Article: Strangers in a Strange Land: Yesterday's Aussies in Today's World

Copyright 2004, Australian Shepherd Club of America, Inc.
Reprinted with permission from the May/June 2004 Aussie Times


by Monique Feyrecilde, ARPH Aussie Times liaison


Rescue Representatives donate their time and energy to the cause of helping dogs in need. Every day when I arrive home from work I sift through rescue related email and voicemail, trying to help dogs and the people who live with them. Some dogs and families I can help, some I cannot. The most common reason I am unable to help a dog in need is if it has bitten someone. For everyone's safety, ARPH does not accept dogs into the program if they have what we call "a bite history." One of the most difficult conversations I have with owners is helping them decide if it would be fair to expect another family to live with the behavior problems which have precipitated their decision to surrender the dog or if euthanasia is appropriate for their pet.


It is easy to get discouraged as a volunteer who does animal rescue. Fortunately one of the benefits of working with ARPH is the support and knowledge of many fantastic volunteers, usually through our nation-wide rescue email list. One topic we recently explored on this list is whether many Rescue Representatives are receiving more calls about aggressive Aussies, or dogs with a bite history. A fascinating thread followed, perhaps posing more questions than it answered. These are difficult questions because their answers are not palatable to everyone. Unfortunately, Rescue Representatives get calls every day regarding dogs we cannot help based on behavior, and the numbers seem to increase as the years go by. Is there really an increase in aggression or aggressive behaviors in our breed? If there is, why might this happen? And most important, what can be done to solve the problem?


Dogs have been domesticated and have lived with humans for centuries. On the timeline of domesticating dogs, Aussies are relative latecomers. It is generally accepted that the Aussies of today are the product of many years of careful selection. However, what we select for when breeding an Aussie may have changed in recent years.


In the past, lifestyles were much different than they are today. Most dogs were not simply house pets. Dog owners depended on their dogs to perform designated types of work. Herding dogs were used on the ranches, hunting dogs were used in the field, working and guard breeds were respected and appreciated for their value to the home, flock and family. Ranch homes were precisely that: working ranches which also served as a home for the rancher and his family. An Aussie living in this household would probably have come from one of several sources. Likely sources would include a working-bred litter whose parents were selected based on their working value around the ranch, an accidental litter, or a litter bred specifically because the parents were trouble-free family dogs that were good with stock and children.


These pups would grow up on the ranch. If the property was fenced, it was most likely fenced for the stock, not for the dogs. Living on acreage, there was plenty of ground for the historical Aussie to cover. When not at work, he could entertain himself patrolling the property, wandering through the woods or exploring new territory. Vigorous physical and mental exercise was a part of everyday work and play.


The ranchers who owned these dogs were animal savvy. Their livelihoods generally revolved around the health and wealth of their stock. A dog was a valuable tool in managing and protecting the flock or herd. It was a no-nonsense lifestyle, not easily given to spoiling dogs or children.


Aussies were brave little dogs full of instinct and heart. No rancher or horeseman had to think twice about leaving his gear in his truck or intruders coming onto the property. Not only did these dogs work stock efficiently, they also protected the home and property of their owners. But as I said, these were different times. The growl, snarl and bark of a dog were respected signals, not behaviors earning punishment. Someone foolish enough to challenge a growling Aussie to trespass or steal would have been punished with a bite. And it would have been considered a warranted act by the dog, likely greatly appreciated by the owner.


These dogs were respected in their homes as well. It was understood a dog under the table with the evening's ham bone should not be disturbed. Children who knew better but tested the dog would likely receive a growl or nip from the dog, and no sympathy from the parent who had told them the rules. We have all heard the saying "Let sleeping dogs lie." In those days, the sleeping dog was an exhausted dog, and he was let to sleep undisturbed.


I do not mean to dismiss territorial behaviors and possessiveness or resource guarding as acceptable behaviors. At the same time, I think in the past the environment of the dog was managed to accommodate and appreciate such behaviors in a way our current lifestyle does not allow.


Life for Aussies in the past was not as idyllic as I might have portrayed. Ranch dogs were valued and appreciated, yes. Dogs had more freedom, more exercise and more respect. However, this life came with its own set of consequences.


Ranchers have a tendency to be protective of their stock - it is, after all, their livelihood. Stock fences clearly delineate one flock from the next, one property from the next. However, to some dogs sheep are sheep, cattle are cattle and horses are delightful fun to chase. Unfortunately, harassing livestock or the neighbor's horses frequently carried a severe penalty: death at the hands of the stockowner.


Being shot by neighbors was only one of the risks of this way of life. Predators and other wild animals posed risks as well. And losing a fight was not the only way risk from wildlife. Diseases like rabies and leptospirosis are spread by infected wildlife and pets and were far more prevalent historically than they are today.


Lastly, dogs faced dangers of technology. Being struck by a vehicle, caught in a wildlife trap or ingesting poison intended for vermin are all risks dogs face today as well. However, these risks were more pronounced in the past, when dogs were supervised less closely.


The development of ASCA, the breed standard, AKC recognition and increased awareness have lead to a surge in popularity. As time has passed, and particularly in the past 20 years, the home life of many Aussies has changed.


Our beloved, versatile Aussies have found themselves in new times. Puppies aren't just bred for their working or pet qualities, but for conformation as well. Sadly, unscrupulous individuals can even breed litters simply to earn some cash by selling pup after pup. These careless breedings can and do affect the quality of our breed. Homozygous merle dogs are sold as "rare white Aussies" in newspapers and pet stores. Behavior and temperament are neglected in favor of color and coat. Health and longevity are overlooked in favor of producing dogs as quickly as possible, and earning as much money as possible. Of course, there are many reputable breeders, and our Aussies are blessed to have these guardians. However, a breed is only as strong as its weakest links. Right now, the weakest links are human. Be the pup from a reputable breeder or an unscrupulous one, a long planned and highly anticipated litter or an accidental one, most pups today are finding themselves in homes vastly different from those in which our breed was founded.


Families are busy and fragmented, living in urban dwellings. Houses with small yards or apartments have replaced many of the ranches of years past. Most of us work outside the home, gone 40 hours or more per week. Our free time is spent ferrying our active children to one event or another, participating in the community, or spending time enriching our lives with other activities.


Modern urban life, fenced yards and leash laws afford dogs many degrees of safety they did not experience historically. Protected from cars, neighbors and other animals and benefiting from leaps in veterinary technology and nutritional research, our dogs are living longer than ever before. Activities and sports like agility, flying disc competition, flyball, lure coursing, recreational herding, obedience and freestyle fill the lives of dogs today in a way they had not experienced before. These advances have enriched the lives of dogs and owners to a great degree.


Unfortunately, life in our busy, technologically advanced world carries as many consequences as benefits. While fences and leashes protect dogs, they also make it a challenge for most owners to meet the mental and physical exercise requirements of an Aussie. Lack of physical exercise can lead to dogs that are high strung, destructive and frustrated. Lack of mental stimulation leaves dogs to their own devices, usually taking up hobbies like creative carpentry, decorative landscaping and freelance protection work.


Most times, these behaviors are the result of a normal Aussie living in a home that cannot meet its needs. Sadly, these behaviors frequently lead to a failure in the relationship between dog and owner. Failed relationships can end in many ways, often with the dog being placed in a new home through a shelter or rescue group like ARPH.


But the fast-paced-leashed-fenced world has also seen a rise in other, more serious problems, and not just with Aussies. One of the behavior problems reported to be growing most rapidly is on-lead dog-dog aggression. In my opinion, this type of aggression is newly recognized and treated because the routine leash-walking of dogs is a relatively new phenomenon. Other behavior problems such as fence fighting or barrier aggression and separation anxiety are also on the rise, and relatively new.


Inexperienced dog owners with physically or mentally frustrated dogs are frequently set up to fail in the urban world. For example, on-lead aggression is on the rise. Why? Trying to be responsible and prevent his beloved dog from creating a nuisance, the owner walks the dog on a leash regularly. Any time another dog approaches, the owner cinches up his leash tightly to control his own dog and avoid an interaction with the strange dog. While this makes the owner feel secure, it frequently sends a message of anxiety and uncertainty to the dog. The tight leash can communicate a sense of danger to the dog, which, in the beginning, will generally appear subtly stressed. The novice dog owner would likely not notice these subtle signs until they manifest as lunging, barking, growling or snapping at the end of the lead. On-lead aggression can sometimes be directed toward people or other stimuli as well.


Aussies and many other working and herding breeds also have a natural sense of property, territory and family. They have guarding instincts. Imagine for a moment a typical, energetic, intelligent, loyal Aussie living in an apartment. Left home alone while the owner is at work, the dog is surprised when a repairman enters the apartment and the owner is away. Acting on its guarding instincts, the dog barks and growls at the door. Undeterred, the repairman enters and is bitten. He sues the dog owner and reports the bite. Potentially the dog owner faces major damages in addition to the risk the dog may be euthanized.


In the past, a stranger would likely never have considered entering a home or property with a barking, growling Aussie behind the door. However, life today involves frequent comings and goings of strangers and friends alike. In an inexperienced home, the guardian behavior that was so valued in our breed's foundation stock is now the source of potential litigation.


Clearly, not every Aussie in today's world is a problem, but I think it is only fair to acknowledge this is an emerging and expanding issue. These dogs of yesterday that are trying to live in today's world are not succeeding. So what happens to these problem dogs?


Sometimes these dogs must be removed from the household. A number of options exist. Some dogs are given away or taken to shelters. At the shelter, either the dog will be placed with a new family, released to a rescue group, or euthanized. Shelter staff are overworked and underpaid, fighting a constant uphill battle of too many dogs and not enough homes. Once a dog is adopted out, it will either succeed in its new home, or fail and end up back in the system once more.


Some owners call rescue groups like ARPH directly to ask for help. For non-aggressive dogs, ARPH can be a terrific solution for pet and owner alike. However, ARPH cannot accept dogs with a bite history, regardless of whether the bite may be considered warranted or not. If the dog bit a threatening intruder or the neighbor's infant, we must consider all bites equal as far as liabilities go. The dogs ARPH can't take are the same dogs many shelters are forced to euthanize based on temperament.


So what if ARPH can't take a dog, and the shelter tells the owner the dog would be euthanized at their facility? The owner has several options. The first would be to keep the dog and manage his behavior. This involves restricting the dog's environment and contacts to keep himself and those around him safe. Many devoted owners successfully manage problem dogs, but accidents happen. Managing the potentially aggressive dog is a high-risk endeavor, because one door getting left open could lead to a lawsuit and an owner losing his home.


Another option would be for the owner to try on his own to find a new family for the dog. Again, this poses ethical and legal questions to the owner. A dog with a bite history is a not only a legal liability, but one has to consider the fairness or unfairness of expecting another family to live with a dog who is being surrendered because of aggressive behavior.


Lastly, the owner can choose to have his own veterinarian euthanize the dog.


Euthanasia is the leading cause of death of dogs 0-4 years old in the United States. I contend that something should be done to stem this epidemic. But what do we do? Do we breed dogs that are more suited to the sedentary, under equipped homes available today? Or do we try to improve our breeding and adopting practices, and try to better equip pet owners? It breaks my heart to consider the loss of our old-style feisty, brave, intelligent, loyal and protective Aussies. I propose there are other solutions to this problem, but they require the help of everyone involved in our breed and every breed.


Continue doing rescue. ARPH and other rescue organizations provide a valuable resource for dogs that are simply in the wrong homes. By carefully screening both dogs and potential adopters, we can increase the probability a dog will succeed in its new unlike the previous one. On the off chance the placement is not a perfect match, ARPH acts as a permanent safety net for the dog, willing to take him back into the program at any point for the entire rest of his life.


Encourage responsible breeding. Careful temperament evaluation, careful health evaluation and extremely cautious screening of puppy buyers can go a long way toward improving the success rates of Aussies in today's homes. Producing dogs of sound mind and body and placing them in adequately educated and prepared homes is the best way to ensure the dog's first home will remain his home for his entire life. If for some reason the dog cannot remain in this home, I propose breeders should be willing to take back their dogs at any point in the dog's life.


Encourage responsible pet ownership. Counsel potential pet owners to select an appropriate dog for their lifestyle. It is unrealistic to expect a pet owner to dramatically change their entire way of life to fit a certain breed. There is a wonderful diversity among dogs, why not match the best dog to the best home? Advocate proper physical and mental exercise, with an emphasis on training and socialization. Owners who are well educated about the mental and social needs of a dog are much more likely to prevent behavior problems before they start. Remind pet owners to seek help immediately if a problem behavior is discovered, and discourage rationalizing or making excuses for inappropriate behaviors.


Educate puppy buyers and pet adopters that a dog is a responsibility that lasts the dog's entire lifetime.


The well being of Aussies is in our hands. ARPH volunteers dedicate countless hours every day to help our breed succeed. With the help of responsible breeders and well-educated pet owners, we hope the numbers of Aussies euthanized due to behavior steadily declines in the coming years.