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.

Unpredictable Aggression. New Baby, New Dog.


Unpredictable aggression?

Unpredictable only because they can’t see inside Banjo’s head. If they could, and if stress was visible, they might see a little pressure cooker in there; they would see how over the past five months or so things have simply become too much for him.

Unpredictable also because they don’t realise how small a final trigger has to be to make the pressure cooker blow.

Frenchie Banjo is eighteen months old. He has what sounds like the perfect life, full of people and action.

A new baby – and another dog.

Banjo lives with a young couple and their large family – three generations. There are two or three children. With the couple’s baby born five months ago, Banjo was now no longer their number-one baby.

Unpredictable due to stressShortly after this another family member moved back home with his one-year-old Labrador, Ellie. So now Banjo was no longer number-one dog either.

Life now became a lot more arousing with endless play. Banjo carries on long after Ellie would like to stop.

Then Ellie came into season. They were kept apart, causing Banjo great frustration.

Things now escalated with Banjo growling and flying at and grabbing the sleeve of a family member who was playing excitedly with one of the young children. He became aggressive when she was playing tug with Ellie.

Banjo had got on very well with the cat but now was going for him too.

He was becoming increasingly possessive around chews and food.

Banjo attacked the man’s foot.

It came to a head a few days ago when Banjo was on the floor by the grandfather. Beside him was a chew – a chew that Ellie had left. The man moved his foot towards it and Banjo flew at him.

At that moment this small act pushed him over the edge. He would have bitten repeatedly had the young lady owner not grabbed his collar.

Another contributing factor will be that with each show of aggression the little dog has been misunderstood. It’s understandably been met with a strong reaction. Meeting aggression with aggression can only make things worse.

The vet recommended they re-home Banjo. The thought of this upsets them greatly.

Vets only have what the owners tell them about a dog’s behaviour and what they can see in the unnatural environment of the surgery. A good behaviourist will go to the dog’s home and see the whole situation in context. It is impossible for owners to relay a clear picture of what is happening. They are too close to it.

Going to the little dog’s home and seeing him and the whole set-up for myself, I believe that his continually topped-up stress levels are the cause of his behaviour.

Reducing stress is the place to start.

Banjo won’t understand games like ‘Peep-Bo’ and ‘BOO!’. If someone is playing excitedly with one of the small children or Ellie, instinctively he may try to break up what he sees as ‘potential conflict’. Similarly, when someone dangles the baby he may become concerned. A third dog will split up worrying behaviour between two other dogs.

Banjo stares. Banjo watches.

Baby’s dad buries his face into the baby’s neck to kiss him and Banjo growls. After all, if a dog grabs another dog by the neck, this can be potential trouble. Is he intervening?

They will learn to understand Banjo better. This includes learning to read read him – though a Frenchie’s face may be a bit harder to read than some. Staring with hard eyes will be watched for. Stillness can be a warning.

Looking at things through Banjo’s eyes without our own human interpretation they can look quite different. He’s not an ‘aggressive’ dog at all. He is simply responding in an aggressive manner to things that confuse and upset him in some way.

Work to do! They will work on Banjo’s possessive behaviour around food and chews. They will be doing more to enrich his life. Getting his brain to work and letting him work for some of his meals by foraging and hunting will help him to adjust. They will control the play between the two dogs. 


Possibly Banjo’s behaviour is, actually, quite predictable. Too much has changed in the Frenchie’s life. The baby. Another dog. Too much uncontrolled play. Ellie coming into season. Add to this people coming and going. Excited play. Excited homecomings. People winding him up before walks…..

Life has changed in another big way recently with poor Banjo no longer sharing their bed as he has done for the past eighteen months. Might he feel pushed out? He has never shown any aggression whatsoever with baby but they have done this on advice because the dog is ‘unpredictable’. It’s a shame because it was a good baby-bonding opportunity but it’s always best to err on the safe side.

My prescription? A big dose of much less excitement, more quiet and more calmness from all the humans around Banjo. Learn to read him for warning signs of stress – and stop what they are doing if it’s troubling him. Then work on getting him to feel differently about whatever it is.

A calmer dog is unlikely to show unpredictable aggression. A calmer dog will be a lot more tolerant. There are no guarantees, but with work and with the whole family pulling together, Banjo should hopefully get back to being his old self.


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 Banjo because neither the dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. Listening to ‘other people’, 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. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where aggression are concerned. 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)

Unpredictable Humans so Unpredictable Pup

Unpredictable pupSometimes, just sometimes, things don’t work out as we would like. This through absolutely no fault of our own.

It could be a mismatch or an environment not best suited for a puppy.

There can be all sort of reasons, including lack of company with people being out at work all day.

In the case of 7-month old French Bulldog Ezra, it’s not lack of company that is the problem. It’s too much. Too many people at times. Too unpredictable. Too noisy.

What puppies need more than anything else is predictability (like children). It makes them feel safe and allows them to learn self-control and to be predictable themselves.

Unpredictable. Too noisy, too much happening.

In Ezra’s case, it’s his exposure to unpredictability and occasional chaos that has led him to biting. It’s the only way he can get any control over things that are simply too much for him.

The family is large and extended. One of the younger children has issues that make him unpredictable and noisy.

The other day Ezra bit him on the lip. The ten-year-old was taken to A & E.

The boy himself explained the run-up to this and it included noise, people, loud TV which Ezra hates. The dog was already over-aroused. He had jumped onto the floor probably to get away and the child had slid off the sofa onto the floor beside him. He had pushed his face into the little dog’s and stared into his eyes. He has a sort of compulsion to do those things he knows will upset Ezra.


Another family member, a young man, had a couple of weeks previously been bitten on the nose quite badly. He said he was doing nothing, but questions revealed a sequence. The dog will undoubtedly have high stress levels to start with. The doorbell had rung, making him very excited. He had been chewing bones. He then jumped up on the young man’s lap (why do people always think this means the dog wants to be touched?). The TV may have been too loud. The man had his hand on Ezra’s back.

Then, for seemingly no reason at all, Ezra flew at his face.

Unpredictable? I’m sure there will have been warnings. Possibly Ezra will have frozen. He is now learning the only way to get away from unwanted attention is to bite.

A habit is forming which started with nipping. Each time he attacks it in effect gives him respite so the more of a learned behaviour it becomes – the more likely it is to happen again unless the various criteria that lead to the behaviour are changed.

Dogs need choice – a say in the matter.

Does he want to be touched just now? Does he want to be left alone just now?

In addition to altering these criteria which won’t be easy (creating calm, choice and predictability) the situation needs to be safety-managed.

A muzzle is good as a safety thing in emergency, but using it so that people can be free to do as they like around Ezra would be very wrong.

Since speaking to me on the phone the other day when Ezra had bitten the boy, the lady has had the pup in a crate in the dining room when the younger kids are about. She will be locking the doors to the room when she’s not in there – Ezra safely shut away with plenty to do.

(This sounds like Ezra is now shut away all the time but that isn’t the case. They are managing to juggle things so that he has plenty of attention and outings).

Dedication, kindness and patience.

The lady is treating Ezra with the same dedication, kindness and patience she treats all the family which includes several young people she has taken under her wing.

The younger family members will be changing their own behaviour where possible as will the older ones. We are looking at ways of using clicker and food to create a more useful relationship between Ezra and the boy.

It may be at the end of the day that they aren’t the right home for Ezra. This happens.

They will know that they’ve not left any stone unturned. Where you can’t fully control the humans and have to rely solely upon management there is always the risk that, in an unguarded moment, management falls down. A door can be left unlocked.

At the end of the day these kind people will be making the right decision for both Ezra and their family.

I received this email out of the blue nine months later: Life is good we have had a long journey with **** & Ezra but we have found some compromise & middle ground. Zones, gates, time out for all & listening to the ladder of communication mean that we are living together peaceful most of the time. Thank you for all your help to find a solution that has enabled us to care for everyone safely & has meant that Ezra can remain with us.
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 Ezra and I’ve not gone into exact precise 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)

He Bites Without Warning?

Henry is a very mixed-up dog. The four-year-old Staffy mix has been with the young lady for three years now and came with a good deal of baggage which we can only guess at. He was terrified wreck initially. The lady has come a long way in making him more confident.

Brindle Staffy mixHenry ‘bites without warning’ and it’s getting worse. It did, to me, ‘come out of the blue’ at the time when he went for my feet under the table because it seemed so out of context with his other behaviour and I wasn’t looking for the right things. Replaying the sequence in my head afterwards I could see there was in fact subtle warning.

Henry, between barks, had happily eaten food that I threw over the gate and made no attempt to back away, so he wasn’t unduly fearful. He was put on lead by the gentleman who took him the other end of the room while I came through the gate to sit at the dining table with the young lady. I lobbed Henry chicken and I threw him a ball. Fine. He had a couple of short barking bouts but soon stopped. I suggested the man dropped the lead.

After a while I watched Henry disappear quietly under the table towards me and he suddenly surprised me by biting first one of my shoes and then the other – hard and in quick succession. My feet hadn’t been moving. Fortunately no harm was done as my shoes protected my feet. I asked the man to get hold of the lead again.

How did I not see that coming?

This seemed very much like anger to me – anger perhaps that his barking hadn’t got rid of me and that I simply carried on sitting where I was, the other side of the table, ignoring him when he barked.

I could now see why they said their dog was unpredictable, ‘biting without warning’. We carefully examined each of the other times he has bitten in detail and found quite a few things in common including (apart from myself) it has been men he attacks and he bites always below the knee and usualy hard enough to draw blood. On each occasion Henry was already very aroused.

Why bite my feet?

Where most dogs, certainly those that have had a more fortunate upbringing, will only bite as a last resort, Henry seems to go straight into biting. It looked very much like some sort of learned behaviour to me. One time when he was held by the collar and couldn’t get to someone he actually bit the sofa instead. I would guess that, at some stage, he has been taught to bite, maybe deliberately.

If has been ‘roughed up’ to encourage aggression with the original owner from a pup, possibly tackled with feet to encourage an aggressive response, my guess is that the mere sight of feet/boots/legs/shoes has in the past had his body drenched with fear of being attacked so he will over time have built up an automatic response. If the stress of feet/shoes and close proximity to the lady he trusts and invasion of space has been niggling, then his warnings to increase distance were ignored (barking), it might have just tipped him over, resulting in defensive, fearful and what seemed a no-warning sudden reaction with no control of his actions to my feet under the table. This is the most likely explanation.

As it had happened to myself, I could re-play the scene in my mind afterwards. I believe, when we know what to look for, there is warning and a context. The usual context is one of Henry already being stressed, being in his own territory and a man being too close to himself or to the lady. The warning: he stares. That’s all. It could be easy for his owner to miss unless she’s watching him constantly.

For important reasons I won’t go into here, the lady has a deadline to make some progress with Henry.

There first thing to ensure is in place is management. He has to be muzzled when they are out, just in case. She already has systems in place for when callers come to the house, a gate, a crate that he’s used to being in, an anchor point and a muzzle he’s quite happy with, but this isn’t really the life that anyone wants with their dog. The young lady works hard to give her dog the best life possible but she unable to have friends to her home and she can’t take her dog away with her.

As stress is playing a such large part, everything must be done to keep Henry’s stress levels down in all areas of his life. Every time he goes mental when seeing a person or even barks at people passing the fence it is ‘loading the gun’.

He needs reprogramming. This is the only way in the long run that he is ever likely to be trustworthy. A process will be taught and repeated over and over, hundreds of times, so that upon a certain cue Henry will immediately and automatically, without thinking, follow a pre-planned sequence that is incompatible with stressing, barking or staring at someone. Whenever he sees a person and is anything other than relaxed, he must be taught a default alternative behaviour incompatible with his current behaviour.

I won’t go into the exact detail because it is specifically tailored to Henry, and if lifted and applied to another dog out of context could be inappropriate.

If the technique can be sufficiently ingrained before time runs out, then other people can also use the special cue if they are feeling at all uneasy.

The ‘wrong’ people taking on young dogs for the ‘wrong’ reasons can do untold harm. When they are abandoned, where do many end up? Well-meaning people like my young lady do the principled thing by taking in a rescue dog and then end up condemned to years of heartbreak and worry, unable to live a normal life because of the damage done earlier by someone else to the dog they have grown to love.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’, 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 Sunny. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog 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).

Unpredictable Around Other Dogs

Molly is an excellent family dogbrindledMolly2Molly, a Staffie-German Shepherd mix age 6, came from Battersea as a puppy. She is a very good family dog, in an  environment with a lot of noise and stimulation, sparring between the men, and comings and goings in general.

She is inclined to be nervous, with noise and conflict stressing her in particular. She can’t tell the difference between play sparring and the real thing and she goes frantic, trying to break them up, whilst it causes them amusement. This mustn’t continue. She is also scared of certain people who come into the house and will bark at them quite scarily sometimes.

The main problem is that from a dog that used be fine with other dogs, she is now unpredictable and reactive. Some dogs she will hackle, growl, lunge and bark at, others she will ignore. She gets good days and she gets bad days. The reaction of her humans is inconsistent, with the men inclined to use force in the presence of other dogs. Walking is no longer a pleasure. She wants to pull, but this is prevented with constant correction and commands. I did suggest that as these methods of getting her to walk nicely have been used for six years now so they obviously don’t work!

Chilled dogs seldom are reactive to other dogs. There is a lot in Molly’s life at home that can be changed to make her more relaxed, not least her diet and the way she is fed. It is known that diet affects behaviour and Molly’s is fairly random. Lots of snacks, unhealthy stuff and sharing human food, along with low quality dog food. Too much protein can cause aggression and certain additives can cause hyperactivity. She has already been checked over by the vet – an essential first step to be as sure as possible that it’s not something physical causing the changes in her behaviour.

Today the excited family are picking up a puppy from the local rescue centre. Teddy is nearly eight weeks old and tiny – a mix between a Bichon Frise and something else. For his sake some consistent rules and boundaries need to be put in place, especially around food and Molly’s reactivity to certain callers to the house. The atmosphere surrounding the dogs at home needs to be much calmer. Molly will need a refuge from Teddy when he gets over-excited as puppies do, and for a while he will need to be kept safe from her – just in case. They have met briefly and all seemed to be fine but they will get a puppy pen to be on the safe side; the dogs can then be in the same room together and get to know one another in safety.

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog. Please just check the map and contact me.

Perfect Home, Walks are the Problem

border terrier spent most of the time asleep in his bedJack is a delightful Border Terrier. Having checked me out and sniffed me thoroughly he brought me a toy, and then was so chilled that he spent much of the time I was there asleep!

The couple have had Jack for about three months now – he used to belong to a friend. Previous to that they used to look after him regularly, and cried when they had to give him back, so they were thrilled when the friends said they could have him.

Jack’s life has changed greatly from being part of a busy family without too much attention, to living with a couple and being the centre of their lives. It’s possible this is backfiring a little as the humans are now perhaps dancing a little too much to his tune! A dog, however well behaved he is at home, who has his owners doing his bidding, will be assuming some of the leader’s duties of decision-making and protection. This becomes a problem when leadership is most needed – away from home, out in the big dangerous exciting wide world. I have seen well-behaved calm house dogs changing when out on walks into dog-reactive pullers on lead countless times.

So, in order for walks to be enjoyable, leadership has to be in place at home. By leadership I don’t mean harsh commands and a rigid disciplinary routine but something a lot more gentle. A subtle shift in who obeys whom, who makes the decisions, who is responsible for safety, who is in charge of the food and who initiates most of the play.

A dog that is very excited before leaving the house, that charges ahead through the door and who pulls down the road to the extent that his tight collar is making him gag, is not a dog confidently walking with a leader. He is tense. His neck must be uncomfortable. When they see another dog the discomfort and tension increase as the owner thinks ‘heck- a dog!’ and passes the message down a tightened lead.

In Jack’s case his recall is excellent, and he is only reactive or aggressive to certain dogs on certain occasions. His ‘unpredictabilty’ will be to do with stress build-up. He is very obsessed with a particular ball that they take and which they use to ‘tire him out’. Like with a key on clockwork, overdoing the chasing games stimulates his prey-drive and can wind up a dog until he is so highly sprung he’s ready to go for almost anything.

I know from extensive experience that dogs who are not over-stimulated, who do natural doggy things like sniffing, marking, short bursts of hunting and running at their own pace exactly as they would if left to their own devices, are in a far better state of mind when it comes to encountering other dogs.

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

Stress, a Jack Russell and Biting.

Stressed Jack Russell


Milo is a Jack Russell aged just seven months. It is hard to believe he is little more than a puppy.  He lives with another Jack Russell called Snoopy.

Both dogs show classic signs of stress. Milo is now biting people entering their house, he has bitten family members and he drew blood from a boy who came to play. The dog warden has become involved, and the distressed family were on the point of taking Milo to Wood Green.

The family moved house a week ago and this was the final straw for poor Milo. The whole family is under a lot of pressure.  There are four children and, quite naturally for kids, they can be noisy and excitable with the usual squabbling and so on.

Milo sleeps inside the parents’ bed and snarls if a child comes near; the dogs make it impossible for anyone to get out of the front door they are so frantic and sometimes they redirect their stress onto one another. They are picked up, fussed, teased and played rough with. The owners have given up on walks due to the level of excitement before leaving and the noise Milo makes when out.

When I rang the door bell there was bedlam behind it – dogs barking, children shouting in their efforts to put  the dogs behind the gate in the kitchen so they could open the door. We had Milo on a long lead to start with, but when he calmed down it was dropped. He ignored me and I ignored him. You can see from my photo that he may have been lying down, but he wasn’t relaxed.

Then an interesting thing happened. Someone came past the side window and Milo went into full guard and attack mode, charging at the window and then to the front window where I was sitting – and bit me! I’m always prepared and wear tough clothes so he only bit on my sleeve. I believe he was so fired up that I was the nearest thing when the stress ‘overflowed’.

Many people underestimate the devastating effect stress can have on a dog, and are often unaware of the sorts of things that constitute stress. It’s not only stuff associated with fear. Exciting play that the dog seems to love can cause stress as can walks, and they also pick up on the stress  of the owners.

I see it like a bucket of water. Each time something excites, stimulates or frightens the dog, some water drips into the bucket. In dogs stress can take a long time to dissipate – days – so that water stays there! Bit by bit the bucket fills until it is near overflowing and just one more drop will cause it to flow over. The slightest thing can then cause the dog to fly off the handle. This is why some dogs seem ‘unpredictable’. How they handle something they may meet one day when the bucket isn’t full to overflowing will be different to how they react to the same thing another day when it’s brim full.

Stress reduction in every way possible is the only option for Milo, difficult with such a busy and noisy household. However, they have no choice. If it can’t be achieved, he may actually be better off in a calmer home. He is only seven months old and as he gets older he can only get worse if something isn’t done quickly; he will be the one to pay the price.  Both little dogs are very well loved and it’s extremely distressing for owners to have a biting dog.

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