Main Content

“Good News for Bad Dogs (Marin Humane Society, Novato, CA)”

Julie Morris, Vice President, ASPCA National Shelter Outreach

Good News for Bad Dogs

Like most owners, Barbara loved her dog, 1-year-old Rosie. But she was worried. Rosie, a large and ultrasensitive animal, was becoming increasingly aggressive toward other dogs. In addition, she was people-shy. What if she became aggressive toward people?

Fortunately, help was at hand. A short distance away in Novato, CA, the Marin Humane Society (MHS) housed an Animal Behavior and Training Department managed by Trish King, a trainer with 25 years of experience. As luck would have it, King at that time was developing an innovative program called the Difficult Dog (D.D.) Class. When the program was launched in 1997, Barbara and Rosie were among the first to sign up.

The Difficult Dog classes are only one part of MHS’s educational offering for the public and adopters. Also included are traditional obedience classes, with an emphasis on creating good citizens, as well as Good Manners classes to help dogs before they are placed for adoption. Pet Pals (dog-walking volunteers) train the shelter dogs.


“You can always tell the people who have bad dogs,” King explains. “They’re the ones with panicked looks on their faces, giving their dogs three inches of leash and walking them at four o’clock in the morning.” For owners of so-called “bad” or aggressive dogs, the D.D. classes are a much-appreciated resource. According to King, owners of these dogs often have left-or been asked to leave-regular obedience classes. “Many owners feel they’ve done something wrong in bringing up their dogs,” she says, “and often they have. But guilt is an unproductive emotion, and we try to replace it with something more productive-like laughter.” King’s attitude makes it easy to see why owners of aggressive dogs feel comfortable in her classes. “Most of these dogs are not truly aggressive,” she explains. “They are afraid, and they feel the best defense is a good offense. Every time they succeed in driving away another dog or person, their behavior is reinforced. The more we isolate them, the worse they become.”


Difficult Dog classes, limited to 10 dogs and owners, are in great demand. Some people travel 100 miles to attend class. Although MHS frequently runs two classes simultaneously in a term, usually there is a waiting list.

Owners who wish to enroll dogs in a D.D. class must first attend a behavior consultation. In class, owners learn how to control their dogs and read their body language; dogs learn to walk near other dogs and allow other dogs to pass them without becoming aggressive. King and other trainers use a variety of techniques, including desensitization and counter-conditioning. Muzzles are used judiciously for off-leash work (muzzles are inappropriate for some dogs and actually may worsen behavior). To keep the atmosphere light, dogs learn to perform tricks. To date, there have been no dog bites!

The hard work has paid off for Barbara and Rosie. Barbara reports that recently she needed a new skirt and, without a second thought, took Rosie into a dress shop. While Barbara tried on clothes, formerly shy Rosie hung out getting pats and attention from people in the store. “Other dog owners wouldn’t find this remarkable,” she says, “but I wouldn’t have dared do this a year ago. We’ve come a long way.” Barbara is not the only satisfied customer. Some people in the intermediate Difficult Dog Class have been attending for more than a year; for them, the camaraderie makes it as much a support group as a training class. “Our difficult-dog owners are the best doggie people there are,” claims King. “They are more committed than many owners of ‘easy’ dogs.”

Trish King generously has agreed to share her handouts, “The Difficult Dog” and/or “Leash-Aggressive Dog Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning,” with Animal Watch readers. Please write: ASPCA National Shelter Outreach, D.D. Handouts, 424 E. 92nd St., New York, NY 10128. MHS’s training manual, “Dog Sense,” can be ordered for $12 postpaid from Trish King, The Marin Humane Society, 171 Bel Marin Keys Blvd., Novato, CA 94949.

ASPCA Animal Watch – Fall 1999

© 1999 ASPCA

Courtesy of

424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804
(212) 876-7700

Share this Article

Recently Viewed Pets