I met with a client last week who was feeling very overwhelmed. We'd met once before when her dog was an adolescent and didn't like coming when he was called and loved to pull her down the street to meet everybody. We worked on a long line to get his recall back on track and changed the leash and collar she was using to something that gave her more control over her 60 lb. dog on walks. When she did her follow up, things were going well; they'd been able to phase out the long line as he was now happily coming when called and her walks were much more peaceful. Fast forward to 9 months later and a frantic call from the same owner where she told me her dog had just bitten someone on the hand when they reached to pet him. No warning. No growl. Just a quick bite, that didn't break skin, but terrified her nonetheless. Turns out he's been lunging and growling at men (and some women too) he sees on walks for a while now, and she'd been steering clear of interactions. This bite happened when she let down her guard so her dog could meet this man's dog. The dogs were fine, but when the man stretched out his hand toward my client's dog, that's when the bite happened. This left her wondering how could she ever trust her dog again?
A truly unfortunate situation on so many levels. This young male dog has become more and more territorial over the last 9 months, and while his owner didn't love that he now barks and lunges near her front door if anyone comes on the porch, she could understand that he was protecting her house, and she didn't connect this behavior to what was happening on their walks. As a single mother, she appreciated that he guarded the house. But even his front door behavior has gotten to the point where she has to leash him in order to control him there, even with people he knows. And that bite? It happened right on their street to a man walking his dog there who doesn't live on the street. When she takes him for hikes on the local trails, he has no trouble passing people or other dogs, same for walks she does with friends in other neighborhoods. This dog's territory includes not just his house and yard, but his immediate neighborhood as well. I observed him on leash and he's clearly "on duty." He doesn't stop to sniff much, preferring to keep his head up and watchful as he, quite literally, patrols the neighborhood. I had my work cut out for me, but I did have a plan.
I started with the front door behavior. While it is totally fine and expected for a dog to bark when someone approaches their home, it isn't fine for them to continue barking, or escalate to jumping on the windows or doors, once you've told them "enough" or "quiet." There needs to be a consequence for not listening to you. Keep a leash by the front door, or put a short leash or tab on your dog's collar so that you can lead your dog away from the door and to a quiet place for a time out, whenever they don't listen. Once your dog gets to the point where they stop barking when asked, you'll still want to leash them at the front door, or teach them to sit off to the side using the "place" command so that you can deal with whomever or whatever is going on on your front doorstep. If your dog tries to dart out the door or gets up from their "stay in place," once again, lead them to their time out area. We are not punishing them for barking or being territorial as that could lead them to escalate beyond those behaviors. We are simply saying you can be territorial but when I tell you it's all good, you have to listen to me. We were able to enlist the help of a couple of neighbors, having them ring the doorbell and/or knock, and we worked with her dog to help him understand what we expected of him. This is a smart dog and he got the new routine quite quickly. The best part? He actually looked visibly relieved and much happier when he understood what we wanted from him. We quite literally took the pressure off of him!
When working with a dog who is this territorial. I like to encourage owners to step outside of THEIR comfort zone and change up their walking routine. Walking at off peak times and off peak locations, in this case, just other neighborhoods away from this dog's home turf, will reduce a great deal of pressure for this owner and for her dog. We drove him a few blocks away to walk and he was a completely different dog; sniffing, exploring, wagging his tail, completely consumed by all the new smells. He walked right by other dogs and other people without anything more than a casual glance. Such a relief for his owner!
None of this erases the fact that this young dog bit someone. This means his owner now has scienter, the legal knowledge that she owns an aggressive dog. She will need to actively control his interactions with other people, particularly men as that seems to be the group of humans most triggering for her dog. She needs to say, "No, you may not pet or approach my dog. It isn't safe for you to do so." Again, off of home turf, this dog is not actively approaching anyone, not trying to engage strangers, etc. He isn't "gunning" for trouble, but he sure as heck won't back down either if challenged. Ultimately, this owner may need to muzzle train her dog, just to make it even more obvious he needs space AND to protect from any future bites, but she's not there yet. She needs to see if she can make better choices about the situations she puts her dog into. This dog will be very easy to muzzle train as he's easily handled and very food motivated. I went over how to do it as I think it's a good exercise for this dog to learn to wear a muzzle even if he never gets to the point where he needs to wear one regularly.
My client hasn't heard a word from the man who was bitten. She gave him her contact information, but he literally said it was his fault for reaching toward the dog and since the bite didn't break skin, he was fine. I let her know that he does have up to a year to pursue action against her, but it sounds like he's taking some responsibility for his poor choice of actions. I know I've talked about it a million times, but it clearly bears repeating. Humans do not have carte blanche rights to pet other people's dogs. Even if they aren't a service dog, that isn't your dog. And if you ask to pet the dog, it's okay for the dog owner to tell you no, you can't. Don't get offended. Just because a dog is out in public doesn't make him or her public domain. And if someone says yes, you can pet their dog, then please don't be an idiot and extend your hand to the dog. That's not how to greet a dog. Drop your hands to your sides and let the dog sniff you; if it's a smaller dog let them sniff your shoes. If they still show interest, reach down and briefly rub them under the chin or across the chest. Then STOP. If they are still interested, they'll let you know by nudging your hand, licking your hand, or resuming sniffing. Many dogs walk away or turn away after this initial brief interaction and that's fine too. Let the dog determine the length of the interaction. Do not pat the dog on the butt, pat them on the head, reach over their back, boop their nose, stare in their eyes, or pet their ears. Be respectful. And, most importantly, even if the owner says yes, you can pet their dog, if their dog approaches you, sniffs and walks away, the dog has made their decision. Accept it.
I truly hope that this is the first and last bite for my client's dog, but unfortunately, statistics don't support that outcome. The majority of dogs who bite, bite again. What keeps some dogs from biting again? Good management, consistent consequences, and realistic expectations. What leads to more bites? Sticking your head in the sand, ignoring your dog's aggressive behavior until it escalates and/or punishing the behavior hoping that will make it go away. Don't try to explain away a lunge, a growl, or a bite. Those behaviors happened for a reason. Your dog felt overwhelmed, anxious, or both. We need to dive into that, figure out why they're anxious, and then work to determine what management strategies will work best for you and for your dog. Eyes wide open, no excuses.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.