Seeing things clearly and objectively in context can be hard from the inside.
This consultation has lead me somewhat away from a story about the beautiful dog herself and down another path. The young Staffie – isn’t she a poppet – and her young owners with their new baby have been doing brilliantly.
Just a couple of things have recently arisen that trouble them and that they want to nip in the bud. One issue is on walks where she seems to have lost her recall. She has run into fields of cows to chase them and she may sometimes be a bit unruly with other dogs. Now the lady is walking with the baby also, she has even more reason to be able to trust Nahla.
Nahla upon seeing another dog may also lie down and refuse to move! This can be a challenge when the young lady is carrying her baby in a sling. She has to wait it out.
We now have a plan for walk difficulties. They will make coming to a whistle a reflex action by constant repetition at home and when out before letting her off a long line. She loves a ball so they will keep it in their pockets and only throw it after blowing the whistle. Pavlov would love this.
The other more distressing problem is, to quote, ‘Nahla’s guarding behaviour’ around their baby when they visit the young lady’s mother. Her mum has three dogs, a Labrador and two Rotties, one of which, Hector, has been Nahla’s puppy playmate.
Nahla is ‘showing aggression and jealousy’ towards Hector when he’s near the baby.
Nahla, they say, was their first baby! She’s now twenty months old. The are the perfect dog parents. She has had kind, positive training, she eats nutritious food and she shares all aspects of their lives. She is friendly and loving, and at home really the perfect dog.
Baby came along six weeks ago. Everything is fine, due both to Nahla’s lovely nature and to her owners forward planning and love for her.
How can the dog I was with be guarding or aggressive?
Ignoring the context leads to jumping to wrong conclusions. Jumping to wrong conclusions means we won’t be dealing with the issue appropriately – we may not be dealing with the real problem at all but with something else entirely.
Naming something the dog does ‘guarding behaviour’ is only a step away from labelling the dog ‘an aggressive dog’.
Give a dog a bad name.
Without even seeing it for myself, knowing the dog I would stake my life on Nahla’s sudden growling and snapping at Hector having nothing to do with guarding at all. It is so important not just to look at what a dog is doing at the time, but also the build-up, what other things are going on at the time and the whole context including the input of the humans involved.
With a little delving I worked out that this is probably more or less what actually happens:
People obviously are extremely protective and anxious when four large dogs are crowding around a new baby. There will be a certain amount of tension.
The couple, carrying tiny grandson, enter mum’s house with Nahla. Her three dogs, the two Rotties and Labrador, are over-the-top excited to see Nahla who tries to wrestle her way through them to excitedly greet mum. Mum is trying to tell her to get down and to control her dogs using commands. I assume they are ignoring her.
The couple sit down, holding baby, and all three bigger dogs want to have a sniff and hello – they have absolutely no problems with the baby, just curiosity and general excitement.
Obviously a Labrador and two somewhat slobbery Rottie’s (mine was slobbery anyway!) are a bit too much around the baby so mum, who is anxious now, repeatedly shouts at her dogs Leave, Leave, Leave.
Human stressing or scolding can often be the tipping point.
Nahla now has a pop at Hector.
The whole thing is too much for her, she’s not used to all this excitement. Highly aroused and maybe a little anxious too because the dogs aren’t behaving in the peaceful way around baby she herself has been taught, Nahla then redirects her frustrations onto Hector.
I don’t know what happens next, but I guess Nahla, misunderstood, is told off. One can begin to see the direction where this will now be heading if not handled differently.
My advice, then, is either for all dogs to meet out on a walk first and get the excitement out of their system first. Alternatively, when they arrive at mum’s, mum’s dogs can be shut in another room to start with. Nahla can then get over her excitement at seeing mum. The other dogs can then join them one at a time, waiting for calm first.
In this calmer setting, if a dog is too close to baby for comfort, he can be gently called away and rewarded for doing so.
Looked at the affair in context, would we call this pop at Hector guarding behaviour or aggression? I wouldn’t. The wrong diagnosis leads to the wrong treatment. In this case it’s the over-arousal that needs dealing with.
Here is a really good piece by Pat Miller about incidents in a multi-dog household and the importance of finding the stressors, which is much the same thing as examining the context.