Dog bit my wife - what now?
June 6, 2012 3:38 PM   Subscribe

We have a dog with aggression issues who has now bitten my wife. Other than putting him down, we don't know what to do with him. I need some clearer insight than my emotionally clouded mind can give.

We have two dogs: both mutts, one about 7 years old who weighs about 40 pounds and is the most docile dog I've ever met, and one about 3 who weighs about 75 pounds and has displayed some aggression issues.
  1. Once, when he was chewing on a meaty bone, I went to brush a mosquito off his head. He came at me and bit the pocket of my cargo shorts. He bruised me but did not break the skin of my leg.
  2. When he was about 1, he had what we can only guess is growing pains in his hindquarters, and he would sometimes growl warningly at us when we touched him there. This has since gone away.
  3. He is usually fine around women, but he often displays fear aggression towards men, especially if they stand over him. If they are sitting down, he will eventually come to them, but he is not loving to them the way he is to me.
  4. Related to the one above, we did try once to have a friend come over to learn how to watch them so we could go away for a weekend. This friend attempted to take off Tiberius' collar and Tiberius freaked out and growled and snapped at him, scratching his hand.
  5. The big one. About a month and half ago, my wife came home very tired one day, and the dogs were very attention seeking. The big one, Tiberius, had an old dry bone he was chewing on. My wife went to pet him, he got very still, and then he bit her on the arm and shoulder. We had to go to the ER; she now has 4 scars on her forearm from his teeth.

He does have training, and most of the time he is a very sweet and obedient, if willful, dog. We try to keep up the training with him but we are sometimes lazy about it. We emailed a dog trainer here in Virginia (where we live) whose opinion was basically, "He bit someone. You can only manage his aggression from here on out, not cure it. If you plan on having kids ever, you need to get rid of him. And no shelter is ever going to place him knowing his history. They will simply put him down."

She suggested that the best solution is to put him down now while we can be calm and gentle about it, rather than waiting until he attacks someone again and we have to do it under duress.

I know that rationally this is the right thing to do, but I just wish there was another way. On top of everything else, we have a limited time schedule to do this in. We have to go out of town for a family wedding in two weeks, and we can't take him with us or leave him unattended at home, and starting next week my wife will be extremely busy with a new job and we will not be able to go to the vet before or after work. So basically, we have to do it this Friday, which is really fast for me.

Yes, I know he is a ticking time bomb. Yes, we probably should have gotten more training for him. It may very well be our fault. But if you have any other suggestions, I'd love to hear them.
posted by starvingartist to Pets & Animals (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You need him evaluated by a dog trainer that specializes in aggression. Please look for a trainer who is an Animal Behaviorist in your area and do a consultation.
posted by erst at 3:41 PM on June 6, 2012

Can you get an in-person evaluation from a trainer? Its not clear whether the trainer you consulted has worked directly with the dog, and I believe that's likely to be a critical factor in your decision.
posted by jenkinsEar at 3:42 PM on June 6, 2012

She suggested that the best solution is to put him down now while we can be calm and gentle about it, rather than waiting until he attacks someone again and we have to do it under duress.

I know that rationally this is the right thing to do, but I just wish there was another way.

There is. Unless the dog has some sort of hidden trauma in his past, any dog can be trained to work past it's aggression. As they said above, please see a trainer ASAP and do not put your dog to sleep.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:44 PM on June 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Can you board him while you go out of town, to give yourselves more time to make a decision? I would think a vet who offers boarding would be able to deal with what sounds like relatively minor aggression (in the sense that there seem to be fairly predictable things that provoke the dog, which the staff would presumably know how to manage.)
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:46 PM on June 6, 2012

I had bad bite from very big dog and tried to save the dog (I managed but a vet told me that a dog that bites you should be put down. Period.
posted by Postroad at 3:51 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes please seek the advice of another trainer that specializes in aggression. Having a bite history is very very serious, but my heart is breaking a little that the first recommendation of your trainer was to put him down. This will take an big investment on your part and on your wives part to do any behavior modification though, and is going to require a commitment, if you are not able or not willing then, that could be a problem.

Little recommendations for the time being, do not correct him (physically or verbally) when he is showing aggression, that can only increase the negative association.

TAKE UP THOSE BONES AND TOYS!!! Both of those situations when he aggressed to you or your wife, he was guarding his high value treats. He should never get those again. Find other rewards that he likes but do not cause a guarding response.

I recommend reading up on body language in dogs, so you can spot when he is on the verge of an outburst before it happens to keep everyone safe. (shifting his weight forward, high tail wagging or not, ears forward, nose wrinkled, hackles up etc,) Generally he seems to be giving off the warning signs.

With men guests, you could try doing some positive association. Keeping him an a leash to keep everyone safe, have a friend come in, ignoring Tiberius completely, have them toss him some treats, while still ignoring him for the most part. Just to give him some positive experience with men that aren't you.

I wish you all of the luck with this situation.
posted by Quincy at 3:53 PM on June 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

Obviously he can't be around non-professional strangers (i.e., anyone but pet boarders). Even boarders might refuse to take him. He's a liability until he gets treated, legal and financial. Definitely get a second opinion, but be cautious until then.
posted by supercres at 3:56 PM on June 6, 2012

I think it would be a really good idea to meet with a behavioral specialist and get a consult. He or she will spend time getting to know both your human and canine family members, discussing his history and coming up with a plan of action be it drugs, training, or if all else fails, euthanasia. The opinion of a "trainer" that you have corresponded with via email only, who has never met you or your dog, is quite frankly worse than worthless. Schedule an appointment with a real veterinarian who actually specializes in behavior, went to school for this, can prescribe drugs, etc. There are too many ill-educated laymen out there calling themselves dog trainers and the fact that she would tell you your dog is hopeless without ever even evaluating him in person is a huge red flag.
posted by troublewithwolves at 3:56 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have a dog that's sort of like that. One consultation with a recommended behavioralist our vet knew (plus our own consistent followup afterwards) yielded great improvement. He's still a little insecure, but there haven't been more problems, plus we learned how to deal with them if there are. That was well over 3 years ago, and combined with the mellowness that slowly comes with age, he gets better and better.

I was ready to put this dog down too, but with the right help it was really not difficult to turn him around. My own lack of experience at dealing with a dog like him made him seem dangerous and uncontrollable, and seeing what the correct skills and consistent reinforcement can accomplish - and how quickly it works - was humbling.
posted by mullicious at 4:01 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

The options listed by other posters are great. While you're working through your next steps, please continue to make sure that your dog is never left unattended around children. Bites and attacks can happen quickly, with minimal provocation, and children are the most defenseless.

Good luck as you work through this tough situation.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 4:12 PM on June 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

It seems like every time the dog has snapped, it's been food/headspace aggression. It can't always be trained away, but it's not automatically a lost cause.

Also...stop giving your dog hoardable treats. You know they make him snap, why do you continue to a) provide them, b) reach for them? The trainer is right that this is a bad combination if you're going to have kids, but you don't have to make it so hard for him to be good. I think you should have a trainer out to train you and the dog, because I think there are ways that these situations could have been handled so that the dog would have no history of snapping.

Strangers shouldn't grab at any dog's head, either. Switch to a harness (which your trainer is likely to tell you to do anyway, collars are not a secure anchor point for most dog shapes).

My petsitters are certified trainers, and some of the petsitters in your area probably are too. You might be able to find one who can board your dog in their home, if the dog can't be left unattended in yours. At the very least you might be able to have them come over this week for an assessment.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:12 PM on June 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

My brother's dog bit the tip of my cousin's nose off without provocation. My brother gave the dog to my parents since he has small kids and was worried about them.

Later, some friends of my parents came over to swim in their pool while my parents weren't at home and the dog bit one of their kids. They didn't even have permission to be there, but they sued my parents for a lot of money for medical bills and treatment.

The dog had to be put down. It didn't make anyone happy, but there was no point in trying to 'save' it.
posted by tacodave at 4:28 PM on June 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

1. He is resource guarding. This is often dealt with using "trading up."

2. He is defensive when something is painful to him. It's something to address if he is ever injured, has arthritis or surgery. Muzzle if necessary for safety.

3. He is insecure and fearful. He isn't looking to you for guidance as to how manage himself in uncomfortable situations. Standing or leaning over a dog is a very intimidating position.

4. Fearful dogs seldom like to be led by hand by the collar, and that's likely what your dog thought your friend was trying to do.

5. This is resource guarding again.

I am truly sorry your wife was injured. Your dog seems to have two main issues: resource guarding and fearfulness, neither of which are true aggression. Both can be addressed with a behaviorist, nthing answers above. Heartfelt hopes you can make this a priority and find the time to work with him.
posted by vers at 4:36 PM on June 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

Where in VA are you? In a similar situation, we worked with Yodi Blass, animal behaviorist. IIRC, she was recommended by our vet. (sadly, we eventually had to have our dog put down, but we were glad we tried a behaviorist first.)
posted by instamatic at 4:51 PM on June 6, 2012

You are not that far (as in, a state away) from Pat Miller, who runs Peacable Paws dog training and is an amazing positive dog trainer with experience working with aggressive dogs. Perhaps you could contact her for a consultation, or a recommendation for an experienced trainer in your area? Her trainer referral page lists several VA based trainers.

As the other answers have pointed out, the aggression your dog has shown has not at all been out of the blue. Every time, it has been in a situation that is stressful to dogs. The times it has had valuable food/treats, it has been biting to guard its valuable resource. People standing over or reaching over/near the dog's head are threatening behaviors in dog body language, so this is another situation that can provoke aggression. It's really not good that your dog has bitten people, but since you already have a very good understanding of the types of behaviors that trigger his aggression, these are absolutely behaviors that can be radically improved with training. Please find a positive trainer/behaviorist with experience with dog aggression.

If you do decide to work with the dog and a behaviorist, it might help you a lot to learn about dog body language. Patricia McConnell's book The Other End of the Leash is great for this.

In the short term, the suggestion to find a petsitter who is also a trainer is a great idea.
posted by lab.beetle at 5:40 PM on June 6, 2012

Our dog bit while on a walk twice, in two unfortunate situations where the person approached him and tried to pet him despite my mother's emphatic warning to please stay away since he was aggressive.

He was a yellow lab (but a rescue), so this lulled people into a false sense of security. He never bit any one of us, though he had a sensitive spot on his leg that would make him growl/spin/lunge a bit at us, but never bite.

We kept him away from others, but he never bit us and I don't think he ever could be made to; he recognized us as his family and knew what he had. That said, it's different if the dog's bit someone in the house with rank over him. A good trainer may be able to help, and should definitely be pursued instead of just going with putting him down. We never had any further biting incidents, but the dog was always a bit crazy and he was absolutely nuts on walks.

Again, he never bit any of his family, though, and that's an important distinction.
posted by disillusioned at 6:02 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

A dog growling and showing aggression when you reach for "its" property is perfectly normal.

When I was in college my parents fostered a large dog that would growl and snap when people reached for his food and chew toys - or even just walked past him when he was chewing them. When I came home I let him know that was not on - if he growled at me in this way, even if I hadn't been planning on interacting with him, maybe just sitting down near him to watch TV, I immediately *would* now turn my attentions to him and take whatever he was chewing on away. I'd give it back after he calmed down.

The idea is, 1) don't threaten me in my home - I control the toys and 2) I am benevolent enough to give them to you. The same thing went for his food. I'd take his food away, and give it back in a brief period - there's no reason to get upset about people invading your space. In about a week the dog stopped growling at ANYone over food and toys.

Of course, you would have to put up with some initial nipping - if your dog is strong enough to send people to the ER, then you'd want to look into protective clothing or having a trainer come to your house.

Bottom line, I really think the trainer you spoke to was being lazy. This does NOT sound like a dog that needs to be put down by any means. You say:

We try to keep up the training with him but we are sometimes lazy about it.

You have to stop being lazy about it. You have to commit to this dog or not. Dogs are like kids. They will take as long a leash as they are given. And I want to say, a friend adopted a dog about two months ago, and the first month was very much, "I can't do this, his behaviour is unacceptable" but she took him through the training and then put her foot down at home, and now she is so glad she stood by him - they adore each other now.

BUT, bottom line, even if he is too much of a hassle for you (not everyone can put in the effort for behavior training of a dog and that's perfectly fine), putting it down is NOT the only option - you can offer it up for adoption if absolutely necessary. It's a very young dog and hasn't done anything terrible - it can still learn.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 6:07 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your wife was bitten badly enough that she had to go to the E.R. She suggested that he be put down. And you are valuing the opinion of strangers on the Internet more than that of your wife? Try to think of your life with your wife having left you and/or you being sued by someone else having been bitten by your dog.
posted by aroberge at 6:20 PM on June 6, 2012 [17 favorites]

Yeah I think this is 100% your wife's call. She's the one who has to live with the dog.
posted by fshgrl at 6:30 PM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm going to be the devil's advocate here, and probably won't give an opinion that will be popular with you or the rest of the gang.

Put him down on Friday. Just do it.

He bit your wife and left scars. Imagine what he could do to a child. Yes, you could try an animal behaviorist. Even with training, there are no guarantees. Are you willing to risk his breaking training and biting your wife again? Are you willing to spend a bunch of money and still not fully trust this dog?

Put him down. Do it with regret, do it with sorrow, but please do it.

Go find a gentle, loving, deserving dog from the pound that will be put to sleep if no one rescues him. Spend the money on a dog that you can love unreservedly. Let this one go. Sometimes it's kinder and safer to do the hard thing.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:05 PM on June 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I want to thank you all for your thoughtful and earnest responses. My wife and I had yet another long talk this evening, and we are going to keep the appointment on Friday, painful though it may be. We don't have the resources for a behaviorist, nor do we have the time to seek out alternate arrangements. What if we decide to keep him for a little while longer and try to find a place that will board him? If two weeks go by and we haven't found a place, we are stuck in a worse situation, and we cannot miss this wedding, nor can we take him with us. It sucks and I'm not happy with it, but there it is.

This may come off as defensive, but I feel the need to say it anyway... we are good pet owners. When I say we are lazy about his training, I do not mean he is untrained. He has to obey "sit", "down", "come" and other commands many times each day. I meant that we do not give him new things to do nearly as often as we should, and quite often he comes to us seeking attention and we just give it to him instead of making him earn it. And since he bit my wife, he has not had any treats or toys to play with on his own unless he earned them in some significant way. But we don't trust him anymore.

Thank you all again for your insight. I hate that this happened, but I don't really see any other solution.
posted by starvingartist at 8:15 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think that bite is serious business:

1) Biting hard enough to leave a scar is a pretty serious bite. He *could* have growled (I wouldn't tolerate that myself, either), he could have snapped to say "I am serious! Don't take my thing!" but he gave a proper hard bite.

2) He bit your wife, who is a member of his family.

I'm not sure I would do anything other than have him put down. If you and your wife are not super involved pet owners (and I absolutely don't mean that in an insulting way - some people love working with their pets a lot, and some don't) I don't think you are likely to be able to follow through with the sort of intensive training efforts your dog seems to need.

I don't agree that it is normal for dogs to aggressively guard resources. I can understand tolerating an older/rescue/ill dog who forgets his manners and growls to keep his people away from his stuff, but a hard bite is a different kettle of fish.

Perhaps you will find this dog bite scale helpful. I saw it recommended by a vet, on another forum.
posted by grueandbleen at 8:16 PM on June 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

We put down a biting dog (and her very elderly companion - she was slowly dying, and we decided it would be kinder for them to go together than for the much older dog to be left alone for a few final months after years together) just before our newborn came home. The alternative was a life locked up in a boarding kennel. The risk was just too high. She regularly growled and nipped our older children, and trainers etc could not overcome pre-adoption abuse - it was very specific to certain triggers like towels.

One thing that might help - have a really good last few days for the dog. We bought favourite food, played and petted a lot and went for long walks.

We were really fortunate to have a sympathetic vet who came out to our house and administered the injections while we were on the floor holding them. It was calm and peaceful, with no scared final ride to the vet. A pet funeral service came and wrapped them up and took them to be cremated.

I miss them, but I think they died with as little pain, physical and emotional, as possible.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:26 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Grueandbleen: That dog bite scale is fantastic.

It's a one page pdf document for those interested. Relevant bit:
Level 3. One to four punctures from a single bite with no puncture deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. Maybe lacerations in a single direction, caused by victim pulling hand away, owner pulling dog away, or gravity (little dog jumps, bites and drops to floor).
Level 4. One to four punctures from a single bite with at least one puncture deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. May also have deep bruising around the wound (dog held on for N seconds and bore down) or lacerations in both directions (dog held on and shook its head from side to side).
Level 5. Multiple-bite incident with at least two Level 4 bites or multiple-attack incident with at least one Level 4 bite in each."

I think that this was such a difficult incident for you and your wife that you summarised the details in your point 5, to the extent that other posters may have skimmed over the details. I hadn't intended to, and yet I did. It was not til I re-read your post that I realised this was worse than even a level 4 bite (and I think other posters may be presuming say, level 3).

It was not one bite, it was multiple, deep bites, to your wife's shoulder and arm, leaving 4 scars on her forearm. As other posters have said, worse, it is to a member of your dogs family.
Once is a mistake. Biting deep enough to seriously wound is unusual in dogs, shows very poor bite inhibition, and seldom rehabilitable. Biting a member of it's family that hard? You're getting into nasty territory. You generally have greater inhibition to biting family members than strangers.
Multiple deep bites to a member of it's family?
I am so, so sorry for your family, and your dog. It needs to be put down.
The risk to other creatures is too high. A dog that does this with a member of it's family, may do this to other dogs, children, and adults.

The document was useful, and echoes what I have seen in dogs, and dogs that have attacked sheep (when I was in a rural area):
In terms of outcome, it outlined: Level 3, rehabilitable.
For a Level 4, "The dog has insufficient bite inhibition and is very dangerous. Prognosis is poor because of the difficulty and danger of trying to teach bite inhibition to an adult hard-biting dog and because absolute owner-compliance is rare.". Is suggests that trainers and vets working with them make the owners sign an agreement stating it can never, ever be in the presence of children, only allowed contact with owners, and never leave the house except for vet visits, and be muzzled for that.

"Level 5 and 6: The dog is extremely dangerous and mutilates. The dog is simply not safe around people. I recommend euthanasia because the quality of life is so poor for dogs that have to live out their lives in solitary confinement."

posted by Elysum at 12:20 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow, I'm kinda surprised about all the answers about going to a behaviorist.

This is a large dog. Your wife had to go to the hospital. Difficult as it may be, you guys are doing the right thing. I could never fully trust a dog like this again even with training. My heart goes out to the dog too, but there are so many millions of non-aggressive dogs our there that need homes, it seems like a misallocation of resources to try and rehabilitate one dog with a bite/aggression history My best wishes to you guys.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:01 PM on June 7, 2012

I rescued a Rat Terrier that had a serious biting problem when I first got him, a lot of fear biting and resource guarding. I knew what I was getting and after 2 years he has done a 180 and is a lovely trusting dog that adores strangers and will step back from treats and let pretty much anyone take his toys. He is however, only 17 pounds, unlike your wife I was not scared in my own house I knew what I was getting and I could do the work to help him and I would never leave him unleashed or alone around children

On the other hand my brother had half his face ripped off as a kid by a neighbours dog trying to "guard" food that my brother accidentally dropped.

Do you have to put your dog down? No. But if you don't find the time, or aren't willing or able to do the work every single day, every single interaction you have with the dog from now on your dog is going to keep biting people. Trainers are great but if you and your wife don't put in the work then there is only so much they can do to help.

You say you are too busy, so you have already decided. As sad as it is, it is probably kinder for the dog to be put down surrounded by the people it cares for, loving it and hugging it than it is for you to have to make the decision in a moment of stress and sadness picking up the dog at the side of the road face covered in the blood of a child like my neighbours had to to their well loved family pet.
posted by wwax at 1:25 PM on June 7, 2012

I was once in a similar situation - I had a sweet dog who also had serious and sudden aggression issues.

I miss him dearly, yet I also feel tremendous relief that no one will be hurt by him again, and that he could go gently at a time and place of our choosing rather that do something he and we all regretted and then have to go under more stressful circumstances.
posted by zippy at 12:40 AM on June 8, 2012

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