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Canine Behavior/Foster problem


QUESTION: We brought our latest foster home in mid July.  She is a stray estimated to be 5 years old,50 lbs, with a complex breed background. In spite of being in the stressful environment of a terrible shelter, she soon became a volunteer favorite due to her friendly affectionate nature.  
It has become clear that she didn't have the best life in her past - skinny, untreated old wounds, and cowered the first time she went on a piece of furniture and saw me approaching.  On the other hand, she is 100% house-trained, knows Sit, and was pretty good on leash.  I say she is bullet-proof because motorcycles, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and the dreaded vacuum cleaner don't phase her at all.  She was accepted as a housemate by our two dogs much faster than any other dog we have brought home.
It took two weeks to resolve the illnesses she picked up at the shelter. After she was healthy, we started to to introduce her to the dog savvy people and well behaved dogs we knew and her greetings were perfect.
Three weeks ago she started to act differently towards the occasional person (No common characteristics such as gender, size,etc.).  She approach them on her own but not as perky as usual and her tail was held more on the horizontal and was wagged slower.
During a visit with potential adopters she presented a new behavior. After meeting, treats, and walks by all parties we went inside to a small apartment where we met the (temporary) 8 lb dog disliked by larger  dogs who approached with raised hackles.  Late in the get-together, while lying down, she did a soft, short growl that was immediately followed by a short lick of a hand two times.
Since that time we have only introduced her to one family member.  This ended badly when she snapped at his hand making just enough contact to break skin.
What are the reasons for her bad behavior - fear, protection/guarding, or something else?
Are these behaviors correctable?
Are we mistaken in thinking that she is now unadoptable?

ANSWER: **********NOTE: In the body of this response, I said, "As they start to understand that they're in mortal danger, they begin to stand up for themselves and become defensive rather than just endure contact that they'd rather not have."

It should read "As they start to understand that they're NOT in mortal danger, they being to stand up for themselves..." I apologize for the typo and did not mean to suggest that there was any actual threat to her in your care.**********

Original answer below:
Thank you for your question. It can be difficult to help shelter dogs when we don't actually know their history - both their life experience history and their behavior history in various situations.

I'm going to break this down as best I can from the limited information that was provided. Remember, that I wasn't there to witness her behavior in context of the rest of the environment at that moment, so this can't be much more than conjecture.

Situation 1 - end of introduction visit, in small apartment after approached by small dog who was highly aroused (raised hackles):
She was lying down at the end of a somewhat stressful greeting. She was likely mentally exhausted.
A hand approached her without food in it (change of rules since prior to that, human hands - at least these human hands - had had food). She felt her space was being invaded and offered a very normal and appreciated verbal communication requesting more personal space (growl). The hand didn't immediately respect this request and, because she doesn't want to have a confrontation, she offered the least aggressive physical behavior she could: licking the hand. In this context, that was not an affectionate lick, but rather a sublimated (highly inhibited) bite.

Her lesson in this situation was this: I said "please move back, you're too close" and the person didn't do as I asked. I escalated and physically tried to make myself clear in as non-threatening a way as possible. That also didn't work very well.

Situation 2 - Another human approached into her space and she was uncomfortable. Last time her verbal warning and gentle physical warning were not heeded. This time she escalated to a very small laceration. On the Ian Dunbar bite scale (1-6 where 1 is just obnoxious behavior with no actual tooth-to-skin contact and 6 is death of the recipient of the bites), this would constitute a level 2: skin-contact by teeth, but no skin puncture. However, there may be skin nicks (less than 1/10 of an inch deep) and slightly bleeding caused by forward or lateral movement of the teeth against the skin. No vertical punctures.

There are three things to keep in mind when evaluating these to incidents. First, this dog clearly has zero desire to have a confrontation or physical conflict and that's excellent! It bodes very well. Second, dogs are fantastically fast (reflexes roughly 32 times faster than humans) and have precision aim. If she'd meant to cause real damage in either case, she would have. No human is fast enough to move out of the way of a dog who intends to land a bite. Three (and this is most important): she's escalating her behavior.

The escalation is possibly because she's feeling more secure in her current surroundings and so she feels comfortable defending herself, rather than shutting down and just taking what's given to her. This is often the case with shelter dogs who are were highly stressed in the shelter and very nervous in the new environment of a foster or adoptive home. As they start to understand that they're in mortal danger, they begin to stand up for themselves and become defensive rather than just endure contact that they'd rather not have.

Is it resource guarding? I have no idea. I can't know that from the information provided. Dogs can be possessive of just about anything from food and water to resting spots, people, doorways, entire rooms or yards... I've even seen dogs resource guard leaves as they fell off a tree in autumn.

My guess is that it was less about resource guarding and more about fear. She was feeling her space was invaded. She has shown an increased wariness of strangers. Her slow body movement and lower, slower moving tail as she approaches suggests uncertainty or concern.

I would encourage continued use of the body harness as shown in the beautiful pictures you sent, along with a 10-foot leash. When she's meeting new people they should NOT offer her treats. Instead, they should come into the space and sit quietly. Bring her in and allow her to decide where she wants to go - toward the person or stay back, around the room, etc. Let the dog decide how close to go and when she wants to move away. Give her the space to decide how much space she wants from this new person. The person should not try to have physical contact with her until she actively requests it.

Dogs will actively request physical contact by making physical contact - putting their chin on the person, leaning against the person, turning their rump toward the person and making contact. Soft, bright eye contact and a soft mouth (open, no teeth showing, often the tongue is lolling out of the mouth) is a direct comment that she's comfortable and will probably be OK with gentle contact. All first contact should be low - under her chin, on her chest or side. Nobody should reach over her head.

And most importantly, after about 5 seconds of contact, the person should stop touching her and let her tell them if she wants more or if she's ready to stop that encounter. If she's gone to another part of the room and laid down, respect that she's done and wants that distance. If she lays right next to a person, they can probably rest a hand on her, but should continue to check in with her every 5-10 seconds by discontinuing the physical contact and let her say if she wants more. If she's relaxing next to someone and they've just been resting their hand on her or gently stroking her and they stop, one of a few things will happen. She will not move at all - she's comfortable and the person can probably continue, but may want to refrain for a while. She'll get up and walk away - she was done and was just waiting for the person to stop. She'll look up at the person - if it's that soft face with open mouth and soft lips with no teeth showing, then she was liking what was happening, please continue. If she looks with a hard stare and mouth clamped shut, she's not trusting or comfortable. Do not touch her again right now.

Yes, her behavior is modifiable. But it requires the humans modifying their interaction with her as described in part above. The necessity here is for the humans caring for her (you, right now) to learn to read the more subtle body language and intervene on her behalf before she feels like she needs to defend herself. If you understand that subtle behaviors are actually communication, then you can be watching for those things and direct visitors better in how to behave with her until she's comfortable.

I strongly encourage you to get and read the Turid Rugaas book On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals . This will not only help you with this particular dog, but with all the dogs you work with. It will open up an whole new world of communication with dogs. It's available as Kindle as well as paperback. There's also a DVD for the visual learner. I recommend reading the book first and then watching the video so that you have terms and explanations of behavior in your head as that will help you pinpoint the subtle behaviors as they're happening on screen.

Once you can read her behavior better, I expect you'll find she gives many other signals before the growl or the snap and so you'll have lots of opportunity to adjust the interactions she's having before she gets as far as vocalizing.

NOTE: The reason I suggested that the visitors stop giving her treats is because when she understands that all new hands have food, then when one doesn't have food - that changes the rules as she knows them. That can make her wary and can result snapping or biting. Also because food can actually distract from the experience of meeting the new person. I'm a fan of using food in the right context and in the right way. So with this dog in this context, I would rather see her have the space and freedom to go as close to or stay as far from the new person as she feels comfortable. Let her sniff and investigate and then walk away without any physical contact by that person. Let her decide she wants more interaction. When she's ready and requesting it, the person can offer gentle pets as described earlier. Then YOU can offer her a bit of food as reward. This way, the new person is not expected to have it and she knows to return to you for that food reinforcement.

Once she's comfortable interacting with the person, they can play a game with her using food. She can interact with them (no food) and then the person can toss a bite of food behind her. Make sure she sees that happen. Then she can go find it, eat it and decide if she wants to come closer again. They can have a pet or a chat or a game of tug if she likes that or just be near each other for a bit, and then the person can toss food again. This way, she's getting that food interaction from the person as part of a larger interaction, and never directly from their hand so she's not expecting food in their hand. Also, this reduces the social pressure by moving her away from the person to use her nose (a naturally stress reducing behavior for dogs), find a goody and then she can decide if she wants to be close again.

Another book you may find very helpful with her as well as other shelter/foster dogs is by Grisha Stewart: Behavior Adjustment Training - BAT for fear, frustration and aggression in dogs

She's actually revised the protocol a bit and you can find information on her BAT 2.0 protocol on her website  She's got videos and webinars that you can stream to learn more about how to do BAT to help her feel more secure with new people.

Finally, I can't know for certain why her behavior changed. You said that you're not seeing a common thread for the people that trigger the wary behavior. I encourage looking not at the obvious such as gender or height, but rather that subtle such as body language and smell. Do these people bend over her rather than squat? Do they present chest forward (square to her), rather than a bit askew? Do they stare her in the face and smile big, toothy smiles? Do they reach out for her as she's approaching, rather than wait for her to get to them? Do they reach over her head - either to pat her head or reach all the way over to pet her back? What other animals might they smell of? Do they have rats or ferrets as pets? Do they work in a vet's office or shelter where they might smell of other very stressed animals?

I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance, or just to update me as you work with her.

Los Angeles Behaviorist

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you so much for your response which has given us good start on understanding our new girl.  In light of your insights I have tried to review the circumstances under which she met strangers.  In all cases we were outside our home and she approached a stationary person head on.  She was on a loose leash and was able to avoid or retreat if she desired to do so.  In all cases where she showed discomfort, the person was standing erect. At the time of the the bite, the person was bent slightly at the waist and had been stoking her cheek for about 10 to 15 seconds - there was no growling or vocalization. During the visit to the apartment, one person was sitting on a couch and the other was sitting on the floor.
My wife and I will start doing our homework tonight with the Turid Rugaas book followed by learning about BAT. She is a wonderful dog that deserves whatever we can give her.
PS. We have had our own dogs for over forty years, volunteered at a local municipal shelter (where we fell into the trap of bringing home dogs that no sane person would adopt), and have been fostering for the past four years. This dog is the only dog we have ever worked with that we thought had the makings to become a therapy dog until this issue surfaced.
Thank you again for your time and for helping so many dogs in need.

Thank you for the followup. Kudos for all the work you and your wife have done with shelter/rescue dogs. We need more like you who have the heart, the space and the commitment to work with the pups.

Standing erect makes us humans very tall and so that can feel intimidating to some dogs. Bending at the waist (even only slightly over/toward the dog) is actually a fairly confrontational body position from the dog's perspective. Between dogs, when one puts their head over another (called a chin-over), it is a status seeking behavior and an indication that the dog doing the chin-over is prepared to tussle/fight to attain that status.

In that situation, the dog may have felt better if the person was sitting or squatting next to her so the person could avoid unintentionally being confrontational. Some dogs find face contact to be extremely personal/intimate, but also difficult to disengage from. So with 10-15 seconds and no end in sight (from her perspective), she may have felt a snap was the only way to get the person to disengage. This is why I like Grisha Stewart's suggestion of the 5-second rule just to check in and see if the dog is still enjoying the interaction.

It was a good instinct that you had her on a loose leash and gave her freedom to move around for these greetings. One thing I've learned is that dogs often don't realize when enough is enough until they feel overwhelmed. For first greetings, especially if I'm seeing any kind of nervousness from the dog such as slow approach, lip licking, ears back (as opposed to airplane ears out to the side or pricked forward), head in line with the spine or lower, hackles raised... I will interrupt the greeting after just 2 or 3 seconds.

It looks like this:
Dog approaches and sniffs. After 2-3 seconds, I cheerfully call the dog away (Fifi, come with me!) and I trot 5-10 feet away from the person. As the dog joins me, I praise her and once I stop moving and she's right by me, I'll continue praise and I may even give a treat or two. Then give her time to decide if she wants to go greet again. This may take her only a few seconds or she may need several minutes. I wait for her to tell me she's interested and ready by moving toward the person. Often the dog will check in with the leash handler, almost like they're asking permission to go back. The second greeting often looks much like the first with just 3-5 seconds of interaction before I invite the dog to move away. If it's going very well, I may not go as far away and I likely won't use food, but rather just let the dog tell me if they want to go back or if they're done with that person/dog at this time.

Each greeting with the same person can be longer than the last, so long as her body is calm and relaxed. If she stiffens, clamps her mouth shut, vocalizes or freezes at all, I immediately call the dog out of it. Note: a freeze is the last moment before a bite. It can often be missed completely because it may only last a fraction of a second. It includes the dog's body going stiff, mouth closing completely and the dog holds its breath - everything about the dog stops for that moment. They are preparing to bite.

I can't know why she suddenly has shown an increased wariness. It could be something environmental that you were entirely unaware of, or thought inconsequential. For example, if a car door slammed closed, startling her just as she was greeting a stranger, she could associate that startle with the stranger instead of the noise across the street. And sometimes that's all it takes. But, if you're patient with her and work with her using the BAT protocols, you should see her return to her "normal" self. I look forward to an update 6 months from now telling me that she's begun doing therapy work. I had a dog who did therapy work for a while. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do for both human and dog - and recipients.

Please keep me posted and let me know if I can be of any further help to you.

Los Angeles Behaviorist

Canine Behavior

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Jody Epstein, MS, CPDT-KA


IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 8 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If you’re looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if you’re local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members and many other issues. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.


I have been a professional obedience trainer for 9 years, and specializing in behavior modification for 8 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I own my own dog training and behavior modification business called Nutz About Mutz.

I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications ; ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

I have a masters degree (MS) in Animals and Public Policy, with a minor in Animal Behavior, from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. I also have 3 years of graduate education in Animal Behavior and Learning from UM-Missoula and UL-Lafayette. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences, workshops and seminars. Beginning in March, 2017, I will be the Behavior & Training Manager at Second Chance Center for Animals in Flagstaff, AZ.

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