Greta Kaplan, CPDT, CDBC
I read a tragic news article: “Puppy Owner Pleads Not Guilty for Choking Animal to Death,” Associated Press, February 26, 2010. According to the article, the owner admitted holding the 10-week old Labrador puppy down for 20 seconds after the puppy bit the owner’s girlfriend on the nose, causing what the Animal Services officer called “a minor scratch.”. According to the officer, the puppy was taken to an emergency vet where he “couldn’t walk, was breathing poorly and had reddish saliva and blue gums.” The puppy died.
Without further information, of course, we do not know what motivated the owner. Perhaps he was really angry and lost his temper, badly enough to kill the puppy. Certainly, this does not match the description given.
If we accept the description given, the owner deliberately held the puppy down, using quite a lot of force. It appears this holding-down maneuver was intended as a consequence for a bite to the girlfriend’s nose. It’s reasonable to conclude that the owner believed two things: First, that the bite to the nose was a seriously unacceptable, even aggressive act that justified severe discipline; and second, that holding a puppy down with severe force is an appropriate way to discipline a dog, including a ten-week old puppy.
Both of these propositions are false. First, puppies this age bite. It’s developmentally normal and almost never “aggressive.” (Serious aggression in puppies this age is so rare that it causes a flurry on trainer email lists if observed; many trainers simply never have seen it.) Second, holding a dog or puppy down as a form of discipline is dangerous and unnecessary.
The danger can be to the person if the dog is an adult, particularly a large one. Holding a large adult dog down puts the person’s face near the dog’s mouth, and a dog who panics, or decides not to put up with the human aggression, is very likely to target the face simply because it’s nearby. It can also be dangerous to the dog, as in this case, where the size and strength disparity was extreme.
This type of discipline is unnecessary. Dogs simply do not use “holding each other down” or “rolling other dogs over” as a way of punishing or enforcing status. Wolves may do it, but they do so extremely rarely; but in any case, dogs are not wolves; and even if they were, we are not wolves and do not remotely understand how and when to apply this type of serious, dangerous consequence. There are numerous other safer, saner and more effective ways to influence your dog’s behavior.
Where, then, would an owner get the idea this was a good tactic? One popular dog training book by The Monks of New Skete advocated the “alpha roll” in its first edition, about three decades ago. The second edition, much more recent, retracted that advice with an apology. However, the original edition is still out there; I recently saw a client who’d done a few alpha rolls on her young dog, based on that very book, which she’d picked up secondhand.
Realistically, though, not many people read that book any more. On the other hand, every week, millions of people watch a television star who often performs maneuvers very like the one that killed this puppy. You can watch, on YouTube and the National Geographic website, as this entertainer grabs dogs and pushes or slams them onto the ground. In some clips, you can literally see the dog’s tongue turning blue after some time on the ground. No wonder many pet owners might get the idea that this is a potentially appropriate response to perceived aggression from the dog.
And, this same performer often delivers this type of consequence for behavior described as “dominant.” I don’t doubt that he might describe normal puppy biting as “dominant.” So again, it’s no wonder that a pet owner might be led to perceive normal puppy biting as “dominant,” and to respond in a way he’d seen repeatedly modeled on TV.
I do not know whether the owner of the dead puppy, who is being charged with felony animal abuse, has watched “The Dog Whisperer” on TV. However, I don’t know one competent behavior consultant who did not immediately, on seeing this tragic news story, make the same guess I did. This type of human behavior is repeatedly modeled by a charismatic, persuasive, and apparently effective role model on an extremely popular television show. It is inevitable that someone was going to “try this at home” with disastrous results; and this puppy’s death might be that disastrous result.