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.