Dog talk with Uncle Matty: Benji and the Bickersons

By From page A10 | April 18, 2014

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Benji, a 1-year-old German shepherd pup. Rarely do I meet a dog I don’t like, but shepherds hold a special place in my heart. We have two in the family right now.

The German shepherd is smart, sensitive and strong, equal parts soldier and sidekick, as comfortable in a police car as he is in a nursery. The American Kennel Club describes this marvelous breed as follows: “Energetic and fun-loving, the breed is very fond of children once a relationship is established. He is a loyal family pet and a good guard dog, the ideal choice for many families.”

Loyal and protective — desirable qualities in any family dog. But what happens when family members disagree on how to nurture these attributes?

Meet the Bickersons.

Mama Bickerson wants a family dog, a fun, friendly companion she can walk through their neighborhood, sit with at a cafe and play with in the park.

Papa Bickerson wants a guard dog who will intimidate potential intruders and take down those who persist.

While these two wants are not mutually exclusive, attitude, as Winston Churchill said, “is a little thing that makes a big difference.”

Mama Bickerson’s attitude is loose and loving — and utterly lacking in boundaries. While it’s neither appropriate nor effective to lay down the law too soon with a pup, Benji is now 1, which is plenty old enough to have a solid foundational education under his collar.

Papa Bickerson’s approach, on the other hand, is rigid and self-righteous and flat-out wrong. In his efforts to evoke the protective nature of his pup, he confuses protection with aggression and encourages the latter. He refuses to neuter Benji and takes games of tug-of-war to an extreme, pushing Benji to a growling, snarling state no dog should ever reach.

The proof is in the pudding. Benji now lunges at other dogs at the vet’s office, and Mama no longer feels comfortable walking him in their neighborhood. In short, Benji is aggressive.

Thankfully, Benji is also young and smart, and it’s not too late to turn things around. But the first thing to turn has got to be the ‘tude — the ‘tude about training and the ‘tude about the neut. This little shep needs to be neutered — yesterday.

Once that’s taken care of, he needs to be professionally trained — and you can’t train for protection without first training for obedience. Obedience training is the foundation for good canine citizenship and a steppingstone to advanced learning. Police dogs, therapy dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, agility masters, competitive show dogs, hunting dogs — they all got their start in basic obedience.

The good news for Benji and the Bickersons: The path to fostering an exceptional family dog is exactly the same.


Dog trainer Matthew “Uncle Matty” Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and host of the PBS series “WOOF! It’s a Dog’s Life!” Read all of Uncle Matty’s columns at, and visit him at Send your questions to [email protected] or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619.

Matthew Margolis

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