Help me help my aggressive dog
November 7, 2011 2:50 PM   Subscribe

My big dog wants to kill our little dog. And the cats. And neighborhood children. And babies. And maybe me! Is there any hope?

My husband and I decided to get a puppy almost three years ago. She's a lovely adult Lab mix now, and about a year and a half ago we ended up taking in a friend's dog, Speedy (a small Dachsund mix, about six months older than Nina).

They were okay with each other for a few months, and then Nina started attacking Speedy. No warning, no apparent provocation from Speedy, she'd just be walking around the yard, come near him, and then she'd pick him up in her mouth and whip him viciously until we could intervene. This has gone on for about a year now. Here are the commonalities to the attacks:

- They happen in front of one or both of us, never when there are no humans around
- They happen most often in our backyard (to the point that Speedy waits for everyone to be asleep before he sneaks out to do his business), but they've happened inside, too.
- We've never waited long enough to see if the fight would break up naturally; we've always intervened because it looks as if she means to kill him.
- Usually Speedy ends up with several fairly-deep puncture wounds. The last one was so deep and large he had to get staples.
- If we're affectionate with Speedy (even just a little), Nina seems to notice this and seems more likely to attack him later that day.
- There's nothing we've seen Speedy do that seems to explain the attacks. When they're going on, he's yelping and wetting himself and I can't imagine how he could be more submissive.

Nina has been aggressive toward our cats, too, but we marked that down to simple prey drive and resigned ourselves to splitting the house in half (we have a little baby gate on one side of the house that the cats stay behind). She's usually submissive around unfamiliar dogs. She acts both totally terrified and hyper-aggressive near young children, although she hasn't yet hurt one (we don't have kids, but there are children in our neighborhood).

A friend of ours brought her baby over (I didn't know she was going to or I would have asked her not to), and I've never seen Nina act so scared, OR so aggressive. It was a tiny sleeping baby - it wasn't moving or crying or anything. Nina was growling and backing away and would circle a little nearer to growl some more, all while her hackles were so raised she seemed doubled in size.

When Nina does anything undesirable, short of mauling the dog, we tell her No in the Voice of God and she gets that. Sometimes we make her do something (sit, lay down) so she knows who's boss. She's also pretty good at Leave It, which the behaviorist helped us work on to avert crises. When an actual mauling does happen, we don't know what to do except break it up, try not to beat the stuffing out of Nina in the process, and put her outside for a while while we assess the damage. We don't leave her out all day or anything - she doesn't seem to remember her crime long, and so that just seems to add fuel to the Must Kill Speedy fire.

Nina is a Daddy's Girl - we used to encourage that when she was a puppy, because she was so cute and loving, but on more than a few occasions she's seen me cuddling up with him, and she's growled at me! We didn't tolerate that for one second, told her No, kicked her off the bed we were cuddling on. But it still happens, occasionally.

We've worked with an in-home behaviorist a few times, and she was wonderful, but it was all mostly obedience stuff. Nina is a little hyper, but not aggressive most of the time, so we really couldn't reproduce the problem in front of the behaviorist. She gave us some tips to reduce the tension (like, when they seem to be headed for a scuffle and we need to break them up, send Speedy away first, stuff like that).

Her estimation of Nina was that she was an anxious, nervous dog, based on stuff like Nina running around the yard in circles for five minute after someone drove a truck down the alleyway, barking for several minutes if someone closed their car down the street, etc.

Our beloved vet also said that he didn't really have a specific diagnosis, but that he agreed she seemed "very nervous." He put her on Clomicalm (dog Xanax from what I can tell), and while it's taken the edge off, it hasn't eliminated the attacks. He did not think she had any kind of seizure disorder or anything like that. She also takes Proin for urinary incontinence (which she's had since puppyhood).

I love my dog. When she's not trying to kill our other animals she's sweet, loving, and is becoming very obedient - the stuff we've learned from the behaviorist has helped in that regard, at least. She doesn't have separation anxiety, she's not territorial (although she seems possessive of humans and their affection), and most of the time she's gentle to Speedy and they sleep and play together. She likes to cuddle with us and she is so pleased when she performs a trick correctly, even if she doesn't get a treat. If it wasn't for this not-so-small issue she's be the perfect dog.

But it's getting to the point where I feel as if it's almost a certainty that she will kill one of our animals, and then we will have to put her down. I can barely think that thought in my head, much less write it out like that.

In the very earliest days of this issue, we thought about finding a new home for her, but now that I know what I know, I wouldn't be able to live with myself if she got out of her new home and chomped a kid or something. Plus, who's going to want an aggressive dog who needs pills twice a day?

Is this a fixable problem? Do we just need to find a different behaviorist, or medication? If it's not fixable, what can we do? I just feel like I've failed my dog, and like I'm subjecting my other animals to the possibility of a very violent end, and I don't know what to do.
posted by m_lazarus to Pets & Animals (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry, but if your dog attacks other dogs, acts aggressive around children, and growls at you, despite medicating and training...

You've already said, "But it's getting to the point where I feel as if it's almost a certainty that she will kill one of our animals, and then we will have to put her down." Or she will kill a small child while out on a walk, or in a dog park, or lunge at your thigh when you move towards your husband one day and cause you grave puncture wounds.

The Black Dog Rescue Project puts your important decision in very kind words. also has some advice.

I am so, so sorry. Your description makes it sound like there really isn't any hope. I wish there were a better answer. But some dogs are mentally ill and can't live a life compatible with us. It's rare, but it happens. You've been kind keepers of her for two years, but it's becoming less and less responsible the longer you keep this up. You have not failed your dog, nor has she failed you. It's not your fault, and it's not her fault. Take care.
posted by juniperesque at 3:07 PM on November 7, 2011 [10 favorites]

Who is going to want an aggressive dog who needs pills twice a day?

You won't know until you ask. Sounds like the best possible solution is to rehome her somewhere with alot of space, and no other dogs, or other dogs that are capable of standing up to her or get along with her. It sounds like a long shot, but clearly she can't stay, and putting her down would be sad. This way if it comes to that you know you at least did you due dilligence to see if there was anywhere else for her to go.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:13 PM on November 7, 2011

I also agree that it sounds like you need to have your dog put down. It's the aggression towards children that scares me the most.

But meanwhile, why isn't Speedy living on the other side of the baby gate with the cats?
posted by lollusc at 3:13 PM on November 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'd look into having her taken away for training with a proper trainer for a few weeks, and then fitted with a collar that can give electric shocks. This has worked well for my parents' dog.

You should start having Nina wear a muzzle, too, when you are walking her, if you're worried about her reaction to children.

You haven't done anything wrong, you have tried very hard with Nina.
posted by jeather at 3:22 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

A friend of ours brought her baby over (I didn't know she was going to or I would have asked her not to), and I've never seen Nina act so scared, OR so aggressive. It was a tiny sleeping baby - it wasn't moving or crying or anything. Nina was growling and backing away and would circle a little nearer to growl some more, all while her hackles were so raised she seemed doubled in size.

Lawyer here (not yours, and just providing some background information). In almost all states, dogs are considered to be dangerous animals for the purpose of a lawsuit. There is no one-free-bite rule for dogs, as there is for animals like parrots or llamas. (Also no one-free-bite rule for wild animals.) So even if you hadn't experienced this, and your dog did attack someone's dog/child/peacefully sleeping infant/thigh, you'd still be in a world of hurt legally.

But you have experienced this. Should an attack occur -- and frankly, it sounds practically inevitable -- you'll be at risk of facing negligent homicide charges, or attempted homicide if the attack isn't fatal, and that means a felony and prison time.

You need to ask yourself, not if you've failed your dog (which I don't believe you have, given your loving tone and the many hours of work you've clearly put into training her), but if you're about to fail someone else.

I am so sorry for this. Loving an animal is a deep commitment, and you clearly love Nina. But I think the answer is clear, and I think that adoption is just too risky. There are no places on planet earth where a dog could be 100% sure of never encountering another animal or person.
posted by Capri at 3:22 PM on November 7, 2011 [21 favorites]

Yeah you need to protect Speedy here, not Nina. Speedy needs to live somewhere he's not terrified all the time. Like 11 months ago. Then deal with the other dog as you will.
posted by fshgrl at 3:23 PM on November 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, Speedy needs to be protected as well. I don't understand why you think you have to let your dog kill one of your other animals before it's okay to take action.

You need to have the dog put down. Rehoming this dog is just going to take away a home for a dog who doesn't have behavioral problems.

This is not fixable in a way that you can ever be absolutely sure it is fixed.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:24 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some friends of mine had to make this same decision years ago. They researched treatments, lifestyle changes (like almost full-time muzzling), and even a ranch out west that specializes in aggressive dogs. Ultimately they decided to have the dog put down, rather than risk it killing another animal, or maiming someone. They felt that training was unlikely to be effective, and barriers like fencing and muzzles left them at risk of accidents--what happens when the gate inevitably gets left open? I have all the sympathy in the world for you, but I think euthanizing the dog is probably the best option.
posted by not that girl at 3:24 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm so sorry. You could ask the vet if any other medications could be tried, crate her while you are out and muzzle her when you are home but I think you'd be postponing the inevitable (though if your husband is not yet ready, these may be avenues he wants to pursue). Children are curious and may scale a fence to retrieve a ball/frisbee and many dogs can get out of muzzles. You gave what turned out to be a very troubled animal (whose issues were probably genetic and who might have caused a tragedy in the home of less responsible owners) a loving home for some years. There are so many other dogs that need a home. Give Nina a week of amazing treats, take photos of her to memorialize your life together and do what you already seem to know you must do. Forgive yourself and allow some time and you and your husband to grieve. I am so sorry.
posted by Morrigan at 3:52 PM on November 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

This article may be helpful.
posted by bq at 3:54 PM on November 7, 2011

As someone who has seen what aggressive, angry dogs can do firsthand, as a dog lover, and as the parent of a baby... I am in agreement with others who say you need to euthanize her. I am very, very sorry.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:17 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I echo what many others say, with deep sympathy. You already seem to know the answer yourself.

We had the same situation with a dog of ours as a kid. We had two Australian Shepard sisters in a houseful of dogs, cats, birds, etc. Both were hyperactive, poorly trained and emotionally needy. Both would whine/bark/jump, but one would always go just a tad too far ---and snap. Two dogs from the same litter, same environment. I always feel particularly bad because Cassie was by far the smarter of the could almost make an analogy to two siblings that are Type A and Type B. Unfortunately, high anxiety and proclivity for breaking down are no less conducive to the canine life than the human. Anyway, we had close run-ins with neighbors' kids and the mailman, and finally had to make the hard decision. The kicker: my mother is a veterinarian and she did it herself. You couldn't find a more pro-animal family, and it broke her heart. But even she realized that there was no better alternative.

I too am very sorry.
posted by keasby at 4:25 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

A dog that bristles at a sleeping baby is either aggressive or very frightened. Either way, she's a bite risk. I'm very sorry.
posted by SillyShepherd at 4:37 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

We had this same situation about seven years ago. We tried so hard-- so hard! We worked with a vet, a behavioralist, a vet behavioralist. We tried drugs and pheromones and everything we could think of. Even after she *mauled* my husband. She was so sweet-- when she wasn't terrifying. Eventually we realized we were at risk of losing our house/homeowners insurance. We couldn't ethically rehome her. We had to put her down. We were both so sad. But afterwards (after several YEARS of therapy and meds for my *husband* as he tried to recover from his new dog phobia), I realized we had really been blinded by our emotions, and had really been irresponsible and were lucky to have escaped without anything worse happening.

I'm so sorry. I know that's he opposite of what you want to hear.
posted by instamatic at 4:50 PM on November 7, 2011 [11 favorites]

It's also very sad to tell our kids (6 and 3) that we will probably never be able to have a dog again, because of my husband's dog phobia. (After 7+ years, we still can't visit with family who have dogs bigger than a Pomeranian.) This is a decision that can certainly affect the rest of your life-- even in the best-case scenario that nobody is permanently injured.
posted by instamatic at 5:01 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, but I've got to agree with the folks telling you she should be put down. Nina's attacked Speedy repeatedly (to the point that he's repeatedly needed vet care!), she's threatened other dogs, threatened kids, threatened a baby in your home!, AND she's threatened YOU...... it's only a matter of time --- and probably not a very LONG time, either --- until there's a tragedy.

I really doubt that rehoming her is a good idea: that just dumps the problem onto someone else. You've already made massive efforts to help her; at this point, other than putting her down, the ONLY solution I can think of is to give her to someone like the groups that helped retrain the dogs rescued from Michael Vick's dogfighting setup --- I don't know how you'd get in touch with a group like that, but maybe, just MAYBE, they could help her: I understand that some of those dogs (but sadly, not all) were successfully retrained.
posted by easily confused at 5:04 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is just a terrible situation. Nina is a danger to everyone. It's not acceptable to have a dog who is a bite risk for all other animals, children, and potentially adults. What if she gets loose? You can't ethically rehome her, and rescues have a ton of dogs who are not bite risks to worry about. Speedy and the cats deserve to not have the potential of being mauled to death in their own home. I think the most responsible course of action here is to have Nina euthanized. I'm so, so sorry.
posted by crankylex at 5:09 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with the others above who have said that the safety of your family, your other animals, and any other person/animal who might have contact with Nina, is absolutely the priority in this situation. I applaud the efforts you've made so far to help Nina and solve her problems.

From what you've described, it seems that Nina is exhibiting jealousy toward Speedy and toward anyone who takes some of your husband's attention. Her behavior toward children sounds like fear-aggression to me. With LOTS of work, these are problems that can be overcome. Whether you have the resources to do it, however, is something only you and your husband can decide.

If I were in your situation, I'd give it one more, seriously good, throw-everything-we-can-into-it try. And in the meantime, I'd take steps to protect Speedy and the other animals (keep them separated from Nina at all times), I would not have visitors at the house, and I would not take Nina outside the house. Maybe crate Nina when you and your husband leave the home. I suggest you talk again with your vet and with another behaviorist (a specialist in aggression behaviors), tell them everything you've outlined in this post, and follow their recommendations -- whatever they might be. If you are in the Portland, Oregon area, I can recommend an excellent behaviorist. But if you're going to do it, do it NOW.

Or you could contact Best Friends Animal Sanctuary (they have rehabilitated a number of Michael Vick's dogs) or other no-kill shelters, tell them everything you've told us, and see if they'd be able/willing to give Nina a second chance.

Only you and your husband can decide what options are workable for you. But ultimately, if you can't trust Nina, you must put safety first -- and then you may have no other choice than to euthanize her. I hope it doesn't come to that. Best of luck to you, and hugs to Nina.
posted by Boogiechild at 6:31 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Folks I'm sorry if this touches a nerve for you, but you still need to answer the question and be constructive. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:08 PM on November 7, 2011

My mother is an elementary school social worker for at-risk kids. One of the first-graders she sees was recently released from the hospital after a dog who had been known to be aggressive attacked him and tore off half of his face when he was five. His life will never be the same. It's not responsible or ethical to continue to harbor a dog who has the known capacity to do this kind of thing. This from a lifelong dedicated dog lover who is very, very sorry that you are facing this kind of decision.
posted by mmmcmmm at 7:15 PM on November 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Many years ago, a friend had a German Shepherd which was a fine dog... except that it was just a bit "nervous"... not really aggressive....
on preview, exactly the same scenario that mmmcmmm just described, and the same outcome. Don't take a chance on this... I to am very sorry you have to face this. But, I think, face it you must.
posted by drhydro at 8:20 PM on November 7, 2011

Before you put her down, try training her extensively. The fact that she loves following commands tells me that she needs more boundaries to feel safe and more oppotunities to please you. Take intermediate and advanced obedience classes. Try agility training. The more she can do to win your approval, the more confident and relaxed she'll be.

Good luck. I think you can get to the bottom of this, but it will take a lot of time and work.
posted by elizeh at 8:57 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am not trying to be mean, but the fact that you have separated Speedy and Nina more than once means that you have, in fact, had some failures as dog owners. After the very first time that happened, to ever let them back into a position where that was possible without a few months of serious training was absolutely, unequivocally, a mistake.

She should clearly never spend a single unsupervised, off-lead moment in a space where she could harm a person or pet until you have spent months doing a lot of training.

It sounds from your post as if you have done little to no training with rewards. Saying "no" firmly is the smallest part of dog training, IMO. Merely telling her what she can't do does not tell her what she can do. Reward to reinforce positive behavior is infinitely more effective.


With the caveat that to attempt the following you must ensure that it is physically impossible for her to harm anyone or any other pet for several months:

She needs to associate the things she fears with rewards, happiness, and love.

You should bring her out to the yard, with her on a short lead, while your husband plays with speedy. She should regularly get attention and treats from you. This needs to happen daily.

She also needs daily reinforcement of getting treats and love from you and your husband while she sees the other snuggling with Speedy.

This also needs to happen with the cats.

After a few months of this, you may be able to try having her on a longer lead in the yard, still reinforcing with treats. Eventually you can take her off the lead. Ease off the treats (you're going to go through a zillion chicken breasts during this time) and see if she can handle being out with Speedy without even a hint of aggression. If everything with your other pets seems copacetic, you can start to do things like introduce her to adult friends, resuming treat use.

As elizeh suggests, things like agility training would help too.

Good luck. This is a lot of time and effort. Correcting problems like this is an every-day occupation for a very long time.
posted by kavasa at 9:08 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who has an unfortunate penchant for finding aggressive dogs. I hate to say this, especially so crudely, but sometimes I feel like people need to be shocked into this: Either put the dog down or find someone who can rehabilitate it.

Your other animals are living a terrible life constantly in fear of getting killed by Nina. You are putting yourself at risk. When you have to separate them, there is a very good chance you'll get severely bitten. There is a very high chance that you'll find yourself with a bunch of scarred-for-life animals if you don't get them out of this situation.

I'm sorry that you're in this situation, it's an awful one. Having seen what this sort of thing can devolve into, I can say with conviction that you need to act.
posted by wierdo at 9:58 PM on November 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

We also tried the training that kavasa suggested, plus a lot of desensitization training our behaviorist recommended. I won't say that it was counter-productive, but in fact, our dog's behavior continued to get worse, and sometimes it seemed like the more we worked with our vet and behaviorist/trainer, the worse she got. To the point that I started to wonder if she had something organic going on, like a brain tumor. (I don't really think that was the case.)

If you do decide to try more training, please talk to your lawyer about your potential liability, especially relating to whether your homeowner's insurance can refuse to cover if you are sued if your dog mauls someone or some animal. We realized that because we had taken my husband to urgent care, and taken the dog to the vet and behaviorist, we had a lovely legal trail showing that we knew our dog was vicious. And (aside from knowing we couldn't have kids in that situation, or even kids visiting our house) the dog herself was getting more and more unhappy.

A year later, we were walking around our neighborhood, and a huge dog ran right through his chain link fence to get to a tiny teacup dog that was being walked on the sidewalk, picking it up and shaking it, puncturing it's neck. The owners paid for the vet bill, but I heard later they'd eventually euthanized their big dog. Terribly sad, but, again: the responsible and caring thing to do.
posted by instamatic at 3:18 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was almost terribly bitten as a child by a similar dog. I was lucky -- I jumped back and the dog only tore the hell out of my sweatshirt before the owner was able to grab it. I've always wondered if that dog ever managed to actually bite someone or not.

Honestly, I think that the right thing to do is to euthanize her. It's one of the hardest things to do, but it's part of the responsibility we take on by owning an animal. If you simply can't do that, you absolutely need to find a new home for the little dog -- he's living in total fear for his life, and that's just not right for him, at all. (And, as others have said, have some insurance and liability conversations, and make sure you understand what your risks are by keeping her in the household.)
posted by Forktine at 4:45 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't give this dog more treats. She's very excitable. I would find a trainer who specializes in aggressive dogs because it does seem like this dog is half hysterical all the time and could get her act together if she had lots and lots of structure. 

If you can afford it, you might try a boarding trainer and if that trainer feels good about the dog, then have the trainer train you.

Even if that works, you'll have to rehome Speedy, keep the cats behind a gate, and keep the dog away from people or muzzled. Not easy.

That said, a dog who is reactive to a baby is the worst case I can think of and I am not optimisitic. This is really terrible and I feel for you.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:09 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: To make sure I understand - your dog is sweet and loving as long as things are going her way an nobody is getting attention and nothing unusual is happening, and she has some rewards-based training and she okay with that - but if she feels the least little stress for any reason, she flips out? (And she has no qualms about hurting anyone when she flips.)

The prey-type attacks on Speedy and growling at the baby are very disturbing, but the rest sounds like she might just spoiled. Do you know any teenage girls who make good grades (mostly, and with a lot of special snowflake attention) and can be really sweet and loving and funny and smart, but have not yet learned that there's a big wide world and they are not the most important person in that world? If your dog is in that semi-crazy entitled and frustrated state, that's the best possible case and there may be a good outcome.

It might also just be that this is who she is and as she matures she will be more aggressive.

No matter what is going on with this young lab,  you have a family and other pets and there are limits to what you can do. Think about what's best for the rest of y'all first. It may not seem fair but life isn't always fair.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:17 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I recommend working with a behaviorist who specializes in reactive dogs. Before putting her down, I would try rescue agencies. Be honest with the issue. Sometimes a new environment with new people can bring out a completely different side in the dog.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:11 PM on November 8, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone who took the time to come up with such empathetic answers.

It's hard (really really hard) to consider euthanasia when she hasn't done anything in a few weeks - after it happens, we say, "Okay, we need to consider our options," but then Speedy heals up, things return to normal, they're playing and cuddling together and the thought of killing this sweet dog is just unbearable.

But it's on the table now, and the stories and links you've all shared are helping up come to terms with it. Hubs is not at all on board with it and it makes me sick to my stomach, but we know the option exists and it doesn't make us monsters to consider it.

Before we get there, though, we're going to make one final attempt. There's more we can do, and so I think we're going to go into hardcore Dog Rehab mode. Lesser Shrew hit the nail on the head - this girl has been spoiled beyond belief, and ratcheting that back has been hard on us. It's hard not to freely give affection and cuddling and kisses and it's a pain to take the dogs out back on leads instead of giving them free access. Honestly, I've always felt in the back of my brain that it was our shortcoming as dog owners, and not hers as a dog. We will also be looking for aggression-specific trainers - if anyone knows of any in the Phoenix area, I'd love to hear from you.

So we're going to set up a timeline for real, measurable improvement, and set hard-and-fast rules for us humans to follow with the dogs. What I didn't say in my original post is that she has improved since this first started - the attacks have had more time between them (gone from an attack or attempt once every couple weeks to now once every couple of months), and in the most recent, she had plenty of time to kill him before I got to them, but she did not. She's gotten better about breaking off pursuit with "Leave It," and her growling and posturing has all but subsided lately. I wonder if some of that has to do with the dogs aging - when it started they were 2.5 and 3 years old, and now they're a year older.

I know this means that we're still rolling the dice, but some of the comments here have made it clear that we haven't pulled out all the stops yet, and we owe it to her to do that.

Thank you, everyone. Hug your pets for me.
posted by m_lazarus at 12:08 PM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

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