Canine Behavior/Re-homing my Labrador Retriever
QUESTION: I have been having my Labrador retriever since he was a pup. He is going to be 8yrs old this year. The attachment between the dog and myself is great. Itís only the two of us in my home. The only time he leaves my home is when he goes to see the vet. He does get to see other people; they pet him near the fence. When people come home he is very friendly and wants to be petted all the time. He has plenty of garden space to run around and has never been kept in a kennel. He stays inside my home whenever I am there. He also sleeps in my bed. I have left him alone several times in the past for a maximum of 4 days but he hasn't done to well in his eating at that time. He is very protective about his food and would growl and try to bite if he's food is touched. He has never been mated before either.
Presently I am dealing with an unexpected situation in my family and I have to move to another country. Due to the many restrictions in that country in exporting a dog and also looking at my dog's age and well being I had to make a very difficult decision to not take him a long with me. I never anticipated the following events that took place in trying to re-home him in the past two months.
The first home he went to he interacted with a female lab and he was constantly trying to mate her even though she was not in heat. It was really tough on the new owners and they had to keep separating the dogs. Then he began to growl at the people in the home and ended up biting the lady of the house. This is the first time he has bitten someone. When I came to pick him up he was totally disoriented and saliva was pouring out of his mouth. When he came back home he was not himself for a week, he was lying around in the home and was very quiet.
Two weeks back I tried the second home. There was a female lab in this home too and he kept on trying to mate her. Then he also tried to bite the people in the house. They told me that they felt he was sexually frustrated as well. I had to bring him back and once again I could see he was quiet and not himself.
The third home he went to the other day I tried something different. I visited them with my dog but came back home with him. He tried to bite the lady of the house and I got down a trainer to advise us how to move forward with the growling and biting. He wanted them to ignore the dog, not pet him and wait till he came to them. The second day I left him at their home and he stopped eating, drinking and even urinating. They began to get really worried as he was not responding to them, so I had to go and get him the next morning immediately. Once I came he ate and drank but his tongue was white and he was not in good shape at all.
I asked the vet to check him out today as his appetite has not been great for some time. He did have tick fever about a month back. I will know the results tomorrow. The vet says if he's results are negative then he believes my dog has separation anxiety and he would need to be treated for it.
I don't know how to go about this as he's not responding to change well. Is there anything I can do to make this transition right? Do I try to get him trained as I have never done that before?
ANSWER: Thank you for your question. I'm so sorry your circumstances have changed that you must try to rehome your dog after 8 years of clearly intense bond. That is a very difficult thing to deal with.
Your vet is probably right. Your description does sound very much like separation anxiety. This is a physiological reaction. It's basically a panic attack. His heart rate increases, his pupils dilate, he salivates, he may urinate or defecate in inappropriate places. He may even experience explosive diarrhea or vomiting. He may be fearful of new/strange people and be much more likely to bite (due to fear). He may lose his appetite and refuse food and water, refuse to play, act lethargic/depressed... all of the things you're describing to me.
We need to first understand that from his perspective, his person has disappeared and left him at some stranger's house. It's scary. There are some options that may help. You might have the potential adopter come to your home 4 or 5 days in a row to visit with you and your dog for an hour or two, and then leave. This person should chat with you (as a friend), have some tea or a snack... You and this person should take your dog for a romp in the garden - play his favorite games with him, etc. You and this person should take him for walks in the neighborhood if that's possible, or go for car rides together. All of this will help your dog get to know this person and feel that they are a friend and safe.
Then, you should take him to visit at the adoptive house for a couple hours over a few days, and TAKE HIM HOME with you. While at the adoptive house, play games with him, bring food and make sure he has a mealtime there. Go for walks, romp in the new garden, etc. Help him see this new space as a safe and inviting place to be, but then take him home with you so he can relax a bit and feel secure.
Perhaps have them dog-sit for a few hours while you run some errands, and then come back and take him home with you. Doing this along with the rest over a few days can help to ease that transition. Then do an overnight at the new house (the dog, not you) and come check on him the next day - take him for a walk, but return him to that new house. This may help him feel more secure about the adoptive house because it's a longer transition and you're not just disappearing altogether, leaving him with a total stranger.
As to his mounting behavior, I'm assuming he's still intact (has not been castrated) based on your comments. If the females were not in, or about to be in or just recently in heat, then his behavior was not an effort to mate. Mounting is a social behavior. Depending on the circumstances, it can range from poor play skills, a display of over excitement not related to sex, or an effort to control the activity of another because they're feeling overwhelmed and over stimulated, so they're trying to control their environment so they can feel safer/more secure. Not nearly as often, but sometimes, it's an actual effort to be in charge and be the rule-maker between that dog and the one they are mounting. Without seeing the context, I can't tell you which of those it is, but I'm confident that it had nothing to do with sex or mating (given that he did it with two different dogs).
Resource guarding (growling/snapping when someone comes near the food) is a totally normal and adaptive behavior for most living things. The fact that he does that does not make him an aggressive dog. it does mean that we need to help him feel more secure that nobody is going to take his food away and so he doesn't need to guard it. For that, there are positive reinforcement trainers who can help you. I don't know if there would be any local to you. But there's a great book you can get called Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding
by Jean Donaldson.
This book will walk you through why the behavior occurs and provide some step-by-step instructions for how you can work through this. I encourage you to start this process, and then give the book to the adoptive family so that they can continue to work on it with him.
His biting behavior in the new homes is almost certainly a fear response due to his intense panic at being away from you. I don't say this to upset you. But this is the reality he's dealing with right now and we have to understand why he's doing the behavior so we can help him past it. The new owner will need to use positive reinforcement training with him, and have loads of patience so that they can help your dog understand that even though you're not present, he is still safe and loved. They need to respect his space and heed his warning behavior. Bites rarely come out of nowhere; they are usually preceded by some (or many) warning signals. These can be distance-increasing signals such as growling, showing teeth, snarling, barking. It can be stress signals such as licking his lips, squinting/blinking his eyes, yawning when he's not tired, panting when he's not hot or just exercised, pulling his ears back, averting his gaze. It can even be appeasement signals such as lowering himself closer to the ground, tucking his tail, turning his back, showing his belly, etc.
There's a great book called On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals
by Turid Rugaas which will walk you through a whole bunch of signals that dogs give, when they might give them, what they might mean and how other dogs respond to them. Some are even things we can do in the presence of dogs to help them feel safer and more secure.
If you (or the adoptive family) knows how to read his body language, they will know if he's feeling stressed, anxious or scared long before a bite happens. If they recognize those signals and respect his communication by adjusting the environment so the dog feels safer, they will never risk a bite. This means that we NEVER punish a growl. The growl is telling us that he's not comfortable and needs more space. If we punish the growl, he'll learn that he gets in trouble for telling you he's upset and so he'll stop telling you - but that doesn't mean he's no longer upset. It just means he stopped telling you, and that's exactly how we end up with those out-of-the-blue bites that come without warning - because we punished the warning out of the dog.
One other book that's filled with great advice on training and working with dogs is called How to Behave so Your Dog Behaves
by Sophia Yin. She is a positive reinforcement trainer and her techniques will help the adoptive family learn how to interact with your dog in order to work as a team - get him to behave, while making sure he feels safe/secure and confident.
You may want to try a Thunder Shirt on him as this can help lower his anxiety level. Here is a link to my blog, discussing my experience with the shirt.
You can also try DAP - dog appeasing pheromone. This is a synthetic pheromone that mimics the pheromones that nursing dogs produce. It can have a soothing effect on a dog. I'd spray his collar with it, or spray a bandana and put it on like a collar (if he's comfortable with that) as this may help in the initial stages of being away from you.
If necessary, your vet may need to prescribe something like Clomicalm (American name, not sure what the local name might be). It's an antidepressant and should be used in conjunction with retraining to help him get past the separation anxiety, and then wean him off the meds. It's not a fix in itself. I would stay away from tranquilizers such as acepromazine as these will make the dog groggy, but do not address the anxiety, and can actually increase the anxiety which can bring about fully unexpected bites with zero warning.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if you need further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thanks so much for your kind feedback. I found out today from his blood works that he still has tick fever and is anemic. Tomorrow the vet comes to give his shots. I am concerned that he is not eating and mostly laying down. The tick fever has been going on for a few months now and isn't getting totally eradicated from his blood stream. I will keep in touch with you and would greatly appreciate your advice when I look to re-home him again.
I'm sorry to hear that he is still ill. Being ill and not feeling his normal self almost certainly adds to his sense of anxiety with the new circumstances he's been exposed to. If you're able to keep him through a complete treatment and full recovery before trying to re-home him, that may make the process significantly easier.
I'm not a veterinarian and have no personal knowledge of Tick Fever. I did some quick research and from what I've read, I would guess that your dog is in what they call the chronic phase of the disease. The anemia and lack of appetite, lethargy are all direct symptoms of the disease in both the acute stage (early, first few weeks) and the chronic stage. Below is a copy/paste of what I read and a link to the site where I found it. I found the same basic information at several websites, so I'm guessing the information is pretty accurate.
"How does a dog get infected with Ehrlichia?
Ehrlichiosis is transmitted to dogs through the bite of infected ticks; the brown dog tick, Rhipicephalus sanguineus, is the main reservoir of the organism in nature. A tick must latch on and feed in order for Ehrlichia to be transmitted; thus an engorged (to mean fat from eating) tick puts your dog at risk for this disease. At Sunrise Pet Clinic we recommend Frontline Topspot for the control of ticks (and fleas); Frontline keeps ticks from latching on.
What are signs of Ehrlichiosis?
Signs of Ehrlichiosis can be divided into three stages: Acute (early disease), sub-clinical (no outward signs of disease), and chronic (long-standing infection). In areas where Ehrlichiosis is common, many dogs are seen during the acute phase. Infected dogs may have fever, swollen lymph nodes, respiratory distress, weight loss, bleeding disorders and occasionally neurologic disturbances. This stage may last from 2 to 4 weeks.
The sub-clinical phase represents the stage of infection in which the organism is present but not causing any sign of disease. Sometimes a dog will pass through the acute phase without its owner being aware of the infection. These dogs may become sub-clinical and develop laboratory changes yet have no apparent signs of illness. During this stage the dog may eliminate the organism, or it may progress to the next stage.
Return to top
Chronic Infection Phase
This stage occurs because the immune system is not effective in eliminating or controlling the organism. Dogs are likely to develop a host of problems:
thrombocytopenia (decreased platelets, the blood-clotting cells)
eye problems (including hemorrhage in the eyes)
If the bone marrow (site of blood cell production) fails, the dog becomes unable to manufacture any of the blood cells necessary to sustain life (red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets).
How is Ehrlichiosis diagnosed?
It may be difficult to diagnose infected dogs during the very early stages of infection. The immune system usually takes two-three weeks to respond to the presence of the organism and develop antibodies. Since the presence of antibodies to Ehrlichia canis is the basis of the most common diagnostic test, such dogs may be infected yet test negative. Testing performed a few weeks later will reveal the presence of antibodies and confirm the diagnosis. Therefore it is recommended that within eight weeks of seeing and removing any engorged ticks, your pet is blood tested for Ehrlichiosis.
The organism itself may be seen in blood smears or in aspirates of cells from lymph nodes, spleen and lungs. This is a very uncommon finding. Therefore, detection of antibodies, coupled with appropriate clinical signs, is the primary diagnostic criteria.
How is Ehrlichiosis treated?
Dogs experiencing severe anemia or bleeding problems may initially require a blood transfusion. However, this does not treat the underlying disease.
Drugs in the tetracycline family are the first choice to rid the dog of the organism that causes Ehrlichiosis. Tetracycline hydrochloride and doxycycline are usually quite effective.
It has been traditionally recommended to treat infected dogs for 10-30 days, depending on the clinical signs and severity of the infection. Some newer research suggests that certain dogs may need to be treated for two-four months.
Return to top
What is the prognosis?
Dogs with competent immune systems will usually recover, although they remain susceptible to reinfection. Dogs with weak immune systems and those that have progressed to the terminal stages of infection (bone marrow failure) have a guarded prognosis. "
Given your dog's age and current symptoms, I would encourage you to have a very open and honest discussion with your vet about your dog's prognosis for a full recovery, and determine the best course of action for HIS well being (even if that may not be emotionally what feels best for you). The single most difficult thing we do as pet parents is put our pet's needs above our own emotional needs.
I wish you the very best of luck and an excellent prognosis for full recovery. Please keep me posted.
Los Angeles Behaviorist