“If we punish her she should learn not to do it again”.
A few weeks ago nine-month-old Dandie Dinmont for the first time went for the older, gentle Cocker Spaniel, Mimi (12). She grabbed her ear and wouldn’t let go. Mimi was screaming. Pandemonium followed. The lady yelled at the dogs. She tried to pull the two bitches apart. She cried ‘Get a bucket of water’. Water didn’t make Dandie, Suzie, let go, in fact it probably fired her up further. Panic.
Eventually a handful of food broke it up.
Suzie was punished.
Now, to me, this first attack wasn’t really too serious. No blood was drawn. Suzie could have damaged Mimi’s ear badly but no blood was drawn. If she was really in the red zone, would she have stopped for food?
Human reaction, noise and panic will, over a few more similar incidents, have escalated the whole thing into another sphere, resulting in Mimi finally turning on Suzie. The man, caught in the action, was badly bitten, ending up in hospital with a bad bite that went septic.
Suzie wants to control not to kill. The man has now experienced what happens when the dog really means it.
With hindsight the first attack should have been taken as a big warning that something was going wrong with the relationship between the two dogs.
I shan’t here go into the various techniques of breaking up a fight once it has begun as there is no universal solution – one size fit all. It’s so easy to say ‘keep calm’ but experienced dog people who deal with this sort of thing on a regular basis wouldn’t panic. The aim now is to make absolutely sure it can’t happen again.
I wonder where it all started? The seeds will have been sown well before that first attack on Mimi. It will have been brewing. The little Dandie Dinmont was becoming increasingly growly when Mimi was fussed and would react badly if not given treats first. Mimi’s own weakness may well have brought out the worst in Suzie. Hindsight, again, is a wonderful thing, but this is the point at which teenage Suzie’s bullying of Mimi should have been addressed.
Its a nightmare for the whole family as they adore their dogs. They so badly want to keep Suzie (the breeder will have her back) that they accept they will need to do things differently now.
They were disbelieving when I suggested that punishing Suzie would only make things worse and I knew I had a challenge explaining why.
To punish a dog opens a can of worms.
It damages our relationship with the dog. Countering violence with violence can only make aggression worse and this is very well documented. If positive punishment, physical or otherwise, did work, instead of escalating there would have been no further incidents.
The (very understandable) human anger has had fallout. I doubt whether punishment will, to the dog, be directly related to the attack itself for several reasons. One is that punishment continues after the fight has stopped (the dog will have been hit after she had let go).
Another big factor is that both dogs will now associate the other dog with something terrifying – her humans losing it and becoming, to them, unpredictable monsters. Each time one dog looks at the other her emotions will be poisoned with this association.
I suspect this human contribution will have had far more impact than any pain or fear either dog has inflicted upon the other.
Both dogs are wary in their own way. It’s sad to see Mimi so scared, not only of Suzie but of her humans, after twelve years of happiness. Even Suzie is very appeasing. In the context she offered it, I don’t feel her constantly dropping to the floor and lying on her back is solely to invite a tummy rub.
The situation must now be reversed and it will take time and patience. Relationship-building between humans and dogs is now a priority. It should involve one-to-one time – walks, training, play – with each dog individually, earning her trust by motivating her, being consistent and predictable.
At present the two dogs tend to focus mainly on one another. The focus of each dog should now be more upon their humans.
Now each dog also needs to be helped to associate the other with pleasant stuff only.
We discussed the common denominators around the incidents. Doorways was one of them. Each time Suzie grabbed Mimi it was her ear – not a killer grab. Each time it unleashed a tsunami of human panic and reaction. The final time Mimi turned.
Tummy rub or appeasing?
Everyone must play safe for now. Belt and braces. They will put up two gates. Both dogs will be introduced to muzzles as a standby.
Instead of having them mostly together (with Mimi now hiding) and separating them when they feel it’s necessary (if they remember), they should make the default being ‘dogs apart’. They will only have them together in a controlled and planned way when everything is calm, away from any doors to the outside.
We are looking at management and controlling the environment for the foreseeable future.
We are looking to build a stronger relationship between each dog individually with her humans.
We are looking at changing how each dog feels towards the other dog.
* Used here in the sense of ‘positive punishment’ not ‘negative punishment’.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Flo and Lly and I’ve not gone into exact details for that reason. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly, particularly where aggression issues of any kind are concerned. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)