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 Unfortunately the vet refused, saying he could see the dog was fine and then gave confusing and outdated behaviour advice.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).


Rescue Dog Settling In

VinnieI suggested they start all over again just as though Vinnie had never been walked before!

They have had the young Jack Russell for just over one week now and he is a rescue dog slowly finding his feet.

It’s very likely that he had seldom been outside his home and garden during the 2 1/2 years of his life which was apparently with a terminally ill person. He is another dog that reacts badly when seeing other dogs and where the groundwork needs to be put in at home first.

Each day he becomes more relaxed with them and although he’s an independent little dog he now will enjoy a cuddle.

He has a couple of strange little quirks.  He is completely quiet when anyone comes up the front path, rings on the doorbell, delivers a package or comes in the front door. However, when there is any noise from out the back – a dog barking or a car door slamming, he will rush out barking.

He’s very reactive to anything sudden, even someone coughing (they will gradually desensitise him to that in very small stages and using food). I do wonder whether the general background noise in his previous home may have been higher. One can only speculate. Now he lives with quiet people in a quiet area and against this background most sounds may well seem sudden.

The other strange thing is that from time to time he stands still, almost trance-like with his eyes closing. I did wonder whether it was because he was anxious, but there were no other indications such as lip licking or yawning. I took a video. On advice, I have suggested they get this checked out with their vet.

They will first start walking Vinnie in the garden until both humans and dog have the technique and a loose lead. As they go along they will work on getting and keeping his attention.

Only then they will venture out of the gate – but they won’t be going very far!

Bit by bit they will build on this until he is walking happily down the road on a loose lead. Only now will they be ready to work on dogs and Vinnie should be a lot more confident. They must do their best to keep at a distance where Vinnie isn’t too uncomfortable to take food or to give his humans his attention.

The secret to success, particularly with a rescue dog, is being prepared to put in the necessary effort and put in the necessary time – as I know Vinnie’s people are (see my ‘Reality Check’ page).

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Vinnie 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).

Lots of Positive Reinforcement Required

He takes little notice of them when they ask him to do something - and may even do the very opposite! Wilf is a delightful mix of Fox Terrier and PoodleWilf is a delightful mix of Fox Terrier and Poodle He is four years old.

This little dog has had a lot of emotion and change in his life. Shortly after they got him as a puppy there was a family bereavement causing turmoil and grief and the puppy will have picked up on these things.

A year ago they lived in quiet rural North Wales and they have moved house twice since then – now to a much busier town area. Coinciding with the first move Wilf’s behaviour has declined. He has quite a serious skin condition that is also getting worse and this discomfort may be affecting his behaviour; he gets growly if a hand rests on him. Coincidentally, he changed vets and medication at the same time as that first move, and the new vet flipped him onto his back and pinned him down to examine him. Since this, unsurprisingly, he has also became aggressive and fearful of the vet.

Indoors Wilf is no trouble at all. He is quite self-contained and doesn’t seem to want to put himself out much for the mother and daughter who own him – though I found he came alive for cheese! He takes little notice of them when they ask him to do something – and may even do the very opposite! Its a shame because they do a lot of things with him in order to enrich his life, but there is just something missing.

It’s this relationship that needs to be strengthened if he’s to take notice of them when they meet other dogs on walks – or children,  both of which he doesn’t like too close, especially when he’s trapped on lead with someone he doesn’t fully believe in – someone who is herself becoming increasingly nervous. Most recently things have escalated to a little girl simply standing and staring at him being enough to cause him to react ferociously. They will now go near the local school playground and get him associating children with good stuff from a comfortable distance.

If they were to engage with Wilf a bit more, use food rewards and lots of positive reinforcement, I’m sure this little dog will liven up and become less touchy. He is another of those dogs that gets too much for nothing and he needs to work for some of his food and attention. This way both will gain value and his people will become more relevant.

They are having a new vet check him today to review the skin meds. He also walks into things which is strange though seems to be able to see okay. The vet will check that too. Maybe there is more going on than we know.


Depressed but Comes Alive When Alone

Daisy is anxious and uneasyDaisy is a Labrador X. She was originally found at one year old starving, pregnant and tied to a lamp post. She has lived with her family for six years now. Until a few weeks ago she was happy, outgoing and willing.

For the past two or three months Daisy has become a different dog. She looks miserable and has shut down. She has little interest in food or play. She seldom gets up when people come home. Consequently the family are falling over themselves to humour her and wait upon her. She is the centre of much conversation and anxiety. She will sense this.

I was called out because, from a dog that never jumped up on anything, not even chairs, she has taken to jumping on window sills, kitchen surfaces and even the piano keys. This happens only when they are out or in bed. Valuables have gone flying. When they come into the room the owners are met with a panting, excited and stressed dog; frantically appeasing behaviour.

It is hard to get to the root of this for sure – but I can guess.  First, I made sure she had been thoroughly checked over by the vet.

Probably, weeks or months ago, Daisy had started by creeping onto beds. In retrospect there had been evidence ofdaisy this. Because there was nobody there to say ‘no’, she probably thought it was OK while she was alone. A dog isn’t going to reason things the same way as we do. She probably started to increase her activities and jump on more and more things, unchecked. Then there was an incident in the middle of the night when the TV suddenly came on loudly and the parents rushed downstairs thinking they had burglars, and Daisy was terrified. She possibly could have caused this herself by jumpng on the remote control.

The owners, who know their dog well, are convinced that she knows she’s being ‘naughty’ by jumping on things. If they are right, it’s logical to suppose she took their reaction to her excited, appeasing behaviour before they knew what was happening as endorsement for what she had been doing. Then later, out of the blue (to Daisy, and because there was damage as evidence), one day they were angry. Then another time she was smacked.

The official line is that dogs don’t feel guilt (read ‘In Defence of Dogs’ by John Bradshaw). They are, however, absolute experts in detecting human mood and body language. From the moment the person opens the door she will read how they feel and consequently, especially remembering previous anger, she will be grovelling, jumping up, panting and appeasing them.

The gentleman took timed photo clips one night. No panic! Daisy’s tail is relaxed and she’s not showing any signs of stress. She is systematically and calmly, without a care in the world, jumping up on things, something I’m sure that she believes she is allowed to do when she’s alone. I suspect now not only is it a habit, but because she is under so much pressure during the day by the anxiety around her and to ‘perform’, when she’s alone she feels a terrific sense of release and simply does just what she feels like doing because she can.

From a predictable life where she thought she knew what was what, things are now a puzzling mess. Humans are falling over themselves  to ‘make her happy’, giving her far too much attention and deference, then being unpredictably cross with her. The more they try to bring her out, the more she withdrawn she becomes. The more withdrawn she is, the more approval she seems to receive. She will feel that they want her to be withdrawn.

Whether or not I have the details quite right, backing right off is key. Fortunately Daisy is happy in a crate so she no longer will have free run when left alone. The situation can be managed while they readjust the balance of their relationship with their dog, however long it takes.

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

Maisy Shuts Down and Shakes


Maisy nervous

Maisy is a Labrador.

She is very well loved and here she is on the left, her happy old self, in her bed with the cat.

Now something strange is happening. For the past month Maisy has had periods of complete shut down. She looks miserable and sometimes shakes. This seems to come over her for no reason at all. You see a different dog on the right. Her ears are flat and she is still, and not really engaging in what is happening around her. It’s almost like she is somewhere else in her head. I just touched her gently with one finger and she startled.

We have been doing detective work starting with a thorough check by the vet. Maisy has had a lot of upheavel over the past few months with crashings and bangings as restoration work has been done on the house which she seemed okay with at the time. The final straw may have been, after an especially noisy period, a door slammed loudly beside her.

Maisy relaxed

Maisy Relaxed

Maisy seems more or less fine when she is out of their own home and garden, so it’s not continuous. Is it prompted by the house, the ladies’ presence, or both?

They are keeping a diary of all the circumstances when they notice her going downhill – who is about, where they are, what they are doing and so on. She is fine and relaxed when they get home having been out for a few hours, but starts again after a short while. They hope to set up a camera to see what happens if they both walk out for half an hour when she starts to shut down or shake.

The situation is compounded because everyone around her is so concerned. She is constantly focussed on and loved, which may make her feel uncomfortable. When I sat down on the sofa she came up between me and one of the girls and lay close up to me and relaxed. I believe she felt reassured by my calm confidence and that I was matter of fact and not anxious about her. I made no fuss of her and only gave her the occasional touch, but she would be able to feel that I loved her and that I loved her presence beside me.

Maisy doesn’t need to be fussed to feel loved.  This is probably the key to her rehabilitation. It may take a while or the cloud may suddenly lift. We will see.

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