Dogs have their own personalities (dogonalities?), likes and dislikes, but as their owners and constant companions, we have great influence over them. Sometimes the behavior we think is cute is actually disfunctional.
A potential client called me while I was making dinner to report that her dog of three years had bitten her son on the hand, and her son thought the dog had been aiming for his face. No one saw this except the son (13 years old) and the daughter (11 years old). She then asked me what would cause something like this. If I knew that just from her description, I would never need to leave the house. I begin with the appetizer.
Q. How long had she had the dog?
A. Since a puppy.
A. Collie mix.
Q. Where did she get it? (dogs from pet stores statistically are more prone to aggressive displays and bites)
A. From a shelter
Now for the main course.
Q. What were the exact circumstances surrounding this event? (Here I picture myself adopting a Sherlockian pose; pensively gazing out the window on Baker St. while wearing a tweed hat.)
A. Well, I wasn’t there, but my son said he and his sister were sitting on the sofa and the dog walked up. His sister started petting the dog and my son reached over to pet him, too, and the dog lunged and bit him on the hand.
At this point, I know there is more, but like a good detective I will extract the story slowly and with great patience as the rice I am boiling for dinner dries to an unpleasant-smelling lump.
Q. Was the dog on the sofa?
Q. Is he allowed on the sofa?
Aha! This could be territorial in nature but I must delve further. Meanwhile, the rice is now inextricably linked to the pan, forever.
Q. What about food and bones? Does he defend his bowl?
A. No, never. There is one thing, though. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with it, but…
Spidey senses tingling, I grip the phone tighter. I prompt her to go on. She does.
Well, my son and my husband wrestle on the living room floor, very rough. We move the furniture so they can do it. My husband will pin my son and the dog circles them and barks. (Wait for it…) My husband will say, “Get the boy, get the boy” and the dog bites his ankles. Do your think that could be part of the problem?
I picture my Sherlockian self turning slowly from the window wearing a smug look and raising my pipe to my lips. I don’t have to possess a doctorate in animal behavior to figure that one out. I tell her that wrestling must end today, never again, no mas. She suggests that if they wrestle the dog could be put in the yard. I emphatically tell her that the dog is not deaf and that father-son cage matches should occur in only one of two places. 1, At the local park, hopefully blocks away and well out of earshot of the dog, or 2, At the YMCA.
She goes on to say that the dog has always been protective of her and her daughter,, and that the dog doesn’t want to be away from her and follows her from room to room. I am getting a good picture of a dog that doesn’t have a clear leader and has tried to take over, and will challenge the teenaged boy for dominance. This is not uncommon since that is the age boys get hormonal and start to become young men. It is clear, however, that the dog has been encouraged, even ordered, by the head of the household, no less, to ‘get the boy’. We all know that dogs retain traits and tendencies from their wolf ancestors, so imagine a wolf pack with an older Alpha male being challenged by a younger, adolescent wolf. The dog in this circumstance is almost certainly channeling his inner wolf while he tries to curry favor with the Alpha. I can picture the family laughing as the dog bites the boy’s ankles in a hit-and-run approach, which sounds to the dog like approval from other pack members.
In this case, stopping the wrestling will not be enough. We make a plan to get together and I start to list all the adjustments they will need to make in order to change the dog’s behavior and reduce the stress the dog is feeling. Among these will be increased exercise in the form of leash walking, light training from the boy using a pocket full of tasty treats, and a no-paws-on-the-furniture rule. I am confident that these steps, if done consistently, will help dog and humans relax and enjoy each other on a functional level.
Rice and pan are dead. I open the windows and suggest we order pizza.