. This is not an easy journey for a parent of a special needs, developmentally delayed or cognitive impaired child. It is so very difficult most of the time, in the end where there is commitment there is acceptance and love.

Yes a dog is the same.
 

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Thanks for posting this, MeadowCat. I wish more people thought about it from this perspective. I know I'm not a perfect owner or trainer, and my dog has some issues. I am so tired of people telling me "you must not be doing it right" as if they know me or my dog or our history together. The analogy to children is apt; you have to recognize the individual with their challenges and strengths to be able to help them in the way they best respond.
 

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'Normal' is such a relative term. Dogs have been a part of my life for over 20 years and none have ever been 'normal' in the traditional sense of the word. All of them do normal dog things like eat, sleep, play and bark, but they have quirks that make them just a little abnormal. Maybe I've been conditioned to feel an attachment to those dogs that are a little bit abnormal because that's all I've ever known and I've never been able to fault them for their own personality. Yes, there have been dogs I haven't enjoyed being around but that wasn't their fault. Dogs don't really stop and think about what people think of them - they act how they know to act, and while they can be trained and 'molded', you can't change their basic chemical make up. In accepting their oddities, you open the opportunity to really work with them and help them to flourish. That's why so many different training styles exist - dogs are not one size fits all. They are not typical or normal. They are creatures with brains and feelings, and a reaction instinct.
 

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Great article. Can't tell you how much flack I got from some people in the rescue community for euthanizing my shelter pit bull with HA. One woman I confided in for help actually blasted me in her response saying that she "saves dogs not kills them." and compared my 65 lb HA pit to her 10 lb HA mini schnauzer and said "oh you can do it if I can with this dog, I just put him away when company comes over." I went to multiple trainers and had a vet checkup on this dog but got nowhere. I felt that I did all I could and the liability was too great. I even had the vet I took the dog to to be put to sleep bully me out of it and told me to contact a client of hers who could handle the dog. I was extremely upset because I knew what needed to be done, but humored her. Got a call the next 2 days saying I need to pick the dog up asap because she was trying to go after trainer and her mom so they left her crated.

So thank you for this post.
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
I had my first Nosework class on Tuesday. It's a class that's just for reactive dogs to do Nosework. No dogs the first class, just owners. It was really interesting to talk with the other owners, since everyone there has a "not normal" dog. One owner has been showing dogs for over twenty years, and this is her first experience with reactivity, so she's really in the midst of the journey of figuring this out and accepting that her dog is different, and that it isn't anything she did. We had a great conversation about it.
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
It's awesome that you have resources like that in your community.
Me too!

It's sometimes hard for owners to find them, though. One of the guys in my class was saying that he really didn't find anything until he figured out to use the word "reactivity" in his searches. We're lucky that we have an outstanding certified veterinary behaviorist at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Duxbury rocks, and she's great at referring owners to the couple of trainers we have locally who are equipped to help with reactivity. We have at least two trainers that really know what they are doing when it comes to reactive dogs. I was thrilled when one of them decided to offer a Nosework class specifically for reactive dogs (I asked often until she gave in :D ). I'm really excited about it, because not only is the sport reactive-dog friendly, but this class is really designed so the dogs can be successful.
 

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I'm so glad you posted this because I have always believed it. I am not a Dunbar fan, I have to say, life and dogs are not so cut and dry and I often disagree with his advice. Suffice it to say I disagree strongly with his advice about problem dogs often. I have never liked him. I know he is a "god" to some in the dog world but not me. I do like Clothier though.

I just read this blog post from Suzanne Clothier, and felt I had to share it. Many of you know the struggles I've had with Shanoa since we first brought her home. She is not, and more than likely never will be, "normal." We work very hard with our veterinary behaviorist and several trainers to help her live the best life she can live, but it's an ongoing struggle that is emotionally exhausting a lot of the time.

I wanted to share this because I think what Suzanne Clothier says is both true, and so important. That not all dogs are born "normal," and it's not the owner's fault. You can do everything right and you still have a dog with issues. I do see and hear owners being blamed, sometimes. I know it's happened to me. Most of us owners with dogs like this already feel tremendous guilt, and blame ourselves. So I think this is a really important read and I wanted to share it for those that don't read her blog.

From Suzanne Clothier's blog, here: Perfectly Normal? | Suzanne Clothier

______________________________________________

Perfectly Normal?

"All dogs start out as perfectly normal puppies,ready and eager to learn, as malleable as clay."

~ Dr. Ian Dunbar

Sigh... this came across my desk today, as the tagline for the Dog Star Daily Woof from Dr. Dunbar and staff. As a breeder working on her 7th generation of German Shepherds, it made me roll my eyes, as it is a typical statement from non-breeders who seem to have a very skewed and unrealistic view about puppies and what they are or are not. But then I had a stronger reaction, as a trainer. The more I thought about it, the stronger my response.

“Perfectly normal”? Coming as it does from a veterinarian who is also a PhD in behavior, I’d hope that Dr. Dunbar’s pronouncements would reflect an awareness that there are so many ways in which puppies can start out far less than normal. Even setting aside his considerable education and experience with dogs, it might be fair to assume he’s seen or at least heard about? read about? a range of human babies, some of which are born far less than "perfectly normal." (For example, hard to escape the sad statistics regarding autism these days, but perhaps he has.) It is hardly rocket surgery, this notion that even in the best of situations, Nature never produces 100% viable or normal beings. Whether sponge or spaniel, genetic or developmental aberrations can and do routinely occur, affecting mental, emotional and physical aspects of animals.

What most bothers me as a trainer is that his underlying premise puts total responsibility on the owner. The unspoken message is that since the pup was born “perfectly normal” if you just train enough and in the proper way using approved methodology, you will not wreck this “perfectly normal” puppy and he can grow into a “perfectly normal” dog. In essence, it’s all yours to lose. If it goes wrong, the fault lies squarely with the owner for failing to train enough or properly or soon enough or long enough or using the right techniques or . . . you get the idea.

To say this is an unfair and unrealistic message is an understatement.

Though Dr. Dunbar’s been at it longer than I have, we both are trainers who have worked with Joe Q Public and JQP’s dogs for a long time. Apparently, our experiences differ. Because as both a breeder and a trainer, I’ve seen dogs who were not perfectly normal from the get go. I’ve worked with countless owners who diligently did their best for their dogs, followed all advice given to them, and still had an abnormal dog. And it is so difficult to describe the scope of their guilt and shame at somehow failing the dog they loved very much. A dog that perhaps had to be euthanized because no amount of training could bring the dog even vaguely close enough to normal to be safe, or able to live with something resembling good quality of life.

Dr. Dunbar's comment regarding “perfectly normal” has the same unspoken blame that is contained in the idea that people get sick because of “sin” or that they don't heal because they lack “sufficient faith” or aren’t “positive enough.” It may be worth remembering that not so long ago, mothers of autistic children were actually blamed for the autism, which was believed to result from the mother’s “emotional coldness.” I doubt Dr. Dunbar intends this undertone of blame, but I also have to wonder if he’s really considered what is unspoken beneath this sound bite. Like many sound bites which make a nifty quote, his tagline implies a great deal which simply isn’t true. As sound bites do, it neatly truncates a complex truth into something simple and easily swallowed without needing any mental mastication or even digestion. And we all live happily ever after.

Sad news flash: Some dogs are not born "perfectly normal." A few times in a long career as a breeder, I've had to euthanize puppies who were clearly not normal. This is always a heartbreaking choice, made only after wishing and hoping and praying in the face of the inescapable reality: this puppy is not normal, cannot live a normal life, will suffer needlessly or will live a short life filled with illness and pain. The majority of these pups were physically malformed (cleft palate, persistent aortic arch, incomplete development resulting in non-existent structures).

But one was wrong from a neurological/behavioral response perspective. Pick her up, and at times, she cuddled into your hands. Other times, she would stiffen and scream, impossible to console or comfort, no relaxation possible until after she was put down and left alone for a prolonged period (10 or more minutes). No amount of careful massage or touch work or contact changed this response in any way. This began around 3 weeks of age, though she had seemed unusual in her responses prior to that as well. For several weeks, we kept hoping against hope that her rapidly changing body would develop through and out of whatever was behind this abnormal response, but by 7 weeks of age, it was terribly apparent this puppy was not going to "get better" and that it would be irresponsible to place or sell her into any home. With great sorrow, after caring for her with diligence from the moment she took her first breath, we euthanized her.

30 years later, I still remember this puppy, always will. Long experience has taught me that it was very much the right decision. In the intervening years since her death, I have worked with far too many loving dog owners who have had their heart broken by a puppy they bought with joy and hope. They had the very reasonable expectation that love, appropriate training, good husbandry and proper socialization would help create a healthy, happy canine companion. And then reality hit. Their bundle of joy was also a bundle of abnormal responses, some of which could be modified or managed but not necessarily trained to normalcy, never mind perfectly normal. (And this is just the folks who bought a puppy, the theoretically “perfectly normal” puppy Dr. Dunbar refers to. Another whole story can be told of the people who acquired older dogs.)

Dr. Dunbar has spent most of his career working hard to promote happy relationships between people and dogs, effective and fun training, and humane methodologies. He has been one of my great mentors, and I am forever grateful to him for what he’s done for dogs. However, there are times when his simple messages become simplistic, and in doing that, he rob dogs and people alike of important nuances and distinctions. His message might be better served by a more realistic message which acknowledges that training is just one part of the picture. Dog owners can use training wisely to help dogs become their best possible selves, even if that best self is one with limitations or less than “perfectly normal” responses. Holding the image that all dogs were born “perfectly normal” is unfair to the dogs themselves and to the people who love them.
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
I'm so glad you posted this because I have always believed it. I am not a Dunbar fan, I have to say, life and dogs are not so cut and dry and I often disagree with his advice. Suffice it to say I disagree strongly with his advice about problem dogs often. I have never liked him. I know he is a "god" to some in the dog world but not me. I do like Clothier though.
I often like Dr. Dunbar (particularly his stuff on teaching bite inhibition/soft mouths to puppies), but I think sometimes he misses the mark.

I usually like Suzanne Clothier (once in a while I disagree with her). I really found this blog post of hers to hit me exactly where I needed it, as an owner of one of "those" dogs.

I've talked about Shanoa's issues fairly regularly on DT, but there's probably only a few people who know the extent of her issues and how hard she can be to live with sometimes. Even some of my friends and my family don't really "get it." It's great to have a few people here on DT as a bit of a support group, people who've been through or are going through this journey with their own dogs (mini-shout-out to RottenVonSpotten, RedFawnRising, and others).
 

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Me too!

It's sometimes hard for owners to find them, though. One of the guys in my class was saying that he really didn't find anything until he figured out to use the word "reactivity" in his searches. We're lucky that we have an outstanding certified veterinary behaviorist at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Duxbury rocks, and she's great at referring owners to the couple of trainers we have locally who are equipped to help with reactivity. We have at least two trainers that really know what they are doing when it comes to reactive dogs. I was thrilled when one of them decided to offer a Nosework class specifically for reactive dogs (I asked often until she gave in :D ). I'm really excited about it, because not only is the sport reactive-dog friendly, but this class is really designed so the dogs can be successful.
Kudos to you! Man, people like that would be a great resource to have for rescue dogs. Do they do any work with local rescues?
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
Kudos to you! Man, people like that would be a great resource to have for rescue dogs. Do they do any work with local rescues?
I don't know about the doc...her schedule is pretty insane, since she also teaches at the vet school. At least one of the trainers, though, is an active rescue volunteer with at least one local rescue. We had a foster dog in our last reactive dog class.
 
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