Canine Behavior/agressive dog
My nursing home adopted a lab mix that was only 30 lbs. She was the sweetest little girl, but quite timid. She began growling and nipping at people, and bit a coworker's husband from behind when he was teasing his daughter and she said, Daddy STOP!
I beleive it is fear based agression, toward men, but how can she be trained out of it? I have watched Ceasar Milan enough to know that is the problem, but I don't know what the answer is. Please help. We fell in love with Shadow and our residents are so sad. We want to get another dog, but not one with those kinds of issues.
Thank you for your question. The first thing I want to say is going to sound harsh, but please, please, please do NOT try to implement anything that you have seen on that entertainment show that suggests it is treating canine behavior problems.
That show is designed for maximum drama. They rile dogs up off camera so that they'll bite on camera. They set the dog up for failure so that the start can punish the dog for doing the wrong thing (rather than setting the dog up for success so she can be praised for making the right choice). The star of the show subdues dogs by scaring them into submission until they display what's called "learned helplessness." This is NOT the same thing as "calm submissive." This actually more accurately described as "Silent Terror." And in reality, will only serve to escalate the fear this dog is experiencing. She may stop growling if she's punished for communicating her fear. But this will then lead to what is referred to as the "out of the blue" bite because nothing has been done to actually quiet her fear, only to quiet her communication about her fear.
Positive reinforcement/force-free dog trainers and behavior specialists actually really like a growl. By that I mean we very much like when a dog is willing to actually tell us when they're uncomfortable. It lets us know that we need to change something in the environment to help the dog feel safer. If we punish the growl out of the dog, we teach them that it's dangerous to tell us when they're scared or unhappy and then we don't know that something needs to change to help them feel safe and secure.
You are very likely correct that this dog is behaving out of fear - sneak attacks from behind are a classic behavior of a fearful animal as they are attacking the part of the body that cannot attack back (no teeth on the back end of an animal).
It is absolutely possible to help her gain confidence if done with patience and quiet encouragement. She may need to spend time away from the nursing home, in a private home with far less daily traffic of people, while building her confidence and just come in for supervised, structured visits as part of her behavior modification protocol. It may be overwhelming for her to be in a space with so many people - residents, employees, visitors, delivery people, etc.
I strongly encourage you to get an in-person evaluation of her, ideally with a veterinary behaviorist. These are veterinarians who have gone on to complete a Masters in behavior. They are the psychiatrists of the veterinary world. They will work with you and your regular vet to make sure there are no medical conditions contributing to the behavior. They will design and oversee a behavior modification protocol with you and they can prescribe and oversee any medication if any is deemed appropriate to assist with the behavior modification process. You can search for one in your region here: http://www.dacvb.org/about/map/
If there isn't a veterinary behaviorist near you, you can either speak to her vet as they often have relationships with veterinary behaviorists who will work remotely by phone/skype/email to consult.
Or you can get a consultation through the animal behavior clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts. http://vet.tufts.edu/behavior/petfax.shtml
If you'd prefer someone in person and cannot locate a veterinary behaviorist, then you can search your area for a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB). A CAAB has a PhD (associate - ACAABs have an MA or an MS) in an animal related field and at least 5 years of experience in treating behavior issues. You can search for a CAAB/ACAAB here:
If there are no CAABs near you, you can search for Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT) through this website: http://www.ccpdt.org/index.php?option=com_certificants&Itemid=102
Those who have taken and passed the CPDT exam have demonstrated a solid foundation in learning theory, husbandry, training equipment, training techniques and instruction skills (working with people).
Some highly skilled trainers have not taken the CPDT exam, but may still be just as skilled. You can search for non-certified trainers through the Association for Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) site here: http://apdt.com/trainer-search/
Members of APDT may or may not be certified, but they are committed to continuing education and staying up to date on the current science and understanding of animal behavior and learning as it pertains to dogs and their relationships with humans.
The most important thing to remember with a timid dog (my specialty, actually) is that they are easily overwhelmed and fear is very powerful. If she's feeling fearful and has no place to escape (nowhere she can go to get away from a crowd of people or a walker/wheelchair, suitcases, etc), then she is more likely to become defensive. It's when the dog feels trapped and scared that they start to defend themselves and so our job is to help her feel safe and confident. Rather than "calm/submissive" the goal should be "calm/confident." A confident dog is relaxed and takes changes to the environment (people coming/going, medical equipment, etc) in stride.
There are some things you can begin to try immediately, but without some professional assistance to guide you on how much to expose her to and how to help her feel in control of her environment and her interactions, the amount of improvement you see is likely to be limited.
You can try a Thunder Shirt
to see if it helps reduce her overall anxiety a bit. A Thunder Shirt is an anxiety wrap and roughly 85% of dogs who wear one will show a reduction in anxious behavior. The key is that the effect of the shirt only lasts between 30-90 minutes depending on the dog. So you can't just put it on and leave it on all day and expect her to feel better. But, you can put it on for 1-2 hours, then take it off for a few hours and then put it back on to renew the effect again for another round of 30-90 minutes.
Make sure she has a chance to "introduce" to it before putting it on. I usually let the dog sniff it and give them several treats that I toss directly onto the shirt. This allows them to investigate the shirt and learn that it's safe and not going to kill them. Some dogs take to it immediately. Others are wary of it and you have to go slow putting it on - lay it across her back and give her a bite of something tasty, then connect the strap that goes around her neck and give her a bite of something tasty, then connect the two parts that go around her chest and give her a bite of something tasty and then distract her with a game or a meal or a walk for a few minutes until she rather forgets she's wearing it. The very first time you put it on, if she's showing any signs of unhappiness with it, distract her for a few minutes so she wears it for 5-10 minutes and then take it off. Build up to wearing it for an hour or so.
Make sure that she has practice wearing it outside of the stressful times (e.g. wear it during meal times or cuddle times with her favorite person or walks if she likes walks or games, etc) so that we bolster the comforting effect by associating it with good things. Also, put it on 5-10 minutes before going to the nursing home (or before her "daily duties" begin) and leave it on for 5-15 minutes after she's left (or is done for that round) so that the shirt itself doesn't become associated with the scary activity. If the shirt comes to predict the unpleasant/stressful experience, then we run the risk of "poisoning" the effect of the shirt and it will lose its effect altogether.
Thunder Shirts are available at major pet stores as well as most smaller stores now. Your dog will likely wear a Medium
You can also try Comfort Zone spray - a Dog Appeasing Pheromone spray. This is a synthetic version of the same pheromone that nursing mama dogs produce and is said to have a calming effect on dogs. Since this dog is moving around and not hanging out in one room, you can try the collar (put it on 5-10 minutes before her rounds and remove it 5-15 minutes after she's done - just like the shirt). Or you can try the spray. For the spray, you would remove her regular collar and spray the collar. Wait a full 15 minutes before putting the collar back on - this is because the spray is in an alcohol medium which is quite potent in aroma. We want to let the alcohol evaporate and that smell to start to dissipate before putting the collar back on the dog. The pheromone will wear off the collar after a couple hours, so you may need to re-spray every few hours during the day.
Sometimes these kinds of products have a synergistic effect, meaning that they may each be somewhat weak on their own, but together work much better. I still believe it's best to try one at a time. Try the shirt for a couple weeks and see how her anxiety/fear is. If you're not seeing any real improvement or only limited improvement, then switch and try the Comfort Zone spray or collar for a couple weeks and see how that does for her fear. Then, maybe try them together. This way we actually KNOW if either is working on their own or if they work together. If you start both simultaneously then we don't know if the shirt by itself is sufficient (saving you from having to buy bottle after bottle of the spray) or if the spray works on its own, or if they really do work better together... If you use them together, I usually spray the outer flap of the neck strap on the Thunder Shirt (rather than the dog's regular collar). It's just easier since it's already off the dog.
I also encourage you and the staff who will be working with her to read a couple of books.
Patricia McConnell is a CAAB and a world renowned author and lecturer. Her book
The Cautious Canine - How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears
is an excellent walk-through of a basic counter conditioning protocol. The book uses a single example (if I remember correctly, it's a fear of a hose), but the process is the same no matter the fear - whether its an inanimate object or a person.
I also encourage the entire staff and any residents who are up for it to read Turid Rugaas' book, On Talking Terms With Dogs - Calming Signals
. It is almost certain that Shadow was showing earlier signals of her discomfort with the situation well before she growled and definitely before she bit the person. The better people are at reading those much more subtle cues, the earlier interventions can be made and she may never need to escalate to growling...
I recommend this book to every single client I have - even puppy clients and basic obedience clients. Understanding those early signals such as yawning, ground sniffing, squinting/blinking eyes, showing the whites of the eyes - known as 'whale eye,' full body shakes, etc. will open up a whole new world of communication with your dog and every dog you interact with. It will transform your relationship with dogs in general when you can better read their language.
If possible, you should search for an in-person trainer who is familiar with Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) as this is an excellent protocol that empowers the dog to make choices about whether or not she wishes to engage with someone. Empowering the dog to make these choices, teaches them that they have the option of walking away and that tends to increase confidence and in the end, most dogs become much more comfortable under MOST (but not all) circumstances that previously caused them such anxiety.
You can explore Grisha Stewart's site, starting with her BAT 2.0 streaming video that introduces how this protocol works (it's particularly good for dogs who are fearful of people or objects)
So, while I strongly encourage you to avoid any "advice" from popular TV shows, I do hope that I have provided some hope and direction for getting appropriate assistance so that you can help Shadow feel more confident in that environment. Depending on the level of her fear, she may not be the best candidate for a nursing home dog given the amount of people traffic and equipment (wheelchairs, walkers, etc). But, with appropriate force free, positive reinforcement assistance, she may surprise us all and build some very good confidence and become a fantastic nursing home dog. Just try to remain realistic about your expectations of her. She may need smaller doses and more breaks in a quiet area away from everyone - at least while she's working through her anxiety.
I wish you the best of luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Los Angeles Behavior Specialist