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Canine Behavior/Dog reaction to death of family member


The nine year old son of one of my best friends was killed crossing the street in front of their home four weeks ago.  The family dog is a 3 year old male boxer, quite large for the breed, with no history of aggression.  He is not particularly well-trained, however, e.g. pulls when being walked, hasn't really had much obedience.  He is very very attached to his humans and the boy and he were great pals. Since the death, there has been a constant stream of people in and out of the home. The mom and dog are very close, and he spends a lot of time with her, particularly when she is upset, crying, etc. She described two pieces of behavior that are troubling. When she is most upset and crying, lying down, probably moaning and making other sounds of great distress, he will come and stand/lie over her and growl. Similarly, when she is standing and crying and being comforted by someone, the dog will come and stand on his hind legs, put his forepaws on her, and growl. When I suggested that her extreme distress at these moments may perhaps be too much for him, she said she is very reliant on him, particularly at those times. I wondered if he feels she is "his" to protect. Today the dog appeared unusually agitated to me, and as I was leaving he followed me to the door and suddenly "charged" the back of my leg.  He did not bite, but I know people who have been bitten in this way. Of course nothing in this household is the same as before, including for the dog. I'm concerned about him and the family and hoping you can shed some light on what might be going on and offer some helpful suggestions.  This family is nearly destroyed with grief and loss right now and though they love their dog dearly they are barely functional.

Tell this mother, please: go to, create an account, search Member groups ForMomsOnly.  I lost my daughter at age 23 to suicide, serious complex mental illness, almost three years ago.  I absolutely understand what this mother is experiencing.  It is hell on earth.  She needs the support of other mothers who have lost children.  She also needs medication and a certified grief counselor, but that is for her and her husband to decide.  I will pray for her.

The dog is terrified.  He is extremely anxious.  He does not have any comprehension of what is happening.  The child (his peer in social hierarchy) is now gone (disappeared).  The woman, the ultimate caregiver, is now in extreme and palpable distress (running tons of adrenaline).  The dog is reacting with a fight/flight response.  His growling worries me; I'm uncertain if that is actually what he's DOING.  Vocalization of many sorts is normal for the domestic dog.  He might actually be vocalizing (Boxers are notorious for this) along with her.  

This situation is beyond my ability to repair. Even if I were present and observing it, the last thing this mother needs is to be instructed on how to manage her dog.  If she feels/observes no threat, then it must remain so, no matter how frightening or alarming it is to you or to me.

The dog is aware that his humans are "barely functional" and he has no way of understanding why, or how to react.  He is doing what comes naturally to him: trying to protect, trying to intervene (by the discipline of growling).  I can only hope that it wont' resolve in the dog actually biting someone.  This would be yet another huge loss to this family who has lost enough for many, many families around the world.  

Your compassion here is enormous and may God bless you.  If you feel encouraged to do so, you can look for a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (in NY State there are many, don't know where you live) NOT a dog trainer.  You will have to intercede here and pay for this service yourself.  I would just tell the owners you are "sending a friend in" to observe and instruct so the dog remains safe, does not become fear aggressive to the point where his life is at stake.  This is your contribution to people whose lives WILL NEVER BE THE SAME, no matter how long they live, no matter how many children they have or will have.  Once you have lost a child, a part of you has died, and there is no "normal".  It takes a very long time (years) to even begin to form a new "normal".

You can hopefully find a CAAB, should you choose to do so, from the following sites:

The Animal Medical Center in NYC might also be a source, or Cornell University (Veterinary college).

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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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