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The Dog Who Hated Surprises
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Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs

The big dog lay on the floor in my office consulting room, as calm as could be. After a few minutes, he rolled onto his side, let out a huge sigh, and fell asleep. Once in a while he would open one eye when he heard another dog in the next room, but mostly Bailey seemed like the calmest dog in the world.

Sitting in two chairs in front of me, Jack and Sarah, Bailey’s two humans, described a very different dog. They lived in a suburb of Boston, where Bailey had free rein in their large house. Jack was a minister, with a gentle manner, flyaway hair, and large spectacles. Sarah was kindly and quiet with a ready smile. But despite their calm and warm demeanors, they were clearly in deep distress about the antics of their mixed-breed rescue, Bailey.

The stories were alarming. Recently, while outside the parsonage for his morning walk, Bailey had attacked a poodle that was innocently passing by. Even though the poodle was not harmed, his owner had reported the incident to the police, and was talking about filing a lawsuit. This would be bad enough for any dog owner, but a lawsuit could financially ruin Jack’s church.

Bailey had certain definite triggers. Oddly, blue jeans as well as anyone in his territory seemed to set him off. A few days before the poodle incident, Bailey and Jack were out for a walk when they had been surprised by a man turning a blind corner around a hedge. Bailey had lunged, teeth bared, and ripped the man’s jeans. Fortunately, the man was happy with Jack’s offer of a new pair of denims and did not take the matter any further.

Bailey also was puddling in the house and compelled to bark at anyone who walked past the parsonage’s large bay front window. He had even shown aggression to friends who visited. Bailey was not providing the welcome that visitors to their parson for counsel or comfort would normally expect. While Jack and Sarah loved their dog, they had to face the fact that Bailey was likely to injure someone else. They had been seriously considering giving Bailey up for adoption, a kindly euphemism for what we all knew would likely mean euthanasia.

Throughout Jack’s scary tale of Bailey’s attacks, the dog lazed around my consulting room at Tufts, reminding me of my meeting with Comet. I’d persuaded Jack to let Bailey out of his harness when they arrived. Jack had been loath to do so, and he was surprised that Bailey seemed so calm once free of restraint. The dog had wandered around the room a bit before taking a nap. Bailey was hardly the most extreme case of fear-aggressive behavior that I had ever seen, though his owner’s stories clearly indicated that Bailey was territorial and anxious. Away from his own territory, which he guarded too fiercely, Bailey was a sweetheart.

The dog’s behavior almost certainly stemmed from a bad start in life. Fear-aggressive dogs reach the high point of their belligerence at about two-and-a-half years of age, the peak of their physical and social maturity. Bailey was a rescue, so his early environment was unknown. I would take bets that the first three months of Bailey’s life were far from ideal, with substandard socialization exacerbated by frightening experiences.

The first thing I told Jack and Sarah was that Bailey’s barking, which they had complained happened whenever someone passed their house, might be something they’d have to live with. As the old adage goes, if you don’t want a dog that barks, get a cat. Most dogs engage in some territorial alarm barking when people or other dogs pass the home. Mine certainly do, but the majority of dogs are perfectly well behaved, even affectionate, once people are welcomed into the home. I did suggest that they move the couch away from the window so that Bailey couldn’t jump up and see everyone passing by. We also discussed denying him access to the front room and getting blinds or curtains to cover the windows. As another old saying goes, what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve. Sometimes simple changes in logistics can really help.

A tired dog is a good dog, or at least a better behaved one, and from what Jack and Sarah told me, Bailey didn’t get nearly enough exercise. Even though I’d rate more exercise as a basic “square one” change, it could still make a difference. Dogs generally need at least one hour of off-leash cardio exercise per day—that’s right, at least one hour.

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Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, is a world-renowned animal behaviorist and the best-selling author of several books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much, Dogs Behaving Badly and The Well-Adjusted Dog. He is director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

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