Help me help my dog
September 17, 2010 5:45 PM   Subscribe

I was just sitting outside on my friend's lawn with my dog, who was tied to a tree branch about 20 feet away (that I checked for strength before tying her up) and quietly watching squirrels. A woman walked by and smiled at us, and my dog lunged at her, breaking the tree branch, and proceeded to jump up on her and ram her nose into her, barking. I feel absolutely terrible and have no idea how to fix this.

Literally 10 minutes beforehand, two people approached her, and she nuzzled into them, wagging her tail.

She's done this before when people she doesn't know let themselves into my shared house (e.g., friends of roommates, my landlord). She has done it once for a group of people walking by on the same friend's lawn. She's pretty certain to do it for people who act afraid of her. I am SUPER careful with allowing kids to come near her, because she sometimes reacts like this when they act in what I'm assuming are unpredictable ways to her. She also lunges and barks at dogs who approach her while she's on lead, again, in ways that I can't seem to predict.

Outside of these instances (maybe 10 times in her four years of life), she's really friendly towards people. In fact, after I got ahold of her today, she started wagging her tail and tried to lean into the woman to get petted. She has never bitten anyone. I can't see what these people have in common that's startling her. It doesn't seem to matter whether she's had a walk that day or not. I was careful to socialize her when she was a puppy to different kinds of people. We have also done several obedience and agility classes.

If it matters, I think she's sick today- she's been crying and pacing constantly and has vomited liquid several times. I'll take her to the vet tomorrow if it continues.

Is it possible to train this out of her? What else can I do to be a better pet owner and help her be a better dog? Obviously I won't be tying her up to any more tree branches, but I'm open to other suggestions.
posted by emilyd22222 to Pets & Animals (30 answers total)
A behaviorist could help--both in terms of training your dog and helping you to understand and anticipate her behavior. Group classes probably don't create the types of situations that trigger the behavior and don't offer enough one-on-one time with the trainer to really address the issue.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:03 PM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll hope that someone with more training experience than I comes along. I do think that your dog is trainable, and my armchair diagnosis is that, at least in this case, the distance between you and your dog may have left her feeling that she had to protect you.

Was she apaart from you the other times that similar behavior happened? If so, she probably feels most secure close to you and a bit more nervous away from you. Some one on one training for you & puppy will almost assuredly cure this behavior.
posted by beelzbubba at 6:11 PM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Outside of these instances (maybe 10 times in her four years of life), she's really friendly towards people.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how'd you enjoy the play?

The vet and training classes are good ideas, and you're clearly trying to be a responsible dog owner, but this seems like a really frequent problem to me (every three and a half months or so if you average it out) even if she hasn't bitten anyone yet. That's not to try to make you feel bad, since you are taking precautions, but it may be that this dog cannot be unrestrained or unmuzzled around anyone other than yourself while you are working this out with the trainer and the vet.

Talk it over with professionals of course, because I've only been on the terrorized end of the "but she's usually a good dog!" scenario, but my understanding is that this can be done perfectly humanely, and will remove most of the danger of your dog unpredictably deciding to attack someone.
posted by Marty Marx at 6:43 PM on September 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Baseball caps, sunglasses, and hoodies make my dog act up. Especially on men. I have had male members of my family put on sunglasses and walk around in the living room, and she'll still bark like they're a dangerous stranger every single time (we've tried variations of this for 10 years, and she still hates those things). From what I've heard, those triggers are not abnormal, though definitely not encouraged, so maybe you'll have more luck with the trainer than I did. Do you think the woman's smiling and showing teeth freaked her out?
posted by wending my way at 7:14 PM on September 17, 2010

Response by poster: Was she apaart from you the other times that similar behavior happened? If so, she probably feels most secure close to you and a bit more nervous away from you.

I'm thinking that this may be key. She has always had pretty bad separation anxiety, which has gotten a lot better, but it's taken a lot of work. I can see how that would make the potential for anxious reactions higher, even if she's sitting happily and calmly like she was today.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how'd you enjoy the play?

Not to be defensive, but what I meant by that was, she interacts with a LOT of people, and she approaches 99% of them with genuine friendliness. I can see how that would sound to someone who's only been on the receiving end, though. I'm sorry that you've had to deal with that. My comment was meant to provide context, not to negate the seriousness of her behavior.
posted by emilyd22222 at 7:29 PM on September 17, 2010

You need to muzzle your dog, and you need to ensure she is secured. 10 times in her four years of life is a behaviour pattern.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:30 PM on September 17, 2010 [7 favorites]

emilyd22222, don't worry about this so much. Dogs will be dogs, and unless you're some kind of super-pro dog person, you'll never know exactly what's triggering your dog's aggressiveness. I would just suggest that you rely on the trunk next time instead of the branch.

Every dog owner should know that every dog has the potential to hurt, maim and kill. Sure, that may depend somewhat on breed, training and the owner's skill at dog handling, but that's the fact. From your description, I'd say that you're doing a great job and that this instance was a fluke...because the branch broke.
posted by snsranch at 7:43 PM on September 17, 2010

Not to be defensive, but what I meant by that was, she interacts with a LOT of people, and she approaches 99% of them with genuine friendliness. I can see how that would sound to someone who's only been on the receiving end, though. I'm sorry that you've had to deal with that. My comment was meant to provide context, not to negate the seriousness of her behavior.

I've talked at length on here about the aggressive dog we owned when I was a teen, but I can tell you that she was similarly mostly friendly with people--except for the two times she bit someone in the face (me, one of those times), and the two times she tried to. I mean, she was generally what seemed to be an incredibly sweet dog. Except for, you know, those facial bites.

I've read that tying a dog to a stationary spot can make them more territorial, but generally, I think what you need is a good dog behaviorist. You know you're in over your head, so it's time to talk to a professional.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:23 PM on September 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

No, you should not only worry about this but find a solution. 99% of dogs have left me alone but three have bitten me.
posted by llc at 8:45 PM on September 17, 2010

Just a guess, if the flight or fight instinct is going for whatever reason, and she's tied up, that means she can't flight, you know?

My understanding is that aggressive dogs tend to more aggressive when their people are around--because they feel more security in having their pack there. So she didn't go after the woman to protect you, but because she thought you'd back her up.

I know it's hard, but try to think more about your body language when she acts up. For example, if you are somehow petting her when she's agitated, that's like a reward for being agitated.

I guess you figured out to keep her on the leash, with your hand on the leash from now on, right? I mean, I think so, but I wanted to make sure.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:53 PM on September 17, 2010

I'm wondering if your dog gets the whole 'human beings baring their teeth is not a threat' thing.

You are the first person I know who has raised the issue of ramming with the snout. Some dogs are able to hit you a lot harder than most humans can.

I disagree strongly with the suggestion of muzzling your dog. I'd like those who think it can be done humanely to gag themselves or tape their mouths shut for a few hours and get back to me. I you think that's not comparable, perhaps you've forgotten that dogs cool themselves mainly by panting.

Besides, your dog seems to be perfectly in control of her biting. I wouldn't say she is necessarily anxious, either. I think she she did what she did today to protect you, and that's not a response that should be discouraged, though it clearly needs to be refined through training in the case of your dog.
posted by jamjam at 10:08 PM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

First of all, being sick might have had something to do with it. Hypothetically, she could have felt a sudden ache in her ribs or stomach or whatever when the woman walked by, and she associated the pain with the woman, and lunged.

Ten times in four years, with lots of socialization? Not a bad record, but please keep in mind it just takes ONE bite to result in a lawsuit. Good for you for monitoring her around kids.

She sounds like a sweet dog, but if it were me, once a dog shows it has a SINGLE tendency to be aggressive, I make sure that no strangers are allowed to touch my dog. I mean, the dog might be fine with 99% of people, but if there's always that off chance the person might be wearing a weird perfume and BAM...a bite can happen just like that. And also, there are people who don't necessarily know how to approach a dog appropriately, and do intimidating stuff like loom over a skittish dog and pat its head (lots of dogs hate this.)

If you want to keep socializing her, you can have strangers ask her to sit and toss her (not feed her) a treat. She will continue to learn people = good.

Based on my experience with my own dogs and hours upon hours of research, reactivity (especially leash reactivity) in dogs is not something that tends to vanish overnight, and might be something you need to manage for a long time. It sounds like your dog is not that leash reactive, and awfully sweet, but better safe than sorry, right?

Also keep in mind, once a dog does a behavior (like lunge) they are generally more likely to do it again. Good luck!
posted by The ____ of Justice at 10:13 PM on September 17, 2010

I'd like those who think it can be done humanely to gag themselves or tape their mouths shut for a few hours and get back to me.

Can we just check with the The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals instead of doing some weird BDSM thing? The ASPCA says basket style muzzles allow dogs to pant and drink water, and it seems that the chief concern is how to introduce them slowly, so as not to upset the dog.
posted by Marty Marx at 10:22 PM on September 17, 2010

Ten times in four years means it's a behavior that she needs to unlearn, whether she's sweet 99% of the time or not. If the behavior isn't corrected, she will escalate it. From the context, it sounds like she's a large breed, but regardless, if I were walking down the street and a dog lunged off its leash at me, barking, and broke a tree branch doing it, I would be scared shitless.

It may or may not be humane, but if you want to avoid a lawsuit, you may need to consider muzzling your dog in public if you think that she is in a situation in which she might potentially lunge at someone. Even if your dog never bites anyone, many more people than you may think are totally freaked out by dogs, and it only takes one of them being freaked and litigious to be a disaster.

I own three dogs myself, so I'm not just hating on dogs. I once owned a dog who behaved much like yours. I don't mean to be harsh, but it may end in heartache if you don't find a way to modify her behavior.
posted by blucevalo at 11:05 PM on September 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't hate dogs. But having been terrorized and knocked down several times, I'm afraid of them, and "but he never does this" doesn't help in the least. Good luck; I hope you can find a behaviorist who can resolve this.
posted by cyndigo at 11:14 PM on September 17, 2010

We had a family dog that was, for lack of a better word, "unpredictable". She was skittish a lot, beautiful and loving even more often, and every now and then with certain specific people (mostly people that didn't "get" dogs), a violent threat.

The best thing we ever did for that dog was fence our yard. As soon as the boundaries were defined, as soon as the whole weird world was differentiated from the immediate half-acre she was responsible for -- there was never another incident.
posted by philip-random at 11:32 PM on September 17, 2010

emilyd22222, don't worry about this so much. Dogs will be dogs, and unless you're some kind of super-pro dog person, you'll never know exactly what's triggering your dog's aggressiveness. I would just suggest that you rely on the trunk next time instead of the branch.

Right. When your dog really hurts someone, explain to the judge that "dogs will be dogs."

If that dog hurts someone, particularly if (god forbid) it is a small child, the dog is more than likely going to be taken away from you and put down. No questions asked. I've seen this happen several times in my hometown, and I've never even had a dog. Kids will cut through someone's backyard, the dog attacks one of them, and that's the end of the story for the dog.

The dog needs to be muzzled EVERY time it could come in contact with the public, or you have to be 100% sure that it won't ever bite another person again. End of story. Fence it in, tie it up, whatever, but DO NOT let the dog get itself into a situation where it could hurt someone. You do not want to take that trip through the legal system. And you do not want to watch your dog be hauled off in a van to its death. I'm just saying.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 12:25 AM on September 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

On non-preview, what blucevalo said, exactly.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 12:32 AM on September 18, 2010

The answer is quite simple. Next time you choose to tie the dog up, be more thorough in your inspection of the branch. That the dog was able to just jump up at someone and that alone broke the branch suggests to me that it really wasn't a sturdy branch in the slightest.
posted by Biru at 3:51 AM on September 18, 2010

Response by poster: To clarify: she's never bitten anyone, and yes, the barking/lunging is rare, but I definitely recognize it as a behavior problem that needs to be solved, otherwise I wouldn't have posted on here. I'm not interested in making excuses for myself or for her behavior, I was initially just hoping to provide context by saying it's rare. I'm not sure how posts that say essentially only "you need to address this" help me find a solution.

I usually try to run through some commands with her when she gets anxious, rather than comforting her. Does anyone have other suggestions for how to redirect or discourage anxious reactions?

I chose my rental house specifically because it has a big fenced-in backyard that she can run around in. However, she tends to bark in the same way at people (especially with dogs) walking by when she's alone out there. I correct her as soon as I can get outside when it happens. I wonder if she had just gotten used to reacting in a territorial way to people walking by the yard. This makes me think that if I more directly address her barking at people walking by when she's fenced it, it could help the behavior other times. Any suggestions for doing that?

When my vet opens on Monday, I'm going to call them and see if they can recommend a behaviorist or have any other suggestions. She's definitely sick- she cried all night last night and is having more stomach problems.
posted by emilyd22222 at 6:23 AM on September 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Maybe the woman has a dog, and the other dog's scent was on her. It does seem like your dog has some sort of territorial feeling about your friend's yard, since she's done it before in the same space, and I think there's a good chance being tethered makes her more aggressive as bluedaisy mentions. So, you will just need to be sure that any time you tie her up the anchor is solid enough that if she pulled with all her strength and weight, it (and the leash) would still be secure —and I wouldn't leave her alone so that unsuspecting folks could walk up to her. Plus, the basket muzzle if you are going to be walking among people in spaces tight enough that leash control or a head halter isn't reliable enough. I'd hate to do it, too (feels like dog will be seen as some sort of canine Hannibal Lector), but she's given you every clue that it's probably only a matter of time before she bites.

I haven't read it yet (in fact I just this minute bought the Kindle edition), but Jean Donaldson has a book called "Dogs are from Neptune," that addresses a lot of dog aggression issues, and I love Donaldson. I'll let you know what I think! I'd get right down with behavior training if I were you, because if she's having enough anxiety to lunge at a passerby, she's probably not in a great headspace. And of course you're right; if she's ill, she could very well be feeling extra vulnerable and fearful, so it's definitely a good idea to get her checked out. I think you can minimize the behavior with training, and eliminate dangerous situations with caution and safeguards. Strangers coming in to the house will be the biggest risk, it seems to me. The landlord needs to know that s/he should check with you first so you can crate your dog or put her in a separate room, and the roommates need to put her in your room before allowing their friends in if you're not there. Good luck!
posted by taz at 6:55 AM on September 18, 2010

Oh! I started writing my response and went away to do something else, then finished and posted, so I didn't see your last comment, emilyd. I do agree that it's very likely that the aggressive acting out and barking in the yard is conditioning her to be more likely to do this elsewhere. You might need to not let her out on her own for a while, so you can immediately correct her and begin to get her out of the habit — with some positive reinforcement, if you can see the walker/other dogs coming. The behaviorist is a great idea, because this can be such a tricky issue. (I've read that when dogs are corrected for growling, for example, they can learn that they shouldn't growl... so just go ahead and bite without the warning growl! eep!) Let us know what you learn, both from the doc and the behaviorist.
posted by taz at 7:10 AM on September 18, 2010

Simple solution, and the only solution.. maintain control of your dog at all times.

That's different than THINKING you are maintaining control. It's up to YOU to be sure the leash is sound, the anchor is solid, and that the public is protected from a beast that does not reason and whose origins are predatory. Those teeth and jaw muscles did not get their by accident.

If your dog bites someone, YOU are at fault, not the dog. Train yourself to be a responsible dog owner. The dog is ALWAYS potentially harmful. It has to be treated like the threat it is, and your assurances are meaningless compared to dripping blood.

You should also worry that the dog confronts someone who is prepared to deal with IT effectively, and you'll be asking why you weren't protecting it better.

(I have a beagle that I love, and she is on leash whenever outside. I watch her like a hawk when small children are near. I cannot predict how she will react to anything 100%, so I have so assume she could injure the innocent and protect them both. I'm not aggressive about it, but I am responsible. Apologies are a poor exchange for scars of any sort.)
posted by FauxScot at 7:55 AM on September 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Crap! ("their" = "there")!
posted by FauxScot at 7:56 AM on September 18, 2010

If she is vomiting and in pain, she should go to the vet today, Please don't wait til Monday.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:54 AM on September 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Okay, anti-barking. Always keep a tin can loaded with coins handy. Whenever she barks, give it a thorough shake as near her as possible. Dogs don't like this sound. In a purely Pavlovian way, the dog will come to ID wanton barking with this sudden, scary sound.

Also, always keep a few treats on hand, so when dog responds to your cajoling and does not go into a barking fit at passing strangers, she gets a treat. Again, pure Pavlovian stuff that has worked for me in the past.
posted by philip-random at 9:55 AM on September 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

emilyd22222, you don't mention anything about socialization or walking your dog. I've always noticed that my dogs will be less barky and less prone to protectiveness if I walk them around the neighborhood every once in a while. It seems to me that once they're familiar with their surroundings they are less territorial.

If you have a dog park near by, that's a great way to socialize too. I've seen some real "tough guy" dogs revert to puppyhood when off leash with a bunch of other dogs.

Also, I hope she's alright health wise!
posted by snsranch at 4:28 PM on September 18, 2010

I have a dog who is sweet most of the time, but who has also lunged at the end of his leash at people enough times that I am working with a behaviorist.

Some dogs act aggressive out of fear - fear of an unfamiliar individual or type of person (young, old, male, female, white, black). Or maybe they feel threatened when a stranger looks them in the eye.

Training over months and, for some dogs, years, can make them more placid.

Until you are confident that your dog will behave well without fail, you need to secure them solidly to you or in an enclosed area or chain them in a place where they cannot come into contact with strangers.

Through training, the specialist will point out your dog's triggers so that you can anticipate their responses and redirect or distract them before they get a chance to freak out.

It is a lot of work, and being vigilant all the time is exhausting. Good luck.
posted by zippy at 7:03 PM on September 18, 2010

However, she tends to bark in the same way at people (especially with dogs) walking by when she's alone out there. I correct her as soon as I can get outside when it happens.

Is it possible that she thinks you're mad at her for STOPPING her barking/attack mode? I realize this thread is long forgotten, and I'm also sorry about pointing out problems without solving them before. (really, I wasn't paying attention, and I do apologize).

But maybe by the time you've gotten out there, she's finished barking at the other dogs/people/whatever, and THEN she gets yelled at? To a dog, that could mean that she just shouldn't have stopped, rather than she shouldn't have done it in the first place. Maybe keep a closer eye on what starts her barking/lunging and nip it the second she does it, rather than running out when she's about done anyway? I'm really sorry to have been unhelpful before. And probably unhelpful now....
posted by deep thought sunstar at 7:14 PM on September 19, 2010

It's Monday, and I'm hoping your dog has been in to the vet and all is now well.

You've got bits and pieces of an overall training scheme in the answers here, and in combination with a behavioral trainer, I think you'll both be OK.

Nthing philip-random on both suggestions. We did the coin-can routine when our dog was a puppy. We have not been strict with her, but in turn, she's not much of a challenge—she's a pretty calm and relaxed dog. But on the rare occasion she starts barking at passers-by, all I have to do is ask her if I need to get the "shake can" and she either comes to me, or goes into another room.

philip-random's other tip can be used in a variety of ways including the one he offered. From the time our dog was young, we would give a command to sit when we encountered people she didn't know on our walks. If the person was willing, we would have them offer her a treat. She became accustomed to sit and wait if we "met" someone. If we were just passing someone, we'd give her a "walk on" command and reward her for not engaging with that person. We live near a popular bike path, so those encounters have included many cyclists. The result is that we have a dog who can be off lead and not be the least bit interested in anyone or any moving object in the park behind our house. Explicitly NOT recommended for every dog.

OTOH, we have a neighbor who gets agitated at every encounter and with every time her dog barks. IANADP (dog psychologist) but it seems to me that her dog gets the idea that her owner is barking at these times and that she must respond, too. We've taken care of her dog for extended periods, and while we will not ever leave her off lead, we use training bits we've learned, and the dog remains perfectly calm. I do believe it is largely a matter of being relieved that someone else is in control of the situation so that they don't have to be.
posted by beelzbubba at 8:06 AM on September 20, 2010

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