Canine Behavior/Doberman acting badly
My 1 year old Doberman has episodes of aggression when he wakes up. He will be sleeping with his head on my lap, (I was reading my book, not petting him) then starts waking up growling and ready to bite. You can physically see when he snaps out of if and turns normal again. This is not an everyday occurrence it has happened 3 times in the past 6 months. I want to find out what may cause this, and how to handle it.
Thank you for your question. Odd behavior with an aggressive tone can be disconcerting and even frustrating when we aren't sure of the cause. In your dog's case, the first order of business will be a full medical workup. This exam should include a complete blood panel, including a detailed thyroid workup - not the cursory one done in the vet's office, but rather then kind they send off to one of the universities as those are much more detailed and breed specific. Both hyper- and hypothyroid can cause an increase in aggressive displays, and in both cases are usually easy to treat with medication. Further, the fact that it's happening randomly could be an indicator of what's called a partial focal seizure. This is a neurological event, again often easily treated with medication.
So, the very first thing you need to do is have your dog examined. Tell the vet about each of the three instances and ask for the thyroid panel. Make sure you're clear that you're interested in the ones done at U of Michigan or another local facility of that caliber, not the in-office version of the test. Make sure they assess his neurological status as well.
Once you receive a clean bill of health all the way around, then and only then can we look at this from a behavioral standpoint. There is an old saying - "let sleeping dogs lie..." There's a good reason for this saying and that's that many dogs, when wakened suddenly, will attack first, ask questions later. If this ONLY ever happens when he's sleeping with his head on your lap, and at no other time - not when he's napping on the other end of the couch or on his own bed or across the room from you, etc. Not at any time when he's just sitting and relaxing, but not actually sleeping, etc. - then we can put it down to something that's happening in that circumstance. Perhaps you shifted your position a little or coughed/sneezed, or turned a page louder than the average, or the book slipped from your hand and bumped or nearly bumped him. If he is startled out of a sound sleep and, especially if he's momentarily disoriented, he could be reacting defensively in a self-preservation behavior before he's fully awake and aware of his surroundings.
My Rainbow Bridge dog did experience something similar. I used to refer to it as her having Cujo moments. If she was sleeping soundly, and I walked toward her, moving briskly into her space, she would launch out of sleep all teeth and snarls and growls and barks. And her eyes were glassy like she was still asleep or in a trance or something. It was terrifying the first several times it happened. After a minute or so of me first shrieking in fear and then talking softly and sweetly to reassure her, her eyes would clear and she'd approach with head lowered and nuzzle me for reassurance and forgiveness. She never once made physical contact with me as it wasn't her aim to have a confrontation. In fact, that behavior is meant to avoid conflict. Those actions are what we call "distance-increasing" signals in that they're actively attempting to get the perceived threat to move away and create distance rather than fight. It worked! I backed up, usually through a door and closed it. It happened once in my bathroom doorway and I ended up climbing in my shower and closing the door to make sure she didn't actually bite me.
Now this was long before I knew anything about dog behavior at all. I had no idea what was happening and was sure she was being bad and aggressive toward me on purpose. In fact, it was precisely this kind of behavior that sent me in pursuit of becoming a canine behavior expert. What I determined after looking back over several instances when she did this, was that it was always when she was sleeping and I was walking directly toward her. If she was sleeping near me and I reached out and pet her or touched her before I started walking past her, she would wake up, knowing my touch, look to confirm it was men and then put her head back down and I never had a Cujo moment from her in that situation (when I first made contact with her). For my dog, it was only this sudden (by her sleepy perspective) movement directly into her space that triggered this.
I dealt with it by simply stopping several feet away and calling her name sweetly, making kissy noises, etc. I'd do this to wake her up, give her a chance to register that it was just me and not some intruder or monster. Once I saw her eyes were clear and she knew it was me, I was able to move past her without ever triggering her behavior. And it added all of about 10 seconds to my days' activities. Such a simple fix.
In your situation, since he's already in physical contact with you when this happens, I would advise against increased contact. Assuming he's otherwise healthy (get the vet exam and bloodwork/neuro workup first!), I'd encourage adjusting this arrangement. Don't allow him to fall asleep with his head in your lap. Instead, he should be on the couch near you, but not touching you - a separate cushion, or on the floor near you. While my dog was soothed by my gentle touch in her sleep, that does not mean that your dog will be as well, and since he's already touching you, petting him while he's asleep may escalate his behavior rather than calm him. I would start by giving him increased space when he's sleeping. Perhaps put a blanket or cushion between you that he can lean against/put his chin on to feel like he's being close to you, but creating a bit of distance and physical buffer between the two of you to help insulate him from small shifts of movement you may be making that startle him. Or provide him a comfy bed or crate space and help him make that feel like a great place to nap. We do this by putting our dirty clothes there, lying on the comfy bed and snuggling him (while he's well awake), providing long lasting interactive toys such as food stuffed Kongs or Bully Sticks or Antlers, etc. to enjoy on his bed. Once it smells like you and he has happy associations there, you can encourage (but not force) him to choose that as his napping spot instead of your lap. Then, when he's on his bed (or in his crate on his bed), he is not to be disturbed. That's his safe space. It should be located in the least trafficked area in the room so that if you decide to get up to go to the kitchen or bathroom, you do not have to walk right past his sleeping spot, rather you're moving away from it and even on your return, you don't ever reach his sleeping spot. This way he'll begin to feel that this is a safe space and it may help him feel less anxious on waking.
But as I said, the first thing to do is make sure he's healthy. There are many ailments that can manifest with seemingly random aggression moments, and many of them are easily treated. So don't ignore that potential, rather rule it out before assuming it's strictly behavioral.
Good luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance, or to update me after a vet visit.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist