Red Flags Don’t Change Color

By May 1, 2017News

Imagine a dad who hears his daughter say, “I met a really great guy. Yes, he picked a fight with those idiot people in the Costco parking lot, but anybody would be stressed in that situation. When I got him home, he was perfectly fine!” In Dad’s mind, the response might be, “…perfectly fine until…” We relate to dogs this way all the time. Shelters often dismiss important warnings, by using the term “Poor Kennel Presentation.”

Poor Kennel Presentation is a euphemism that to me means, “Potentially Deadly Dangerous Dog”. When adopting dogs out as family pets , discounting aggressive behavior is a very dangerous game to play. When adopting to professional trainers, it’s less dangerous, but still not safe.

Aggressive, fearful, or frustrated kennel behavior is discounted by many people, when they discover that a dog is social and friendly when outside the kennel. They mistakenly feel that the friendly behavior is a better indicator of the dog’s “real” temperament. They think the behavior inside the kennel is not relevant, and is temporarily caused by the effects of stress or frustration.

But the behavior inside the kennel IS more important. Temperament testing functions better to screen out the worst, than it does to select the best. Seeing a dog or person at their best, does not reveal what lies beneath the surface. Plenty of murderers are only violent a small percentage of the time. 

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The Bright Red Flag

The euphemism “Poor Kennel Presentation” reduces the significance of behavior that is a real danger signal. It’s a bright red flag, meaning that the dog needs to be tested in every situation, because the dog may be very dangerous. Maybe it is, maybe it is not. So, let’s find out. But it’s not an easy problem to solve, unlike the assertions by many in the shelter and rescue community.

These behaviors tell me the dog WILL react the same way, if it ever feels the same way in another situation. And many daily life situations can trigger exactly the same behavior.

How did the dog develop these unwanted behaviors?

The dog that seems aggressive in a small kennel is indicating that it has already trained itself (or possibly been encouraged by an owner) to threaten people, children, and/or dogs when behind a barrier or in a small enclosed area. I am often told that it is the shelter situation that has triggered a previously good dog to display behavior intended to chase away humans and dogs who walk by. If true, this is still a bad sign. If a dog can go downhill so fast from being in a shelter kennel, perhaps it has an unsuitable temperament for a pet.

Children running by a dog in a yard are the best “attack dog trainers” in existence. Even if they never actively tease the dog, their behavior and inevitable disappearance trigger chasing and aggression. Dogs walked by a dog in a yard are the best agitators to cause dog-aggression.

“Poor Kennel Presentation” tells me that there is a big chance the shelter dog has spent its previous life in a yard, barking at people or dogs who pass by, and training itself to chase away anyone it sees through the fence.

Maybe this is true, maybe it is not. But for safety, we must assume the worst.

Many people stare at dogs, especially at bully breeds, because they are curious. They are often afraid of them and stare in order to “keep an eye” on the dog. Many people enjoy teasing dogs by staring at them. Dogs that are triggered by eye contact are not safe as family pets. Eye contact from other people is a situation that cannot be avoided by average pet owners.

What happens after adoption?

Do new adopters have a yard where the dog can see through the fence, or any area where the dog will feel cornered or territorial in a small space? Then the dog will probably resume its previous behavior of chasing people or dogs away from the kennel or fence. Or from the car. Or from behind a baby gate. Or when on a tight leash. Or from a crate. Or from the doorway. Or in a vets exam room. The list can go on and on.

A dog adopted to a home with children must show a positively trusting, passively social attitude towards children, in ALL situations. If not, the dog should be considered potentially dangerous, and needs further testing. The benefit of the doubt needs to be in favor of the adoptors, not the dog.

If a dog hates children or dogs seen through a fence, that is the worst possible dog for children. Something terrible IS going to happen. It’s often said that when stressed, both humans and dogs will revert to their earlier behaviors. “Rehabbing” might only mean self-delusion by the rehabber.

“But it’s normal for dogs to show fearful or aggressive behaviors”

It is only normal for fearful or aggressive dogs! Many dogs never ever react fearfully or aggressively when on leash, behind barriers or in a kennel. They will not react poorly,  even in protection training with a professional agitator. I have seen many dogs fail protection and bitesports training, when even the best trainer cannot get them to bite or chase. I’ve even seen dogs bred for protection sports, from guard breeds, show none of the traits they should have. Some individuals from breeds selected to kill other dogs, show no dog-aggression. Many dogs might at first be anxious when a strange dog or person comes up to a fence, but will then relax with curious interest.

If a dog has very low levels of fear or aggression in its temperament, then it is very difficult to trigger it to show these behaviors. If it has more than subliminal levels of fear or aggression, then it is very easy to trigger it to show these behaviors. Therefore, if a situation triggers behaviors, we need to take the behaviors seriously.

What dogs are most adoptable for family pets?

Dogs with low aggression (any type of aggression) and low fear have good pet potential. If high social interactivity is also part of their temperament, they will melt toward every human, and desire more closer contact. Those are the ones with more pet potential.


Be sure to join Martha and others from the Service Dog community on the Martha Hoffman Hearing Dogs Open Forum Facebook group. It’s an open community where dog trainers, both professional and owner/trainers, exchange ideas and tips about training their dogs.

Martha Hoffman is the Training Director for the Hearing Dog Program. She has trained several hundred Hearing Dogs and tested over 20,000 shelter dogs over the course of 25 years. She is the founder and lead trainer at Martha Hoffman Hearing Dog Academy (MHHD) and the author of the highly respected text on Hearing Dog training, Lend Me an Ear.

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