Canine Behavior/random aggresion
Hi there, I have a male dog, six years old, Staffordshire bull terrior cross boxer. We got him over a year ago from a rescue centre. He has always been a very friendly dog towards people, but not other dogs. Me and my husband were out at a wedding the other night and we stayed over at the hotel. My mum stayed at the house to look after the dog. My mum went to the bathroom before going to bed....the dog was on the bed when my mum entered the bedroom. She called him off but he didn't move, he then showed his teeth at her which he has never done before, he also did this the next day when she tried to get him out of the living room. My mum was nervous and left the dog where he was both times. Need to prevent him doing this again to my mum, any advise will be helpful, thanks
Thank you for your question.
So, your dog was probably feeling a bit stressed at your absence. Also, if he was sleeping on the bed or in the living room at the moment that your mum tried to get him to move, then it may have been a reflexive response (shoot first, ask questions later) that many animals, including humans, do when wakened suddenly. Even if he wasn't actually asleep; if he was super comfortable and starting to get to that dozey place, it can happen.
Or, he was missing you terribly and taking great comfort in being on your bed or near where you hang out because it smells like you and your mum was trying to make him move.
My question in this is: did you mum try to physically move him? Or just call him "Fido, off" or "Fido, come"?
When he showed his teeth at her, did a growl accompany it? Was it a full-throated growl or a very soft growl? Did he look her hard in the eye or turn his gaze away from her even as he showed his teeth?
I know all too well how unnerving it can be when a dog we love suddenly does something like that. My own Akita/Chow mix did that to me (before I got into the field of canine behavior) and it scared the heck out of me. In fact, she's the reason I turned my life to this career. What I learned is that the show of teeth, the growl and even the snap are what we call "Distance Increasing Signals". They are specifically designed to create distance between the one doing the behavior and whomever it's directed toward. It is a communication - an IMPORTANT communication and we don't ever want to punish the growl. If you punish the growl, you teach the dog to stop communicating, but that never means the dog is now happy with the thing that was making him growl. It's the dog who has had the growl punished out of him who bites without warning.
Your mum was right in this circumstance to just leave him be and avoid a confrontation. If she didn't understand what the problem was, nor have a good way to communicate herself as nonthreatening, then leaving it be for that time was the best choice for all involved.
Going forward, the best way to handle a situation like that is to soften your approach. If Mum was standing in the doorway, or at the edge of the bed, shoulders square to the dog and using a firm voice "Get off the bed now!", then she was (from the dog's perspective) being highly confrontational. He responded by saying "back off. I don't want to actually fight you. But don't push me."
As my dog got older, she would sometimes growl if she were laying down and I walked up to, or passed, her saying "Time for bed. Let's go." in a cheery, but firm voice. I fixed this issue and never had her growl at me again simply by changing my approach. Instead of being the "stern mum" telling my kid it was time to go to bed, I'd sidle up to her, approaching in a soft arc or parallel to her rather than directly at her (much more polite in doggie society). I'd sit down facing the same direction as her (parallel to her) and gently stroke her. I'd whisper sweet nothings, speaking softly and telling her what a great dog she was and I could see she was comfortable, but I'd bet she'd be even more comfortable in our bedroom for the night... I'd give her as long as she needed to mentally gear up for the process of getting up (she was old at that point and had mobility issues so it was hard for her to get up and down which increased her likelihood of growling if she was rushed). Once she was fully engaged with me - she'd looked at me with soft eyes or shifted her head onto my lap or shifted position a little, then I'd very gently touch her hip (the one that was touching the floor) and invite her to come to bed "You ready to go to bed?"
Without fail, this worked. What you do is likely to vary because he's a different dog, but the premise is still the same. Don't rush him. Don't charge at him and demand he move. He's comfortable. He's 6 years old, which is not old, but is middle aged. His joints may be starting to feel a bit stiff or sore at the end of a long day and so popping up like he did as a puppy may not be quite as easy. Engage with him nicely for a minute and then invite him to please move.
In the beginning, to help him understand that you really do need him to move, you may need to use a lure a few times. This would be food. Grabbing a bite or two of a favorite treat is a great way to encourage him to follow your request. Don't bribe him off the space (or out of the room). Engage with him from wherever you feel safe (your mum may feel safer being a few feet away at first as they rebuild their trust with each other). Speak nicely, get his full attention so you know you're not startling him, then ask him to move. "Fido, off now." or "Fido, out," if you need him to leave the room. Count to 2, then if he hasn't moved, toss the food just a couple feet away. If you toss it across the room or through the door, he's likely to decide it's too much trouble. But if you drop it just a foot away from the bed, just far enough that he has to move to get it, then he's likely to think it through and go after it. You may need to drop 2 or 3 to entice him the first few times if he's really hesitant to move.
But, by giving him the command "off" or "out", then pausing for 2 seconds, then helping him be successful, you are teaching him that command. And each time you go through the process, that 2-second pause is a test to see if he understands the word. When he does, you'll see him get up and move before you have to help him with a lure. The first time he does get up and move without you tossing food for him, praise the heck out of him and give him a jackpot of treats (6-10 treats one after the other in quick succession) so he understands just how amazing it is what he just did.
Practice this exercise a lot - when he's awake and focused. You and your husband should practice first and get him into the rhythm of it. Then have your mum practice with you present to help back her up - if Mum says "Fido, off", pauses and tosses food and the dog doesn't go, then you back her up and repeat the command. If he's at the point where he's doing it without the food lure, and your mum asks him to "off" and he doesn't after 2 seconds, then YOU repeat the command, and when he obeys, you both praise him. Practice at all times of the day - morning, mid-day, evening and night. Practice on all sorts of furniture and locations. "OFF" is ideal for get off the furniture - it means put all 4 feet on the floor.
"OUT" is good for leave this space. In my home, the dogs are not allowed on the side of the kitchen where the cooking happens, so if they wander over there, I tell them "OUT". They know what "line in the sand" they have to cross and stay behind in order to comply with that command. Ditto for supervising their own food prep. I don't like them to be in the room where their food bin is, so I tell them "OUT" of that room. They can watch from the doorway if necessary, but not right up next to their bin...
So practice in lots of places throughout the house when he's awake and engaged and focused. This way he learns what the commands mean, and then when he's sleepy, he's more likely to comply.
But, if you have a moment when he growls or shows teeth, stop. Take stock of the situation. Are you somehow threatening him? Did you move in too close too quickly? Are you hovering over him, reaching out to him before he was prepared for you? Are you standing fully square-shouldered to him? Are your hands on your hips making you bigger and tougher looking? Are you staring him hard in the eye? If any of these are happening, then soften your approach. Turn so your shoulder is toward him rather than your chest. Look at the floor or the bed next to him, or at his rump rather than directly staring him in the eye. Soften your voice and speak sweetly to him. Give him a moment to catch up to your agenda. Just as we have a right to tell others we need a little more personal space, or to ask again nicely, so do our dogs. That doesn't mean he sleeps on the bed and you sleep on the couch. You will get compliance in the end, it's just a matter of working as a team with him - giving him a moment to take in the situation, rather than forcing him without warning.
If you're uncertain how to implement these exercises, seek out the assistance of a local professional who utilizes positive reinforcement training methods (nothing coercive or forceful - if there are choke collars, electronic collars, alpha rolls and the like you WILL see an escalation of this behavior) to help you learn how best to practice these things. You can show them this response so they have an idea of what you're trying to do. The UK APDT (UK Association of Professional Dog Trainers) is a good place to start a search for positive reinforcement training.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist