Canine Behavior/Disturbing & Heartbreaking Behavior
•I am 46 years old and have had toy poodles since I was a small child (maybe 2nd grade up)
•My toy poodles have always been well behaved and have lived anywhere between 16 – 18 years (so I take very good care of them and I truly love the breed)
•I have never had behavioral issues w/this breed in the past
•I currently have 2 toy poodles (both I had personally bred by the same breeder) and they were single puppies (i.e. the only one in the litter). The 2 that I have are 7lbs & 9.5 lbs. both males about 9 months apart in age (one is 7, the other almost 8)
•With these two I went through a divorce (and my ex-husband has such a great relationship with them both) that he still visits with them and they love to see him (this occurs about 3 times a year).
•I am re-married now and my dogs hate my new husband and it is very clear to me that he doesn’t care for them at all. He comes from a foreign country where dogs are not treated the way that we treat our animals in the US.
•He is not physically abusive to them, but it is clear he doesn’t like them and they don’t like him. My mother lives with us and she also says that they act totally different when I am not around (well mannered, obedient, let him take them out, etc.) however, the minute I return home, they are totally out of control (so I am sure that I am the genesis of the problem)
•I did baby them (especially the one that I am having the trouble from right now). When I first got him, I literally worked from home for the first month and held and coddled him so much that we formed an unhealthy bond. I was mourning the loss of my 18 year old poodle and I took all that love and pain and totally nurtured him vs. raising him like a puppy and training him properly as I did in the past.
•Regardless, he still got along well w/my ex-husband and others but clung to me refusing to go to others and only wanting to be under me. He also slept right up under me and clings to me even more so now than ever (it is totally painful to watch, he wimpers, whines, and totally stresses out if he cannot reach me.
•My new husband made me have them begin sleeping on a dog bed next to the bed rather than in the bed with me. I think this was the beginning of his disdain for my new husband.
•It has only gotten progressively worse, he growls whenever my husband enters a room where he and I are alone, he has even from time to time now taken to growling at my mother (which he has NEVER done), he has bitten them both when they have tried to take him from my lap. I know he finds my husband threatening (his voice is very deep and loud) but there is no excuse for the behavior w/my mother.
•He wines and wines and moans if my husband hugs me or puts his arm around me
•Whenever we make love he wines and whimpers until we stop (it has gotten so bad that my husband will not make love to me unless I put him in the room with my mother because he will wine and whimper until he leaves me alone.
•If he hears us laughing in bed or talking he will jump up to the side of the bed and watch us until we stop.
•It is so painful to watch because I can see what distress it causes him and I feel so torn, I try to sneak and rub him with my feet to calm him while appeasing my husband so he won’t get mad at me for giving the dog attention.
•I am just beside myself and I don’t know what to do. Just getting dressed for work is a stressor in the morning because he will start growling as soon as my husband enters the bedroom after showing and that in turn makes my husband angry and it is like a never ending circle of frustration, stress, and pain!
•Both dogs start to bark incessantly when they hear my husband coming and then the growl when he enters the room (it is almost as if they don’t want him anywhere around us at all).
•He is so impatient with them (he feels they bark too much, I feel that they have changed so much since he has come into our lives) or perhaps he was also that way with my ex, but my ex-just ignored their bad behavior if I think back…they would jump on him when we made love as well but he just ignored them or pushed them away.
•I feel that it is just beyond painful for “Cosmo” the black poodle whom I am referring to; I just feel as though life is painful for him and living has become almost painful for him.
•The other one, “buttons” has always been high strung so his behavior is slightly more “normal”. Although they both act like guard dogs and circle around me and do not like anyone who attempts to come near me they circle around me, jump in front of me and growl at anyone who tries to come near me, to hug me or shake my hand or anything that involves anyone touching me.
•I am simply beside myself and I know we need a serious intervention and some behavioral training, and I am simply beside myself.
I love my dogs and right now I feel caught in the middle, like I have to choose between my husband and my dogs. I really resent him for making me feel that way, but I also understand his frustration. I am at my wits end and I have NEVER in my life had to grapple with such a thing. I would do anything for my dogs and I truly feel that I am the culprit in their bad behavior and I own the responsibility, I am just not sure what to do at this point and truly need professional help and guidance.
Please help! I don’t know what else to do. Thanks!
Thank you for your question. I'm sorry your/their world has become so stressful.
It sounds like there are a couple things going on here. I expect Cosmo is dealing with some Separation Anxiety, which is a panic disorder. This comes to mind due to the immediacy and intensity you describe of his whimpering/whining if there is any effort to separate him from you. If that is the case, there are some things you can do to help him feel more secure when he's not directly with you - and one of those things is actually helping him feel OK about sleeping off your own bed so that for 8 hours per night, he's physically separate from you.
There are a couple of books that my prove helpful for you on this front.
Patricia McConnell's I'll be Home Soon: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety
Also, Nicole Wilde's Don't Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for your Dog's Separation Anxiety
The other issue - the more major issue - is resource guarding coupled with a bad relationship with your new husband.
Resource Guarding is a normal behavioral response from all social animals when they feel that a prized possession is in danger of being stolen. Take note of this - the dogs aren't guarding you in an effort to protect you from danger. They are guarding you like a possession that is in danger of being stolen (not damaged). But, this is NOT a behavior motivated by a sense of entitlement or so-called "dominance." It's a FEAR-BASED BEHAVIOR and actually stems from a lack of confidence and security.
I suggest resource guarding based on the behavior you describe - circling around you, barking/growling when he (and now sometimes your mother) approach, snapping if your husband/mother tries to move them away from you and growling/whining/showing distress if your husband is showing affection to you/being in your close proximity.
The good thing is that addressing resource guarding is actually one of the easiest behavior issues to treat. The potentially bad news is that it will require your husband (who has a bigger brain than the dogs) to commit to changing his relationship with both dogs. The onus is on your husband to improve this relationship. You can't do it for him and he can't fake it. He will have to decide that your life together is important enough to him that he will make becoming friends with your dogs his top priority. If he's unwilling to commit to the process of changing the relationship with the dogs, then there will be no real improvement, and potentially a further escalation of the problem behaviors.
So the first thing will be determining if your husband is willing to get on board. If he is, then it may take a little time to undo the learned relationship that currently exists, but you will see clear progress with continued work. If he is not willing, then you will have to decide where your priorities are: to your new husband or to your dogs. It is unfair to the dogs to live in a constant state of stress and anxiety. Living in that state will have a physical effect on their immune system and will shorten their "fuse" for other things they find unpleasant.
Please know that I am not taking the side of the dogs over your husband. I'm only trying to lay out the options as clearly as I can in this forum. I don't have the room here to be particularly tactful and ease up on it. So, my best option here is blunt and straight forward.
If your husband is willing to commit to changing his relationship with the dogs, it will entail a conscious decision to stop resenting them. At first it may only be intellectual, but as he proceeds, his own emotional response to the dogs should soften and become more than just an intellectual exercise.
Rather than coming in and immediately moving the dogs or telling you to move them, or speaking harshly to them, or whatever is the current pattern, your husband should come to the space with the dog's very favorite treat. This is likely to be a human food and may be different for each dog. Favorites often include hot dog or cheese or chicken breast or ground beef (all meats cooked, even if cold). It may be squeeze cheese from a can or Cheerios (that's easy to have handy). I have one client and the most favorite treat for that dog is Cheetos!
Because these are small dogs, the bites should be appropriately sized for them. Example: if you're using hot dog, I would slice the dog in half the long way and then slice thin bites for the whole length.
Nobody else in the house will ever give the dogs the favorite treat. And EVERY SINGLE TIME your husband comes into the space (even if he just got up to refill his cup and return to the couch) he WILL provide a bite of the favorite treat.
If they're uncomfortable being in his proximity initially, then he should drop or toss the bits near the dogs and not try to hand feed them at that time. As they learn that he is the giver of the most awesome food in the world, and that this is reliable every time he comes into their space, you'll start to see that they will become more comfortable approaching him and may even happily anticipate his arrival. They may still bark, but you'll notice that it's a happy anticipation bark rather than a warning bark.
Your husband should also hand feed the dogs their meals*. If they eat twice per day and he's not available at breakfast, then he should feed dinner by hand. If they free feed/graze throughout the day, then I'd change the pattern to meals. this is healthier for the dogs anyway and allows your husband to build a relationship with them that's built on trust and good associations.
*If the dogs do not fight over food, he may be able to hand-feed them simultaneously, reaching into each dish and providing the appropriate ration for each dog. If they do fight over food, or if one is more comfortable with him than the other, then he should do this one-dog-at-a-time in a room separate from the other dog.
NOTE: because your husband will be giving lots of treats (one every time he enters the room, and possibly more often if he needs to do it every time he shifts position or stands up or if he wants to sit closer to you, or touch you, etc), you will need to adjust their overall daily ration of food so that we avoid over feeding them. They're small and it will not take much in the way of extra calories to pack on a pound or two - and at that size, 1-2 lbs is a serious weight gain.
Your husband should also take over the bulk of play time. He should sit on the floor and invite them to play Tug or Fetch or whatever their favorite games are. If the dogs are in your lap, rather than moving them the minute your husband comes into the space or sits next to you, you should leave the dogs where they are and your husband should offer them 2-4 bites of the favorite food and then scootch away from you for a while. Repeat 3 or 4 times and then tell the dogs "Off" in a friendly voice and toss the treats to the floor. If a single treat on the floor isn't enough, then scatter treats around on the floor - the bigger the prize (the more bites) the more inclined they'll be to go after it. Then, when the dogs turn back and see your husband close to you, he should give another couple treats.
When he comes home from work, he should enter the house with happy, cheery voices and a presentation of the yummy treats.
He'll also need to make a point of changing his voice for a while. Essentially, if he has a naturally very loud and very deep voice, he should make a point of softening the volume when he's talking with you/other humans just so it's not so booming. And when he speaks to the dogs, he should aim for a bit of baby-talk by using a higher pitch than he normally uses. Once the dogs feel better about him, he can ease back into his normal voice (while tripling the treats to help them see that his normal voice is even more rewarding than his sweet-talk voice). But for a while (a few days or a few months, depending on the dog's response to this process), he should make the effort to soften his volume and raise his pitch to be less threatening verbally.
Essentially all of what I've described is called Counter Conditioning. We are changing the dog's emotional response from "Oh no. Him again" to "Oh Yea! Him again!" by making a paired association - your husband enters and manna from heaven appears. After a while, your husband's presence becomes a reliable predictor of that mannna from heaven and he's no longer a sign of something scary or unpleasant; instead he's now a sign of awesomeness!
Once they are clearly showing happy anticipation about your husband - approaching him cheerfully, body relaxed and eager - he can begin to ease off the frequency of the treats. Hopefully he has also been showing affection with sweet words and potentially even gentle petting/scritching if the dogs are comfortable with it. If that's true, then he will have made his sweet words and his touch almost as rewarding as the food itself, and thus as he fades out the use of the treats, he can continue the sweet talk and cuddles and the dogs will continue to feel good about him.
How long this takes is dependent on how long the current relationship has been in place - how established that distaste is. It's also dependent on how consistent and committed your husband is to the process. If he takes it seriously and gives it his all and really goes all out in being sweet and trying to see the situation from the dogs' perspective, then he will have greater success than if he gets frustrated or doesn't believe that he's doing something useful. But the process we're using is science. Counter conditioning has a long history and is very successful in all sorts of situations.
They don't have to sleep on the bed if he really doesn't want them to. You can lie with them on their bed and have some pre-bed cuddle time before you climb into your bed.
And they don't have to be in the room when you two are being intimate. You can provide the dogs with an activity to occupy them such as a Bully Stick or a Kong with some goodies inside (e.g. apple sauce and some Cheerios if they're not allergic to wheat, or some of their regular kibble and then frozen).
There's room for compromise as far as rules of the house like those above. But the most important aspect of this is that the relationship between your husband and your dogs is improved and only your husband can do that. I encourage a heart-to-heart with him about what would be involved and if he's willing to do it. He may need to think on it for a few days or even weeks. I also encourage you to do some serious soul-searching about what you're willing to do if he refuses: do you continue as you are with everyone (especially the dogs) being highly stressed? Do you find the dogs new homes where every human in the house is excited to have dogs? Do you give an ultimatum to your husband? I can't make such a decision for you. I can only be realistic in what the options are and the options are 4:
1. nothing changes
2. the dogs leave
3. the husband leaves
4. the husband changes the relationship with the dogs.
Again, I'm sorry if this comes off as blunt. In person I'd have the luxury of more tact. In this forum with the limited contact, I don't have the option of being cryptic. This is fixable if you and your husband are willing to fix it.
If you need more help, I encourage you to seek out a force free
trainer/behavior professional in your area who is familiar with resource guarding and counter conditioning as they'll be able to observe the interactions and help guide you both better - from things like tone of voice to don't stare the dogs down to how to offer treats in a non-threatening manner, etc.
I wish you the very best of luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist