Rusty’s behavioral issues involved threatening and biting the woman in a number of situations: around food, when he was resting, when she attempted to sit on the couch next to him or approached him while he had a toy or a chew. The dog did not react negatively to the husband in the same situations. The first thing I did was let them know that I regularly saw dogs who acted this way with couples—fine with the one with whom they have a close relationship and aggressive with the other. Rusty’s behavior didn’t mean that the woman was doing anything wrong. It just meant that he reacted differently to each of them, and that his behavior was a reflection of the different relationship they each had with Rusty.
It took considerable effort to help them see the situation from the other’s perspective, but it was an essential step toward resolving the issue. Acknowledging the validity of both of their viewpoints helped. The husband began to understand that his wife was afraid, and legitimately so, but that he could play a role in changing the situation. Once the wife was no longer blamed for the problem, she was able to empathize with her husband, who was emotionally tortured by the thought of not keeping the dog. She accepted that the dog’s behavior could be improved. At that point, they were ready to work on the issue together.
The first steps in Rusty’s program involved setting rules that both the man and the woman followed. The basic lesson I wanted Rusty to learn was that he would get what he wanted in life (food, treats, attention, play time, walks, toys and so forth) by being patient and polite rather than by being pushy and aggressive.
He had to respond to cues from both of them throughout the day—sit, down, stay, back up, get off (the couch). A dog who behaves aggressively to a specific family member needs a high level of training to stay out of trouble and get out of sticky situations. Rusty enjoyed training and was willing to work, but for the sake of consistency, needed to be cued to perform the same behaviors in the same way every time.
I also needed to help the woman and the dog develop their relationship through fun and playful interactions. Since Rusty was better outside the house, where there were no resources to guard, we set up daily play, hiking and running sessions. He was still required to respond to her requests, but the two of them had fun together.
Once the woman had just a little success with the dog—when he listened to her cues and responded to them—their relationship grew very quickly. Their improved relationship meant that our efforts to change Rusty’s aggressive behavior in the problem situations inside the house were more effective. As she began to feel more confident around the dog, her optimism and her commitment to him grew. Her husband saw that she was working hard and really cared, and that magnified his desire to make sure she felt safe and comfortable with Rusty.
Reducing conflict within the human family benefits everyone, including the dog. My job is to do my best to minimize conflict, get everybody on board with the program and acknowledge each person’s perspective. This case taught me that it is impossible to predict which couples will be able to resolve serious issues between them, and to hold out hope that each couple I am working with will be one of the happy-ending cases.
While I was interning with Patricia McConnell, I sat in on many of her cases, including that of a 10-year-old Beagle mix who had suddenly become aggressive. Odin had been friendly and sweet all his life, but was now avoiding the family. The family described the situation as a total personality change. He snarled if approached and bit if touched. As I sat silently in the consultation, hope was not at the forefront of my feelings. I felt very upset by the severity of the problem.