Having a companion is one of the most commonly cited values for dog ownership. It means having a pal who always loves you, and who loves going out for walks too. That’s the rosy picture. However, these expectations aren’t always met.

Sarah adored her new dog Rupert because he was fun and affectionate. “I didn’t even realise we had a problem until a puppy slipped its lead, ran up to him – and Rupert bit him. He didn’t growl, show teeth or any of the usual warning signs beforehand.”

Loga, who adopted Bruno when he was four months old, discovered a similar problem. “Bruno seemed a normal, curious, mischievous mutt but we noticed when we played with him that he would suddenly turn too aggressive. We’d then just leave him alone.”

As the dog grew older, his issues intensified. “Bruno barks ferociously at anyone other than our immediate family – even regular visitors so it’s stressful to have people over.

“Every little sound that he hasn’t heard before or even a ribbon on the car in the porch can set him off. He will scurry around in fear and will pee or poop on our floor.

“Taking him for a walk is impossible for me now. He’s too strong for me and if he sees a lorry or other big vehicles, he’ll pull us back home. So my son has to walk him.”

Like human beings, dogs are social by nature, living in groups and needing lots of quality daily company for their mental health. However, the most loving puppy can become difficult if they’ve come from a poor background.

Sadly, it’s a challenge to talk about difficult dogs in an open way because emotions run high very quickly. Dogs do bite when they’re afraid, and this means they can be dangerous. Even if your pet is wonderful with family, and you know exactly how to keep everyone safe, it can still be stressful to live with a difficult dog.

Some owners dump them and others put theirs down but many dog lovers like Sarah and Loga look for solutions.

Toh Cheng See is a Delta Society Australia certified dog trainer with more than 15 years’ experience. “Patience is key,” Cheng See notes. “It can take months or even years to make positive change.”

Like human mental health practitioners, Cheng See says it’s about laying a foundation by building on tiny steps, each of which brings you closer to your goal.

“Suppose your dog is OK with you but frightened of other people,” Cheng See advises. “Recruit a friend and explain exactly what’s needed. You have to set rules – like, don’t talk loudly, move very slowly and don’t stare at the dog or try to approach him.”

When the friend comes to visit, she sits and then goes away without interacting with the dog. This is a success.

“Do it again and again over the weeks until your pet is calm. Then move a little closer or speak to the dog gently from a distance,” Cheng See says. “When your pet is ready to ‘speak’ to your friend, make sure that she holds out a treat. It’s all about focusing on the positive and building trust.”

One thing not to do is to immerse your pet in a situation in order to try and “shock” him into accepting people. For example, going out to a dog-friendly place is not a good idea as your pet will also be visited by people who love dogs but who don’t necessarily understand how to handle them.

These fans may rush up to your frightened pet, cooing loudly and touching. From a nervous dog’s perspective, this is an attack and absolutely terrifying. And scared animals bite – just like we would lash out.

“If your dog is OK with people but not crowds, then go to the park but stay well away from the action,” Cheng See says. “Just watch, relax each other, and go home again. Next time, move closer slowly. Eventually, you combine it with known friends approaching. Expect this to take weeks or months.”

Although the actual process is simple, planning it can be more efficient with the help of a trainer.

Do be careful who you hire. It is possible to get fast results by using muzzles, choke collars and brute force; however, this will only intimidate your dog. Not only is this cruel but it means that your pet will eventually snap – and you may have a serious accident.

“Be positive and think from your dog’s perspective,” Cheng See advises. “For example, muzzles stop a dog biting so they seem like a good idea. However, your dog sees the muzzle and knows it is defenceless. That’s scary. Then your pet thinks that whatever is coming has to be bad news. It sets up a negative environment and that just isn’t helpful.”

Sarah worked with Rupert and saw some improvement but decided it wasn’t good enough to allow him to play with other dogs.

“I put in tons of work trying to help Rupe but when it comes to it you have to accept and love the dog you have, not necessarily the dog you want. This is something a lot of people seem to forget in the search for a fix.”

Loga took Bruno to the vet for a check-up and advice, and then to dog trainers. Their advice was that Bruno might have been abused as a pup. He was neutered and given lots of care. “He’s not much of a companion but I still love him.” Loga says. “But it is stressful for us.”

This is the side of doggy ownership that’s not often discussed, but there’s no doubt it’s an issue that needs airing. There are people who specialise in taking on difficult dogs, but if you’re not cut out for that kind of work, and it is a labour of love with a possibility of failure, check out the sidebar for useful tips.

In the meantime, Cheng See offers hope: “It is possible to help dogs to relearn their trust. Get help, be patient and be gentle.”


Tips on choosing a well-adjusted pet

The best tip to avoid adopting a difficult dog is to understand some typical warning signs.

“Most people pick a pet based on looks,” notes Edward Lim, shelter manager for Paws in Subang, Selangor. “That isn’t the way to do it because you never know what you’re getting.

“To pick a social dog, go straight to the enclosures where lots of dogs are penned together. Those dogs are used to being with others. Actually some are so gentle that they get bullied by spoilt ‘only dogs’ they meet!

“Play with a dog you’re attracted to, and then go for a walk. See if you get along. Come a few times and hang out. When you click, you’ll be happy.”

It also helps to understand what dog aggression is.

Biting isn’t necessarily a sign of trouble. Young dogs teethe and like to relieve sore teeth and gums by chewing. Also, many dogs chew and nibble as a form of talking. All you have to do is teach a young pet to be gentle with “conversing” this way with people.

In general, when discussing aggression, ancestor background is important and so is early life experience. Aggression and fear can be inherited or learned traits. So your best bet is a pet with relaxed parents who have grown up in a loving environment.

If you adopt from a neighbour or family, and your pup’s dog mum and dad are friendly and social, your pet is most likely very much like them.

Also look at the humans they’ve grown up with. Are they kind, gentle and loving or do they discipline by shouting and hitting? If your pet has been treated badly, you can expect problems.

If you look to a rescuer or a shelter, talk to the volunteers. They usually have good knowledge of every dog’s pros and cons. Be open about what you can and cannot cope with. If there’s no good match, don’t settle!