Really Bites Out of the Blue?

Last week three-year-old Cocker Spaniel Pete had been booked in to be putCocker Spaniel's behaviour had resulted in an appointment to have him put to sleep, now cancelled to sleep.

Fortunately the lady phoned me first. Her dog had bitten her quite badly and it wasn’t the first time. She told me the many time he bites out of the blue – for no reason at all.

I suggested that she asked her vet to give Pete a thorough check including bloods and a physical examination to rule out pain and any other condition that could make him have a short fuse. Unfortunately the vet refused, saying he could see the dog was fine and then gave confusing and outdated behaviour advice.

Pete was jumping at me and grabbing my sleeves as I walked in the door. He does the same with the lady. Yet – if she steps on him by mistake, tries to touch his feet or, as she did once, tripped and fell by him, he bites her.

Should not respect for personal space go both ways?

All the bites and near-bites she listed for me can actually be explained. Most were around resources of some sort and the others around Pete’s not wanting to be touched or moved. There is a strong suggestion that at least a couple of those could involve pain of some sort.

Positive reward-based methods aren’t just some modern fad but based on sound scientific research described in all the up-to-date literature, yet still some people hang on to the old notions.

I would agree in principle that the lady should take control of her dog and be ‘in charge’, but that doesn’t mean acting like a ‘dominant Alpha’ which would undoubtedly make things far worse.  In fact, guarding behaviour often starts when people take the puppy’s food away to show ‘who’s boss’. Why do they do that! If he thinks you’re about to steal his food, wouldn’t it actually cause food guarding?

Leadership as in good parenting means building a bond of understanding and mutual respect, whereby the owner is the provider, the protector and the main decision-maker. All this is done kindly using praise and rewards, being motivational so that Pete is willing and cooperative.

I demonstrated the power of food while I was there, showing the lady how to use a clicker and chicken to get Pete eagerly working for her. What a gorgeous dog.

Nearly all conflict between owners and dogs is so unnecessary because dogs so love to please if they are rewarded and appreciated – just like ourselves.  This isn’t bribery.  At the end of a consultation when I’m paid, have they have bribed me to do my job? No. I willingly and happily do my work for them, knowing I then receive my earned reward – payment.

Unless Pete is vet-checked properly we can’t rule out anything physical and invisible, but all the same it usually is very much a relationship issue too when a dog bites out of the blue. It would be a tragedy if Pete’s life were to be ended when with consistent, kind boundaries and getting him to earn much of his food in return for cooperation and learning things, the lady could slowly gain confidence in him.

It will take time.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Pete, which is why I don’t share all the exact details of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good. 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 dog (see my Get Help page).


Airedale Bites Hands

Airedale Jessie doesn't like hands aproaching from above herAlex is a young man who likes to take his five-year-old Airedale, Jesse, to the pub with him. It sounds perfect, doesn’t it. However, he has a big problem. Jessie doesn’t like people to enter her space, bend over her and touch her, and in a pub atmosphere this is sometimes hard to prevent!

The other day she bit a man she knows well. He was standing at the bar beside her owner and she was between them. All he did was casually drop his hand onto her head and suddenly her teeth were in him. As he withdrew, she bit again – as though to make sure he really was going away.

Jesse has always been uneasy about being approached, never willingly coming over for attention unless under her own terms when she wants something and the only way the man can show her affection is if he goes over to where she is lying – and then she may growl at him. The biting of people really started a while ago when someone ignored all her signals and repeatedly kept coming back to touch her. You can understand why – she looks like a big teddy bear! Eventually she was so provoked that she went for him. Unfortunately he had learning difficulties and should have been protected – as should Jesse, but telling people to back off can seem unfriendly and rude in the best of circumstances. From that time she has been a lot more unpredictable. Unheeded warnings have proved pointless, so she goes straight into the bite.

If it weren’t sad, how she treats her male owner would be quite comical. She sits with her back to him and I can only call it disdain. She ignores him. To quote him – she’s ‘indifferent’. The only times she does willingly communicate with him are to get him to jump to her tune.

Making all the decisions is no better for a dog living in a human environment than it is for a child.

I saw Jesse come to life towards the end of my visit when I called her over (she came promptly instead of the usual repeated calls followed by causal sauntering up sniffing things on the way!), and asked her to do a few things for me, quietly and just the once. She became focussed and looked very happy. I see with many dogs I visit how they love to work for someone when they understand exactly what it is they should be doing and when they find it rewarding. This is the sort of relationship the man needs with his dog. It’s easy for me because I have no past history and can start with a dog the way I mean to go on.

My expectation is for Jesse to cooperate, the owner’s expectation is to be ignored. The respective tones of voice and attitudes are self-fulfilling.

As her ‘guardian/leader’ it’s up to the owner to protect his dog from unwanted attention – and as politely as possible to be forceful. This is something I now find a lot easier than I did at his age! I am sure that when Jesse feels less defensive when people are nearby, less important and more relaxed, she will become much more tolerant of the occasional mistaken hand placed on top of her head, even if never really enjoying it.

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog.