By the time people have come to me for help with a dog’s aggression problems, the situation is often pretty serious and it’s not unusual for people to be at the end of their rapidly fraying ropes. Though not every situation has a fairy-tale ending, I approach each new case with optimism, partly because that’s my basic nature, but also because it reflects my experience that once in a while, a dog improves more than I imagined possible. Every unexpected happy ending is an occasion to celebrate, both because success is wonderful for the people and dogs involved, and because I always learn something new.
The fierce look on my client’s face when she said she had been advised by a vet, two trainers and a groomer to euthanize her mixed-breed dog Bear was matched by her words: “We’re just not going to do that, so please don’t waste my time and money by suggesting it.” She adopted him after her husband died, and he had helped the kids with the loss of their father; they loved the dog and couldn’t say good-bye to him. He was an angel with the woman and her two children and aggressive with everybody else.
Bear’s aggression was clearly fear-related and extremely serious. On multiple occasions, he had bitten men, women and children, sometimes bruising skin, other times breaking it. Even more discouraging than the large number of bites was the fact that in the two years since Bear had joined the woman and her children, he had never become comfortable with a single person outside the family.
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My deep concern about the likelihood of this dog overcoming his fear continued during the early stages of working with him. It took weeks of hard effort using counterconditioning for him to even marginally improve. It was nearly a month before we could be certain that he was making progress because it came at a glacial pace.
Then one day, everything changed. We were working with a person whom Bear had been exposed to at low intensities multiple times. She was sitting calmly about 40 feet away. Treats were tossed and the dog took them, though, as usual, despite being relaxed, he didn’t seem too happy.
Then, I swear, we could almost see the light bulb go on over his head. He suddenly seemed to make the connection between the person and the treats. Oh, I get it! I love treats, and people make them appear. I guess people aren’t so bad after all. This is a great world and it’s filled with great treats and great people who throw them for me. It’s all so wonderful! Bear looked at the woman, began to salivate, had more treats tossed for him and tried to pull closer. He was actually trying to approach a person outside the family for the first time, and he was happy about it.
After that, progress was rapid and easily generalized to new people. Within a few weeks, Bear stopped behaving aggressively because he was no longer fearful. He was glad to see new people even outside of organized sessions, and eagerly approached strangers in a way that was previously unimaginable.
Bear taught me that while most fearful dogs learn gradually and tend to progress at a slow and steady rate, some have flashes of insight. They experience what I can only compare to a “Helen Keller-at-the-well” a-ha! moment, followed by rapid progress.
In some cases, the big picture involves so much more than the dog’s behavior, extending well into family dynamics and human interactions. A couple came in with their Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Rusty. The wife was afraid of the dog and didn’t want to keep him, but the husband had no problems and wouldn’t agree to rehome Rusty. He had given up a dog as a child and never got over it.
The husband wanted me to tell his wife that she needed to stop letting the dog push her around. The wife wanted me to tell her husband that the dog would bite her again, she couldn’t stop it and it wasn’t safe to keep him. I knew that success would require compromise and cooperation, but the couple’s relationship and the woman’s relationship with the dog both seemed almost beyond repair. The humans were very angry with each other, and it was hard to imagine that changing. With all this conflict, nobody was happy, including the dog.
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.
What Trisha already knew and what she taught me that day is that pain is a common cause of aggression that comes on quickly and seems completely out of character, especially in adult dogs. This dog was immediately referred to their veterinarian, who discovered a severely infected tooth. When that medical issue was resolved (the tooth was pulled), the dog returned to his usual pleasant self. He no longer experienced pain when he was touched, so he no longer had to resort to threats and bites to keep people, even those he loved, away from him.
I learned that pain can cause abrupt onset and personality-changing aggression, and it’s a lesson that has been useful many times since. It can be most obvious in old dogs, because it always surprises people when an elderly, or even middle-aged, dog changes his behavior so dramatically. It’s important to consider that possibility in dogs of all ages—young, middle-aged and elderly— if the change is sudden and seems out of character; if it relates to being touched, especially on a specific spot; if the dog seems worse after exercise or late in the day; or if the dog seems to have good days and bad days.
A woman came to me for help with Stanley, her Standard Poodle, who was aggressive to other dogs when on a leash. We taught Stanley to watch his guardian’s face and to turn around and walk the other way, and to perform these behaviors in the presence of another dog rather than bark, lunge and growl.
Naturally, our goal was to prevent situations that were too much for Stanley to handle, but I always like to have a plan for the unexpected. That way, my clients have something more productive and less damaging to do in a bad situation than struggle with an out-of-control dog and say to themselves, “This is exactly the sort of situation Karen says should be avoided because it could cause a setback in our training program. This should definitely not be happening.” With that real-world perspective, I advised the woman and her dog to run past the other dog if she found herself in a position that made retreat impossible and to run away from the dog if it was so close that Stanley would not be able to focus on her and respond appropriately. Running is the fastest way to increase the distance between your dog and trouble. This works best when the other dog is on a leash because sometimes an off-leash dog will chase after another dog who is running, and that is obviously the last thing you want when your dog is aggressive to other dogs.
After about a month of steady progress, we were twice caught off guard during the same training session by dogs suddenly appearing at a distance that was too close for Stanley to handle. At first, I thought it was the worst kind of bad luck, until I realized that after twice seeing an unfamiliar dog and twice running to escape, Stanley was happier than usual. When we saw the next dog at a distance that he could handle, we were prepared to ask him to watch in order to earn a treat, but he turned and ran. He wasn’t running to escape. He ran with joy and great glee. He had learned to be happy about seeing dogs because to him, it meant he was going to get to run, which most dogs adore doing and think is the best kind of play. He wasn’t nearly as happy about seeing dogs when they presented an opportunity to respond to a cue and receive treats.
Stanley’s response exceeded my expectations. He would see another dog and look up expectantly, hoping that he would be encouraged to run. In his case, play was far more powerful in affecting his emotions than treats, even though he was highly treat-motivated. He definitely liked treats, but running made him deliriously joyful. That positive emotion helped him overcome his undesirable aggressive behavior around other dogs.
From Stanley, I learned that sometimes, what you’re doing has a different effect than you intended, which can (on occasion) be a good thing. Running, which I first considered an escape strategy, was a form of play to Stanley, and positively affected his emotions and, therefore, his behavior.
After years of seeing clients with aggressive dogs, one big lesson I’ve learned is that it’s important to be as optimistic as possible. It’s my job to give realistic assessments of situations, and to help clients safely manage them. It’s also my job to move heaven and earth to help them improve both the situation and their dog’s behavior. If they are committed to making the effort, I am never without hope. Each case has the potential to surprise me with a better outcome than I might have predicted, and surprise happy endings are my favorite kind of success story.