Canine Behavior/Aggressive Lancashire Heeler
My husband and I have just started caring for an 11-12 year old Heeler who has severe arthritis. My problem comes from my complete inability to direct her. If she lays on the couch, goes into the bedroom (the only room she's not allowed in), or if I need her to go out back because we have guests, it turns into a major confrontation. First she ignores me, turning her back to me, and closing her eyes. If I try to gently nudge her, touch her, or even step in front of her to redirect, she goes into attack mode, snarling, baring her teeth, snapping and finally the other day, charging me several times. Only my husbandís pillow kept me from being bitten.
In contrast, she listens to my husband, allows him to touch her and even to grab her collar and physically move her. The situation is really painful for me because I sincerely love dogs, and have never been around a dog that didnít love me in return. I have tried everything to let this dog know that I care about her. When I ask her to do something, I say it in a firm voice. I don't yell at her, or use physical punishments. Instead, I give her treats and praise to reinforce her good behavior. I give her space, especially because she won't let me touch her, and snaps at me if I try to pet her. I've bought her toys and tried playing with her when she's in a good mood. Again, she plays with and allows my husband to pet her. Seren (the dog) and I have an uneasy truce and get along ok until I need her to listen to me. Then she turns into a really scary dog and I'm not sure what else I can do.
Thank you for your question. The first thing I'd like to do is discuss Seren's body language...
When you use a firm voice with her (stern and intimidating to some extent as that's the purpose of the firm voice), she is responding by turning her back to you and closing her eyes. Both of those behaviors are called APPEASEMENT BEHAVIORS. They are specifically meant to calm another individual and avoid conflict or confrontation. When you then move around to her face, she escalates her response by snarling, bearing teeth, snapping and eventually charging. All of those behaviors are called DISTANCE INCREASING SIGNALS. They are meant to create more distance between herself and the thing that is frightening her - again in an effort to avoid conflict and confrontation.
It's escalating from snarling to lunging because you're not yet respecting her request for space. I am confident that this is unintentional on your part. Unless one is educated to the more subtle behavioral communication of dogs, it's easy to miss and to misinterpret. You are far from the first person to misinterpret a dog communication - I did so many times with my own dog long before I turned to this as my profession and determined to become educated on such things.
So, here's what I would guess is happening (without actually observing it myself). Seren has severe arthritis (according to your question), which means she's frequently sore, her mobility is limited and her reflexes are slower. She likely feels insecure with her ability to move around easily, unsure of her footing or even if her legs will carry her when she wants them to. She probably can't move at the speed with which you'd like her to. So, from the start she's "on guard". Then, when you speak with a firm tone, it tells her that you're looking for a confrontation. She tries to appease you by turning her back and squinting her eyes (a beautiful communication, by the way) and you push the confrontation by moving into her space and continuing the firm tone or reaching for her collar or to nudge her (on sore joints). Then she's forced (from her perspective) to make herself clearer that she needs space. The best way to do that is offensively by showing you that she will defend herself if pushed (snarl, look how big my teeth are, my aim is good if I choose to bite you, etc...).
Her relationship with your husband may be that he uses a softer tone of voice or doesn't approach her squarely head-on, and she just feels safer with him. Or it may be that because he's bigger, has a deeper voice, oozes testosterone and has a heavier footfall, that she's just thoroughly intimidated by him that she doesn't fight because she knows she'd lose that battle. Without observing the interactions, I can't say one way or the other.
But, if this were happening with my dog (and it did happen with my 60-lb Akita/Chow/Red Heeler when she got older), here's how I'd approach it. It worked well with my dog - who also developed doggie dementia.
If I need to move her, I'd approach her from an angle, and even sit down near her - parallel to her rather than facing her. I'd make nice with her, speaking in a soft, sweet, higher-pitched voice than my usual - almost baby talk. I'd tell her how wonderful she was, how much I loved her, and that I realize how comfortable she is, but would it be possible for her to move... I'd give her a good minute or two to get comfortable with my proximity, then I'd very gently just touch her hip - the one on the floor, not the one in the air as she lay or sit next to me. If she's sitting Sphinx-style, I might touch gently on her belly just in front of her hind legs, or under her bum. This is the same pressure as I would use for petting, it's just the location that I'm touching and I might gently tap that spot a couple times (same pressure as petting) as this can cue her to get up. If that didn't get her moving, I'd tap one more time and then toss a favorite treat just a couple feet away from her - far enough to get her up, but close enough that she only has to take one or two steps as immediately after getting up may be more difficult to move and so if you toss it too far away, it's easier to pretend it's not there...
After a few such encounters where you toss the food after gently tapping her hip (AFTER taking the time to reassure her that you will NOT force her to move until she's ready to do it), you probably won't need the food anymore. The rest of the ritual will be sufficient. The key here is taking that time to make sure she knows you're not going to force her t move before she's ready. It's not just a matter of her being willful and not wanting to go. Senior dogs, just as senior humans, who are severely arthritic need time to mentally gear up to move because their body just doesn't work as fast as it used to, and because it is often painful to move, at least the first few movements.
My own dog snapped several times when she felt she was being pushed too hard, too quickly, or that her space was being invaded and she couldn't escape. She nipped our cleaning lady on the ankle one day because she was laying in the entry while the cleaning lady was vacuuming the area rug. The cleaning lady backed up while vacuuming and her foot landed just an inch or so away from my dog's front paw/face where she was resting. My dog just couldn't move fast enough, there was no option for her to get up and walk away. Her only defense in that moment to make sure she wasn't landed on was to snap at the cleaning lady. It wasn't meant to be mean or ugly. It was strictly self defense on her part. So we made sure to face her when vacuuming, or if possible to simply encourage her to another room before that task began.
Once I stopped to recognize that my dog's behavior was not about not liking me, but rather about her own sense of ability to move, it made it take an extra couple minutes to get her upstairs to bed, or out of the way if we needed her to move, but there was NEVER another growl or snarl or air snap. All because I simply took a moment (1-2 minutes) to just sit quietly with her, and reassure her that I would not force her to move. This gave her time to gear up mentally that she was going to be asked/encouraged/enticed to move in a moment. If Seren won't let you pet her immediately, that's OK. I often didn't touch my dog when I first sat down. Instead, I'd sit near her and just speak softly and sweetly to her until she told me she was comfortable - looking toward me, leaning her head toward me, adjusting how she lay so her body was pushed toward me or even touching me... then I'd make gentle contact, still with no pressure to move. Then, when she was clearly comfortable with my proximity, that is when I'd ask nicely if she could get up.
Remember, it really may be sometimes that she CAN'T get up just yet, so giving her time is a great thing in that moment. I would NOT be grabbing her collar, yanking, jerking or dragging her anywhere (you or your husband) as this can aggravate her arthritis and not only be uncomfortable, but also cause new injury which I'm certain is not your intention. Instead, I'd entice her. It may require cheese or chicken meat or ground beef or french fries, but whatever it is, I'd keep some on hand, and when you need to move her (at least until she settles into the routine of the ritual) I'd arrive with that in your hand to start. I'd make friends by sitting near her - parallel, not facing her - and offer her some of the treat. If she'll take it from your hand, GREAT! If not, just drop a few bites (one at a time) on the floor right in front of her. Then, when she's relaxed and comfortable, toss several bites just a couple feet away so that she has to get up to get it. If you need to make a trail of treats out to the back yard, and then present her with a Kong stuffed with goodies to entertain her while company is over, then that's what you do in the beginning. Once she learns to trust that you won't force yourself on her, and that you take the time to let her prepare herself, you won't need to do that most of the time. I will acknowledge, that even a year after my dog knew the ritual, there were occasional times when she really did require the extra motivation, and so a few times per year, I would have to go get treats. And it was when she wouldn't follow the treats past the first step that I realized she could no longer climb the stairs and I had to carry her up to bed. Then it became a matter of getting her to stand up and trust that I wouldn't hurt her nor drop her, but that I was going to have to pick up all 60 lbs of her... I share this bit because Seren is already senior and quite arthritic and she may need actual help moving on occasion. If she learns this ritual, but then suddenly appears to be obstinate, take time to determine if she's in more pain than usual.
Pain is one of the top triggers for aggressive outbursts such as what you're seeing...
I strongly encourage you and your husband to read the book On Talking Terms With Dogs - Calming Signals
as it will walk you through a host of those subtle communications, what they look like, when you might see them, how other dogs respond to them, and some that we can do to help assure our dogs when they feel insecure.
I recommend this book to nearly every client I see. It's very accessible to the pet parent, and will open up a whole new world of communication for you when you know what various behaviors actually mean - that licking the lips isn't just a matter of wetting the lips, or licking the chops as one does after eating, yawning doesn't always mean the dog is tired, etc.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist