Growling Warning Ignored. Springer Spaniel Bit Man’s Face

Jonny is a gorgeous, friendly dog – looking and behaving a lot younger than his supposed ten years. The elderly couple who had him previously could no longer keep him.

He has a lovely home now with activity and enrichment.

His two problems are around guarding, growling warning and chasing shadows – or just charging about chasing nothing.

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Unpredictable Explosions Predictable. Some Detective Work

I met a sweet little 11-month-old working Cocker Spaniel who greeted me at the door and promptly lay on his back. This was the first point where I felt his family may be jumping to conclusions and not quite understanding him.

They said ‘he wants a belly rub’.

I find this hard to believe from a dog that wasn’t over-confident and someone he has never met. It’s more likely to be his way of saying ‘be nice to me, I’m a good boy’. A dog rolling onto his back is not necessarily saying he wants his tummy tickled and sometimes the very opposite.

Unpredictable explosions

Quite a lot of conclusions have been jumped to regarding what they describe as Harvey’s ‘unpredictable explosions’. With some detective work they become much more predictable.

Aggression is predictableHarvey has a lovely life with his family of adult couple and two late-teenagers. He gets long off-lead walks, training, play and love.

The outbursts of aggression started quite recently.

They took him on a family picnic where they met up with another family dog. The dogs played for ages in a very over-excited way with Harvey pushing it. It ended, later, when Harvey was lying still, with his suddenly going for the other dog. Was it sudden, though? Was anyone watching him? What was his body language? Could this have been predictable?

They take him with them to the pub. On a couple of occasions he has shown what seems like sudden aggression, out of the blue, towards another dog. It’s a popular pub and always full and noisy. Harvey will by their table, held back on lead.

At training classes he has shown aggression two or three times, resulting on the last occasion with the lady being bitten on her leg. Was this a random thing that suddenly happened or was it predictable?

Common denominators.

Questions found certain common denominators to the ‘unpredictable aggression’. The main one is the presence of another dog or dogs. The ‘explosions’ are always directed at a dog.

Harvey has mostly been on lead.

On each occasion they have been in an active or noisy group of people.

Back-tracking to what leads up to each explosion we find a build up of arousal or excitement of some sort. From what I saw of Harvey, he’s a sensitive dog and it’s very likely that held tightly on lead he feels unsafe. Attack could be the best form of defence.

Another thing that happens is that when a dog is fired up ‘defending himself’ but held back on a lead, his frustration, fear, arousal etc. can then redirect onto the nearest person if he can’t get to the dog. I’m sure this is what happened when he bit the lady.

Reading his body language.

There is quite a lot that is very predictable when you know what’s happening. With more skill at reading Harvey’s body language they should, in fact, be getting some warning.

I have found it’s quite common for dogs to begin to become reactive to other dogs at around maturity. In Harvey’s case, it seems that he’s reactive due to a mix of things including fear and lack of self-control due to over-arousal.

The more a behaviour like this occurs – the more it’s rehearsed – the more likely it is to happen again. It’s like a door has opened that’s hard to close again.

For this reason, the scenario of excitement beforehand, a busy environment with several other people other dogs in close proximity and with Harvey on lead should be avoided. They can reduce excitement and arousal both immediately before social or training occasions and in life in general.

He should be allowed distance from other dogs, particularly when he’s on lead.

Off-lead Harvey mostly wants to play, though his dog to dog skills could be better. He doesn’t seem to know when to stop.

Work should be done to associate other dogs with good things happening (counter-conditioning) rather than allowing him to feel trapped and too close. At present it’s possible that, instead of other dogs nearby making good things happen, bad things in fact happen. He will be on collar and lead, sometimes a slip lead, because he doesn’t like his harness being put on. When a dog lunges and he’s pulled back or restrained, it will hurt his neck or at least be uncomfortable which is something people often don’t realise. This is the very opposite to what needs to happen.

Predictable? Yes.

They can now see it’s the combination of excitement and arousal; of people, other dogs – particularly if off lead with Harvey himself on lead – that triggers the explosions of aggression. These are all things that can be worked on.

Most important will be to have him in comfortable equipment and, when on he’s on lead, kept at a comfortable distance (for him) from other dogs until he’s ready.

Reading the Dog Correctly. Responding Appropriately.

Reading the dog correctly is a skillReading the dog incorrectly can cause us to do the very opposite of what is needed.

Angus is a gorgeous miniature wire haired dachshund. He greeted me in a very friendly fashion and sniffed me (getting information about my own four dogs I’m sure).

He then rolled over onto his back, still looking very friendly, tail wagging.

His young owner said he wanted a tummy rub.

I wasn’t so sure. This needs to be taken in context and I am an unfamiliar person to him. There is a good chance it was a gesture of appeasement.

I didn’t touch him but just talked to him.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions when your dog does something like rolling onto his back.

As I found out more about Angus I feel I made the right decision. When he was a bit younger – he’s now seventeen months – he would do this with anyone new and may pee at the same time. He still may do so if greeted too excitedly even by someone he knows.

This would indicate too much pressure of some sort. Stress.

Reading the dog incorrectly can lead to other misunderstandings.

Angus may shake before going out on a walk. They assume it’s fear and possibly it is. It may also be in anticipation or a mix of the two. Walks may well be a bit daunting to Angus, particularly if he’s already slightly stressed.

They may encounter people who, because he’s so extremely cute, will want to touch him. He rolls over. For a belly rub? Surely not. He doesn’t even know them.

He is wary of many other dogs and his young owner has taken advice. She has worked very hard. She has been using a recognised system that works really well if the environment can be properly controlled. On normal walks however where dogs may just appear, it’s meant she’s not responding soon enough.

Some days Angus may just want to sniff and mark to the exclusion of all else. The lady will have trouble persuading him to move on and it worries her that if they don’t cover sufficient ground he won’t get enough exercise.

His walks will now be a bit different. They will be ‘Angus’ walks. 

Could the constant marking be some sort of displacement activity?

Is he avoiding facing possible encounters by doing something safe that he can control and that fully occupies him?

Reading the dog, in this instance, as attempting to avoid trouble rather than trying to mark territory will determine the appropriate course of action.

His walks usually take half an hour. Now they won’t have a set destination. If Angus wants to sniff, he can sniff all he likes. The lady will only move on when and if he relaxes from marking and sniffing. At present she lures him forward with food in front of his nose which means he stops to eat. Now she will drop bits of food on the ground in front of him as he goes to encourage forward movement, not stopping.

Then, instead of carrying on walking, she can stop him and invite him to sniff and mark again. No pressure. Understanding why he could be doing it will give her an insight into what needs to be done to avoid him feeling anxious.

She will now make sure anyone they meet hangs back and invites Angus over. If he doesn’t go to them, then he’s not to be touched.

I tried this as I was leaving. When, standing, I invited him to me he hung back – and he knew I had food too. Instead of moving over him to touch him which would undoubtedly have made him roll onto his back, I backed off. It looks like for all his friendliness he’s slightly intimidated by people when they are standing up which is understandable. He’s tiny.

Reading the dog correctly influences the appropriate response.

When in doubt, the best thing with Angus is to do nothing.

If I’m wrong about his reason for rolling onto his back, it’s better to do nothing than tickle when it’s not what he’s asking for.

If I’m wrong about the marking and sniffing being largely a displacement behaviour, it’s better to do nothing and leave him to get on with it if he likes it.

A couple of months later: I think he may just be beginning to trust me! Yesterday a man came towards us which we have met before. Angus moved forwards towards the man and then changed his mind and walked back towards me and sat next to me. It sort of felt like he was coming back to me for reassurance. As long as the dog is the same distance as being across the road Angus is quite happy. We have seen a few very unhappy dogs across the road who have quite angrily barked at us! And fortunately because Angus is happy at that distance he was not at all bothered. I think this process has probably been more about me having more realistic expectations.

Why is Colin growling?

Understandably we don’t like our dogs to growl and it can be embarrassing, but growling is GOOD.

Collie Cross growls when approached by Barney or a person

Colin

Growling tells us what our dog is feeling. Growling gives us the key to open the door to the dog’s emotions. When we know what he is feeling, we then know what to do about it.

Shi tzu Barney is old, blind and deaf

Barney

Colin is a four-year-old Collie-Terrier cross looking like a very small Border Collie. He lives with his lady owner and Shitzu age sixteen called Barney who is very slow-moving, blind and deaf.

Whenever Barney approaches Colin, he growls. The lady assumes he growls because he himself doesn’t want to be approached by Barney. As a trained observer one sometimes sees different things. Because Colin is near the lady all the time, he growls because Barney is approaching her. I would be willing to bet he never growls at Barney if she’s not there.

In my photo on the right Barney had just come in the door which meant walking past the lady. Quickly Colin was under her chair, growling at him (something he couldn’t hear anyway!).

Colin is hiding under the lady's chair

Colin

Colin also sometimes growls when touched. The lady, like most people, then scolds him. I would say it’s only a matter of time before he abandons growling as a waste of time and nips instead. He is merely saying ‘please don’t touch me’.

The lady is going to keep a note of where on his body she is touching him when he growls to see if it may be local discomfort and need for a vet visit, or whether he simply doesn’t want to be touched anywhere just now thank you. Because he then lies on his back the lady believes he wants a belly rub. When Colin growls then, the lady think he is just ‘talking’. He is! He’s saying ‘please stop’ or perhaps ‘go away’.

I experimented. I briefly tickled his chest and he moved in to me for more, indicating he quite liked that. Then he threw himself onto his back. The lady said ‘see, he now wants a belly rub’. I thought a demonstration would help her better understand him and, watching him carefully, I moved my hand gently towards his lovely inviting little soft tummy and he growled. He was saying ‘no thanks’, so of course I backed off immediately.

This little dog has never bitten but I believe it’s only a matter of time. His restraint is amazing really.

The lady has two main angles of approach. First is to teach Colin by her own behaviour that she isn’t merely a large unruly resource belonging to him that he must follow, guard and protect – and stop anyone else getting too near (he also reacts badly when she welcomes friends with a hug).

Second is for him to associate the approach of Barney (or the lady’s friends) with good stuff (food) and not scolding.

The protectiveness and nervousness has been spilling out onto walks where he will rush at dogs he doesn’t know for no apparent reason than to drive them away. He’s not actually bitten yet, but it has been a near thing. Most recently Colin was off lead and he charged – barking, growling and snapping, at an approaching young on-lead Spaniel.

It’s embarrassing for the lady and distressing for the other owner and dog. People feel they must be seen to be taking a firm hand so they react by scolding. But scolding doesn’t work.  If it did, Colin would be getting better, not worse.

It’s also vital that the opportunity for this off-lead behaviour is prevented from happening again while work is done, starting with a bomb-proof recall or loss of freedom.

A friend had suggested spraying him with water and shaking a bottle of stones at him when he barks and growls at approaching dogs when on lead. Two bottles were waiting on the hall table. Fortunately I arrived before she actually started to use them.

‘A friend told me to do so and so’ is a very common theme with people I go to, with different people saying different things. There is all sorts of conflicting advice online also. ‘What people say’ (“you need to get a grip on your dog”) is invariably misguided and along the ‘quick fix’ lines that may work in the moment but end up by making things far worse, with a confused dog becoming more fearful and aggressive.

In desperation people often end up doing things they feel very uneasy about, believing it’s the only way.

It’s not the only way. The lady is dedicated to doing her best for her little rescue dog.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Colin, which is why I don’t go into all exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good – most particularly if any aggression is involved. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dogs (see my Get Help page).