Some time ago, I received an email from someone who wanted to enroll her dog in my Feisty Fido class. The dog was a young adult, male gundog mix. I talked to Mrs. Owner, and determined that the dog had inflicted one significant puncture bite to another dog, so I decided he probably was not a good candidate for the class. We made a private appointment. What a learning experience this turned into!
Mr. Owner came to the first meeting of the class, upon invitation, as it’s a good introduction to a lot of the concepts we’d be using in our private work. He indicated that he knew how to train a dog, and the dog was trained, but they needed help with this dog aggression problem.
When I went to see the dog at his home, I was met at the door by Mrs. Owner and the dog. The two young kids were also there. The dog was nervous at the door, approaching me slowly with his weight shifted to the rear, ears back, big eyes. I pretty much ignored him as I introduced myself to the family. After a couple of minutes, the dog realized I had treats and approached to get one. He relaxed a lot and engaged with me readily. I introduced him to the clicker and he was a very quick study, obviously enjoying the interaction. He was a very sweet, bright, pleasant dog once he got past that initial caution.
Later in the session, I brought my dog in with me. She doesn’t particularly like meeting other dogs, but is happy to work if they don’t greet her. We put the dog on leash and had them do down stays several feet apart. My client dog appeared nervous, turning his head away from my Aussie, flicking his tongue, and then, as she got a little closer, lifting his lip. He gave plenty of quiet warnings to express his discomfort. We gave the dogs a break from each other and I talked to Mrs. Owner (Mr. Owner was absent).
First, I asked her if she had seen that her dog was uncomfortable. She said no! I asked if she had observed his ears – no. How about the head turn? Nope. And the lifted lip? Not that either. Then I asked if she noticed that he’d been afraid of me when I came in the house. No! She thought of him as very enthusiastically friendly to people and had never noticed the (to me) obvious caution in his body language when a stranger came through the door.
I brought my dog back over and repeated the approach. I told her to stare at her dog’s head, eyes, ears and lips and not to look at me or my dog at all. When I glanced up at her, I could see understanding flooding her expression. The signs were there, and they weren’t even that subtle, but she had just never been looking at her dog when he gave them.
We talked about the incident where he had bitten another dog. Here is what happened. Mr. Owner had taken the dog on a hunting trip with a couple of other guys and a couple of other dogs, Labs. One of the Labs was younger than my client dog, and had been very interested in socializing. He’d initiated play many times as the hunters hiked toward their destination. Finally, several hours into the first day, my client dog snarled and snapped at the young Lab. Mr. Owner was angry and unhappy, so he flipped his dog onto his back and had the young Lab brought over to stand over my client dog. At that point, my client dog broke Mr. Owner’s hold, lunged up, and bit the Lab on the mouth, slicing open his tongue. The bleeding was bad (tongue injuries bleed terribly) so the men cut short their trip and headed home to get vet care for the young Labrador.
There is no doubt in my mind that my client dog had some normal social sensitivity to proximity before this incident. The Lab probably had gotten on his last nerve by the time my client dog snarled. Then, he was trapped into a confrontation; he must have been terrified! I’m sure he thought he was fighting for his life by that point. Yet, all the blame was laid at the feet of my client dog, who was the true victim in this situation. No wonder he’d developed more reactivity to other dogs!
This case has a happy ending. Once I explained that (a) their dog was just a bit nervous, and that they could see it all coming by watching him, that (b) his fear had been greatly and justifiably increased by the hunting trip incident, and that (c) his social caution was normal, they agreed to let him have his space. They contacted me later to exclaim over how obvious it now was to them that he was nervous when visitors entered! They chose to give him a safe space when the kids had friends over, instead of insisting that he cope. The dog relaxed hugely and is now a loved, accepted family member.
All I did for these folks, when it comes right down to it, is this. I had them watch their dog. Ten seconds of watching his face did all the work!