Canine Behavior/behavior issue
I have an 11 month old male (not neutered) St Bernard. On two separate occasions he has jumped up and snapped at two different peoples faces. He gives no warning, doesn't growl or look nervous or agitated. It catches me by surprise so I pull him back while pushing his head down and tell him no. After he doesn't act any different either. He will even lean up on that same person for them to pet him. Hes very mild mannered, but is otherwise good with both adults or children. During both these instances hes never looked aggressive. Hes well socialized since I got him at 2 months and has been around all types of people in all kinds of environments. I don't know what to make of this or why its happened but since he is quite large he could do some real damage if he connects. Any help would be great. Thanks
The fact that he's choosing to not make contact at this point is good, but clearly it's not OK that he's interacting in this manner. Without observing him in such a context to see if I can pinpoint a trigger for the behavior, it's impossible to know what is motivating it. It could be an over zealous effort at greeting (since you say he doesn't appear to be aggressive even as he does this), he could be nervous or uncertain.
I think it's important to have an in person evaluation to determine what may be prompting this behavior. If you understand that WHY behind the behavior, you'll be in a much better position to modify it. If it's a fear/nervous/uncertain reaction, then we want to build his confidence in such social encounters. If it's over zealous greeting behavior, then we want to work on his impulse control.
Finding a positive reinforcement trainer in your area, who understands canine body language and can help you decipher what's going on with your pup should be the first step. Once they've observed him and interacted with him and gotten a much more detailed history of the two instances in which he's done this behavior, they'll be able to devise a behavior modification protocol to help improve these social interactions. Such a plan may include desensitization and counter conditioning or a Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) protocol. Or it may be simply teaching him an alternate greeting behavior such as targeting the person's hand or foot with his nose or Sitting or Lying Down for a greeting, or offering a Bow (more of a stretch bow than a play bow, but they look very similar). By teaching an alternative behavior which is incompatible with the jumping, we help him create a new default behavior that still earns him a greeting.
However, if his behavior is based in fear (the person is suddenly too close, or looking at him too long or touching where he doesn't like, or he believes that person may try to steal his toy or food or loved one, etc), then the first order of business will be helping him feel safer about such interactions. You may still use one of these other incompatible behaviors as a new default behavior, but you would first need to address the concern so he doesn't feel a need to be defensive during these encounters, and this is where a positive reinforcement trainer who is well versed in doggie body language is key.
You indicated that he gave no warning such as growling or looking nervous/agitated. Dogs give all sorts of very subtle signals that are often missed entirely or ignored as not relevant. Until I learned what they were, I missed them too. Some of these less obvious signals include licking the lips - anything from a tiny little tongue flick just beyond his lips to a proper lip lick that may reach his nose and/or sweep down one side of his face after licking his nose. Others include averting his gaze (this could be simply turning his eyes away or turning his whole head to the side or turning around entirely), squinting his eyes half shut, blinking at an increased rate, increased respiration (panting when it's not overly hot and he hasnt' just been exercising), turning his back to the person, sitting down, sniffing the ground as if ignoring the person, yawning, watching the person out of the corner of his eyes such that the whites of his eyes are showing (known as whale eye), hackles (hair along his back) may be up anywhere along the spine from skull to tip of tail, stiff/rigid muscles of the body, tension in his face and head including a furrowed brow, ridges around the eyes, nose or mouth, body movements slower than is typical for him, among other things. It's probable that your dog gave some signals that he was uncomfortable, but when those subtle signs went unheeded, he escalated to a very clear back-off signal.
Most dogs will give several such signals, though they may be subtle and they may happen simultaneously. Some dogs have a very long and protracted warning period and will give signal after signal before they escalate, while others will only give one or two subtle signals, very quickly before escalating. Generally, the only time a dog will fail to signal at all is if they have a history of being punished or scolded for communicating. This is why many trainers and behaviorists today strongly recommend that we do not punish the growl as that growl is a clear communication, and if we teach the dog that it's not OK to tell us when something is wrong, then we end up with no warning and no opportunity to fix it for them.
There's an excellent book called On Talking Terms With Dogs - Calming Signals
, by Turid Rugaas. She walks you through many of these very subtle signals, what they look like, when the dog might do them (appeasement, conflict avoidance, fearful/nervous, contentment, etc), how other dogs typical respond when they see such signals and how we can use this information to help our dogs feel better about situations. We can even do some of these signals in front of our dogs to help them feel safer.
There's a companion DVD if you're a visual person and would like to see examples of the various signals. I encourage you to read the book first so you know what you're watching for while viewing the DVD.
When looking for a trainer or behaviorist, you want to avoid working with anyone who uses choke chains, prong collars, electronic collars or subscribes to a school of thought that includes physically manhandling the dog (pokes, kicks, jabs, so-called 'alpha rolls', etc) as these will almost certainly escalate the behavior rather than resolve it. Remember, those punishment techniques may convince your dog to stop warning that he's uncomfortable, but they do not address the reason why he's uncomfortable and so leave him with no ability to communicate his stress - which can lead to an escalated and without warning bite.
The American College of Veterinary Medicine has a nice PDF guideline for choosing a trainer. If you go to the following link, there is a link to the PDF at the bottom of the page called "How to Select a Trainer". You may find that quite helpful.
You can try to search for a trainer through the Association of Professional Dog Trainers website.
Once there, you'll need to change the country from USA and then put in your local information.
You can also ask your vet or other local vets for referrals.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist