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Canine Behavior/"Picking fights"



I have a 10 year-old, neutered male JRT. I adopted him when he was 8 weeks old. He had a laryngeal tie-back surgery about 18 months ago, and has otherwise been healthy.

About 3 years ago, my dog began a behavior of picking up items around the house (e.g. a plastic cup or measuring cup), bringing the object near myself or my husband, and baring his teeth, growling, and pulling back his ears and tail, with a very tense posture. If you were to reach for the item, his tension and growling would escalate. If you ignored him, he would come closer to you, drop the item and hover over it, and growl or bark more loudly.

I found that if I were to pick him up and bring him toward the sink (he hates water), he would drop the item, but usually also try to bite me. Once he was calm, I would put him back down and he would settle. I did not find that any other response but engaging in a "fight" with him would result in his settling. After seeing a behavior specialist and trying different approaches (not allowing him on the furniture, taking control of his walks, taking him to agility classes, using a "thunder shirt", and increasing his exercise), that specific behavior did not resolve, and we trialed him on Fluoxetine. This medication did wonders for decreasing his general level of anxiety, and the behavior ceased, until about 2 months ago (aside from the rare occurrence over the past years.)

My dog is now engaging in this behavior almost daily (every evening) and we don't know what to do. I tried increasing his medication dosage a few weeks ago, but it does not seem to have had any effect. I'm not sure how I should respond to this behavior.

Thank you for your time.

First: find a veterinary behaviorist (if you can):

This is a list of certified applied animal behaviorists in Canada and one of them should be able to give you some idea of where to find a veterinary behaviorist.  If there is a veterinary teaching university in your geographical area within reasonable driving distance, it is well worth the round trip for one consultation.  Your dog needs to be weaned off this doggy Prozac: it can (and does) increase anxiety and aggression in humans and it does the same in dogs.  it is not the drug of choice.  The Veterinary Behaviorist will assess your dog for what is far more likely to be the case: some loss in cognition, age related, along with a strong conditioned response to YOUR REACTION to his behavior.

This next will be enormously inconvenient for your household for about a week (possibly shorter): prepare your evenings for AND NOW FOR SOMETHING TOTALLY DIFFERENT response.  Set the dog up: put an object in his sight on the floor (whatever attracts him, this includes paper, plastic cups, "old" useless remote control devices, etc.)  When the dog PICKS IT UP AND TURNS TOWARD YOU, get up and leave the room: PUT A CLOSED DOOR BETWEEN YOU AND THE DOG (even if this means you have to huddle in the bathroom).  Open the door: if dog still has object, close the door.  Continue this until dog has dropped object (might take some time at first but I've seen this work the FIRST time), then leave the closet (LOL) and go on as usual.  EVERY SINGLE TIME the dog picks up an object and his intention is CLEARLY to approach you and engage you, GET UP and put a closed door between you.

This is what happens in a dog's mind when this sort of trophying behavior (as it is called) begins:  Dog haphazardly "finds" an object of interest (usually a used tissue, or a remote control device that has fallen to the floor, or something the owner really does not want the dog to have).  Owner reacts, owner approaches dog, owner is upset, dog reads owner's body language, dog is now fearful and he has no idea WHY, dog begins to "guard" the "object" if owner demonstrates special attention toward it; dog will then do one of two things (depending upon breed type):  run (and usually be pursued, then hide and eventually begin to bite if someone reaches for him) or stand his ground and defend his "trophy".  The "trick" here is to change the dog's entire scenario: offer what he does not want (your withdrawal), reward his release of the object by re-appearing, do it consistently.  Next step:  CAPTURE THE BEHAVIOR.  We'll talk more about this once your dog has stopped trophying.

Do this for ONE WEEK AT LEAST or (yes I've seen it work the first time) if it WORKS right away, then use followup feature so I can see original question/answer and, once the dog has become confused regarding his trophying and stopped doing it, we can change the entire thing into a positive response to your cue (command) to "take it" and "drop it".

Canine Behavior

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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