What to do about a dog's unwanted behavior?
December 27, 2013 11:46 AM   Subscribe

A friend's dog has an unusual behavior. It he sees someone with shoes on, in other words walking or sometimes just standing, he goes nuts. I goes into a play bow and starts biting the shoes. Sometimes he succeeds in biting through a tennis shoe, for example, which is painful. If you move your feet, he thinks you are playing and becomes more aggressive. He will stare at the shoes looking for the slightest hint of movement. If someone tries to correct him, usually by saying no loudly, he pulls back and barks and maybe takes a swipe at a hand and becomes aggressive. I can sometimes get him to stop by holding on to his collar until he snaps out of it. But that is difficult to do sometimes. Otherwise this dog could care less about shoes. If there is a shoe on the floor he leaves it alone. But put on shoes and watch out. Any ideas how to correct this behavior? He is about a 2 year old lab mix, if that matters.
posted by jtexman1 to Pets & Animals (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Your friend needs to train his/her dog.

This is not something a visitor or non-member of the household can do.

The dog needs to be obedient and to do what it's owner tells it to. If the owner says, "No Brutus, leave it." That should be the end of it.

There are a variety of training techniques. Here's an article that discusses a few, but your friend might want to look into a dog trainer who will make house calls, or enroll in an obedience class.

As a visitor, you can take your shoes off on the welcome mat, and walk into the house carrying them, to avoid unpleasentness with the dog.

But there is nothing more terrible than a dog who is not in control of its owner. So that's the thing that needs to be taken care of first.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:52 AM on December 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

Chances are good that your friend or someone else in the family thought this was (or still thinks it is) a cute/fun behavior, and actively encouraged it, i.e. the dog thinks it's a game because someone else actually made it a game. It's really easy for your response, including things like saying no, grabbing for the dogs collar, etc. to become part of the game. The best I can suggest for you to do is to not play the game. Remove yourself or your shoes from the situation so that the dog doesn't get the fun it's looking for. That said, I think RB is right that there's relatively little you can do as a visitor, and this is mostly the owner's problem to solve.
posted by jon1270 at 12:02 PM on December 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

My first instinct is that someone has kicked the dog at some point in its life.

Sometimes he succeeds in biting through a tennis shoe, for example, which is painful.... he pulls back and barks and maybe takes a swipe at a hand and becomes aggressive.

The solution is not to go to your friend's house until he or she trains the dog. Biting humans is a very serious problem, especially if it's a bigger breed like a lab. The owner has been extremely irresponsible by not curbing this behavior, and I would insist on having the dog kept in a separate room if I were to visit.

If the dog is two years old and this is not a new behavior, it probably requires professional intervention.
posted by desjardins at 12:06 PM on December 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

He reacts to someone saying "no" by trying to bite them? If I'm reading this right, this is a really serious behavior problem. Someone who is older, or who has poor balance, or who is just unlucky could get really hurt. In that case, the dog would be (correctly, in my opinion) put to sleep, probably by itself in a pound, where it will be frightened and alone. Your friend is doing this dog, and everyone who has to encounter it, a huge disservice by allowing this behavior to continue.

This sounds like a dog that, sorry to say it, is not safe unmuzzled around people. Training this kind of aggressiveness out of the dog is not going to be a simple, easy thing and certainly you can't do it.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:09 PM on December 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

since dogs lack the capacity for reflection over time, the aversion therapy must be instantaneous. a gentle kick in the snout will communicate and reinforce your senior status in the pack vis-a-vis the dog, which i dearly hope you possess. not biting the feet of a human is a non-negotiable tenet around here.
posted by bruce at 12:24 PM on December 27, 2013

Oh for heaven's sake. I doubt anyone kicked the dog. That is not how a behavior like this gets started. Also, biting at someone who grabbed his collar (rudely, from his point of view) is NOT unusual or unexpected, and certainly from the dog's point of view, entirely rational.

My dog, who is a border collie (border collies are especially prone to nutty behaviors), will attack my feet if I rub my foot along the floor. She does this because when she was little I would stomp on bugs. At the time, she was 9 months old. She would get excited by the movement of my repeated stamping or scrubbing the floor with my foot. The repetitive movement was exciting. Now, she is 10, and she will occasionally try to bite my foot if I move it that way.

I just distract her with some other (any other!) cue, command, or the word "kitty?" and she forgets and leaves my foot alone.

My dog has an almost endless list of crazy stuff like this because when we got her we had NO IDEA that the sanity line is so very, very fine in a border collie. My other border collie attacks my bicycle when it clicks when you roll it. We have no idea how this started but nearly all the other (many, many) crazy quirks my dogs have can be explained in this way. Something was a game to the dog, and now the dog has it permanently cemented in her brain.

To fix this, yes, as a visitor you can only manage it. Perhaps ask for assistance in managing it - can you bring or be provided with some toy with which to distract the dog? (A lab? Perhaps a ball?).

The dog sounds to be going after moving shoes. If shoes don't move, they are not interesting. The dog is not biting the human. The dog likely has no interest in the human and is not making any connection about biting a person. This does not sound like aggression to me.

This can be retrained but only if everyone the dog comes into contact with is in league with the owner and doing exactly the same things to prevent/manage/distract with regard to this behavior. If the lab is mixed with BC, I wish you luck as you will need it. ;)

My own dogs are watched carefully around unfamiliar people, and I crate them for their protection if the people visiting are uncooperative with my instructions as regards the nutty dogs.

I am not a dog trainer and none of this is professional advice. I would encourage involving a professional POSITIVE dog trainer.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 12:24 PM on December 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah, your friend doesn't need to train you to deal with his/her dog. Your friend needs to train his/her dog. Until that time comes, I think you should stop visiting your friend at home. The fact that the dog reacts violently to a firm "no" indicates to me that there is a serious discipline problem.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:36 PM on December 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sounds like some sort of game to the dog. The yelling and grabbing has become part of it.

Honestly I'd turn up with a water pistol next time I visited and the second the dog went for my feet I'd give him a good old squirt in the face. We had a dog that would fixate on pretty much anything that moved to his own determent (charging across roads etc) and this was pretty much the only way we could get him to break focus enough to listen to commands.

If the dog is other wise trained to sit etc, you could also try firm "sit" as opposed to saying No that might work enough to distract him, and give you an positive action you can praise and distract the dog with pats and treats for sitting. Also maybe dog treats could be thrown at a distance away from your feet to act as a distraction, if he attacks your feet stop throwing them, he only gets them if he's being good sort of thing.

Basically this dog has a owner that is not on top of the dogs training, if you know your friend well enough it might be something you bring up, possibly in a I know you love your dog but it scares/bothers me when he does the shoe biting thing so I won't be coming over to visit any time soon, we can always meet up at some other place kind of way.
posted by wwax at 12:39 PM on December 27, 2013

It sounds to me more like a behavior that wasn't nipped in the bud early enough. That's a very puppylike behavior, and from what I've seen, it's very common for some owners to excuse their dogs' behaviors based on their familiarity with the sweet dog they know them as, rather than as the dog others encounter. Especially when they're breeds like Labs, which are widely considered safe, family dogs (but are actually responsible for the majority of serious bites according to many studies).

Please do not hit, kick, or dominate the dog. That type of training can be dangerous and counterproductive, as dominance behaviors only serve to suppress natural aggression and can eventually cause dogs to lash out even more aggressively when they hit their limits. Dogs need calm, positive leadership, not domination. Tell your friend to look for a positive reinforcement trainer in the area. If there are good shelters in the area that focus at all on retention, they often either offer classes themselves, or can refer you to trainers in the area. I've had a few dogs who came with various behavioral issues, and even though I feel like I'm pretty good with dogs myself, we went to a local dog trainer/behaviorist who gave us some amazing insights and tips that helped us get our dogs appropriately socialized much quicker than we could have done just on our own. It was a little pricey, but it was so worth it.
posted by ernielundquist at 12:45 PM on December 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think this is bred-in retriever behavior which has surfaced and more or less imprinted itself on shoes, and as such will probably be very difficult or impossible to extinguish altogether.

But it might be relatively easy to redirect it to other, more satisfying objects, say by going to a lake or pond and throwing non-shoelike things in for the dog to retrieve. Shoes on people's feet could then become so inferior by comparison that they no longer trigger the behavior.
posted by jamjam at 12:45 PM on December 27, 2013

The two year mark is the adolescent period for dogs and can be challenging, behavior-wise. Our dog, who is about to be two, is pretty well behaved and obedient... except when he's well rested and super excited because of new people arriving. At which point we have to put him on a leash to keep him from jumping on people and getting too rambunctious. Which was a real drag to have to deal with for the first thirty minutes of our christmas party a few weeks ago, but we did it because that's what was necessary both for everyone's comfort and so he can keep learning appropriate behavior.

We do that to our 20lb dog because it's the necessary and right thing to do. Your friend's lab might be otherwise well trained and just excitable, might just be under-exercised, or might be a wild beast because your friend is being a bad dog owner. Hard to say from what we know. At the very least they are being poor owners by allowing this to happen such that people get injured. That's some serious BS right there.

As said above, this isn't something you can deal with. Particularly by age 2 a dog needs consistent reinforcement for behavioral changes. If your friend is prepared to do the proper training then s/he needs to stay on top of this by controlling the dog's ability to do this and by reinforcing that the dog gets attention from people by sitting and behaving first. That can be tough at that age; our boy needs help controlling it. But if you use that as an excuse to let it happen then it makes it all the harder (or impossible) to ever have it stop.
posted by phearlez at 12:48 PM on December 27, 2013

Most people have been right up to this point. It is a game for him, if you are getting the play bow, he is clearly not afraid of the shoe (ruling out this being because of him being kicked at some point). I think the most likely reasoning, as someone has said, is that someone has encouraged this in the past, thinking it was cute, perhaps when he was a smaller puppy. His snapping and barking could be part of him playing the game, or he could be resource guarding his toy (the shoes). You could easily tell this from his body language as this is going on. If he is still loose, mouth relaxed, no hackles etc, its likely this is still part of the game for him. If he has hackles, is freezing up or stiffening, is holding his tail straight up (wagging or not), giving the whale eye, or most obviously snarling, then it is likely that he is resource guarding the shoes, which is inappropriate behavior issue that will need to be dealt with separately.

As someone suggested before in the interim if hiring a trainer is not an immediate possibility, working on some basic obedience queues could help to interrupt the behavior. Teaching him a strong "leave it" will be really useful for this. Or even a simple easy queue like "touch" to redirect the energy to something rewarding for everyone. These queues will need to be taught and maintained before the shoe situation is brought into it, so that he is set up to succeed, otherwise the pull will be too strong for him to resist. Touch is particularly good for something like this because you can have a high reinforcement rate (meaning he is getting goodies, goodies, goodies, enough to keep him distracted). Anything is going to be slow going. They could also try greeting with him on leash calmly, and if he goes for the shoes, removing him from the situation. Removing yourself will likely not help if he can follow, and increase his drive.

I am a certified obedience instructor, however, even I know to defer to my more experienced colleagues in tough situations like this. This will require some behavior modification which should only be done with an experienced trainer. I, of course, recommend force-free methods exclusively. Trainers should advertise themselves as force-free or as using positive techniques only.
posted by Quincy at 1:01 PM on December 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also... absolutely do not kick the dog in the snout. That could possibly increase the severity of the behavior, or if it "stops" the behavior, it could lead to a sudden attack at shoes on feet down the road.
posted by Quincy at 1:05 PM on December 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Someone who is older, or who has poor balance, or who is just unlucky could get really hurt. In that case, the dog would be (correctly, in my opinion) put to sleep, probably by itself in a pound, where it will be frightened and alone. Your friend is doing this dog, and everyone who has to encounter it, a huge disservice by allowing this behavior to continue.

I came to say this, more or less. I think that the best thing that you can do for this dog, and your friend, right now is to continue to disengage as much as possible - perhaps by pausing any visits to your friend's home, but at least by not reacting (including reaching for his collar, saying "no," etc.) when it happens. Put the intervention on your friend. Make it absolutely clear to your friend that you don't find this to be cute in any way. If your friend already thinks that this is charming, they might not listen, but I really think that you should mention the potential danger this poses to the dog if he does this to the wrong person. And, of course, the training suggestions offered above by more experienced folks would be a good things to mention if you think that your friend would act on them.

This question caught my eye because I remember a neighbor's dog doing this exact same thing to me when I was about nine years old. (It was, incidentally, a border collie.) It had apparently slipped out of the front door past its owner and was loping around the neighborhood when we crossed paths. I remember it biting my Keds, getting its mouth around almost my whole foot, with its rear end up in the air and growling a bit anytime I tried to move. As a kid, I didn't understand that this was playful. It certainly didn't feel playful - the dog would have been almost my size, standing on its hind legs, and I could feel its teeth through my shoe. I just remember bursting into tears in the middle of the street and sort of whining and screaming as much as I felt was safe (because it did rile the dog up) until the owner finally showed up. It was terrifying. My parents (both of whom are dog lovers, of the "no bad dogs, just bad owners" variety) actually did report it because I was so shaken up.

Accidents happen - the dog might slip away from your friend, and then what? Encourage your friend to mull that over.
posted by Austenite at 1:14 PM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

AllieTessKipp and Quincy have it. Distract, reward, "leave it" and "touch." The owner needs to be dominant in that they need to be in control and able to set boundaries, and they're not doing that right now, to the dog's detriment.
posted by klangklangston at 3:10 PM on December 27, 2013

"These queues will need to be taught and maintained before the shoe situation is brought into it, so that he is set up to succeed, otherwise the pull will be too strong for him to resist."

Yup. Absolutely. But without using some form of dominance, how do you do negative reinforcement to dissuade bad behavior?

Alpha-rolls have worked extremely well for me. So much so that at this point, if I tell my dog "NO" about something serious, he shows me his belly on his own. I understand all the arguments against shock collars, and striking too, but alpha rolls are not violence from a dogs' perspective: they're part of natural dog socialization.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 9:01 PM on December 27, 2013

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