Sexist dog? Protective dog? Traumatized dog?
July 8, 2014 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Does a dog's behavior against his owner--in only about 50% of circumstances--warrant concern? The answers in this ask were helpful, particularly this one (there is much of item #3 that happens during play). But what I want to know is whether his dog's behavior around step-brother + a female might point to something from his past.

My step-brother, B, has recently moved closer to home after a long period away, and we're getting to know each other again. He has a small dog that was adopted from a shelter. The dog seems to have a fine rapport with B as long as my nephew, dad, boyfriend, B's male friends, etc. are around. But as soon as a female human gets physically close to B, the dog snaps into protective mode, protecting the girl/woman from B.

My stepmom can't hug B without some snarling. The dog gets hyper-protective over B's young daughter whenever he enters a room where they are. It's weird.

This is not a question about anything on the periphery here (and there's a lot), but I'm wondering how likely it is that the dog has witnessed B doing something harmful to a woman or female in his life. Or is it equally likely that the dog witnessed something before he was rescued that traumatized him?

B was much older than me and not around for most of my childhood. We weren't in touch for most of the last ten years, but my general impression is that B's time away was spent working transient jobs (organic farming, related startups, maybe some retail?) and hanging out, bachelor-style, while being an overall decent father to his kids. I have no idea where B's ex is; we met her once, when he was staying with us for a bit, and I don't think they've been together for some time. As far as I know, he doesn't exhibit any pathologies of violent or abusive men. I'm pretty sure B has sole custody of the two kids, and they seem healthy and happy.

I'll admit that my guard has been up, mostly because of the sudden inclusion of this guy who is essentially a stranger in all of our family gatherings. So it's equally possible that I'm raising my hackles over nothing, and yes I already know it's probably none of my business. But it weirds me out that B's dog is so aggressive against his owner, and only when girls and women are around. Could there be anything to that?
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (11 answers total)
There could be something to it, but absent any other evidence, it seems exceedingly unreasonable to infer anything about your step-brother based on his dog's behavior.

Dogs are weird.
posted by pseudonick at 10:27 AM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd be more inclined to think that there was some trauma from the owner before B came along.

You say the dog was adopted from a shelter; it's possible the dog was siezed from a troubled environment, maybe where there was a man who was an abusive spouse, and the dog just got used to "protect females" mode and hasn't had enough experience with "oh, wait, not all of the male humans are like that guy" just yet.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:28 AM on July 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's certainly worth concern, but what it means... well, even if the dog were a human, that might not be clear. We're both highly intelligent social species, after all.

Could be the dog's mental issues. Could be B's hidden behavior. Could be some other, stupidly inscrutable reason.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:29 AM on July 8, 2014

We adopted a dog that would guard my mom and we unfortunately had to give him up for this. But it was from his previous experiences.

If the dog was responding to experiences with his current owner, I don't see why he would be guarding women - he'd be guarding his owner.
posted by ftm at 10:30 AM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't really tell from your description, but could the dog maybe not so much be defending women against your step-brother as telling your him to stay away from women because of a weird jealousy thing? My parents' dog, who bonded very closely with my step-father, used to literally squeeze between them and push them apart whenever they hugged. This behavior could be coming from somewhere similar, but manifesting much more problematically (perhaps exacerbated by past experiences?).

Or, you know, it could be something entirely different. Even with a more-detailed description of the behavior, it would be difficult to know for sure. I wouldn't go jumping to conclusions based on this alone, at any rate.
posted by cellar door at 10:45 AM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Or is it equally likely that the dog witnessed something before he was rescued that traumatized him?

I'm leaning toward this.

My dog freaks out over men (and short-haired women), in hats, wearing jackets. Like, she goes from happy smiling derp princess to howling, barking Cujo 2 in five seconds flat. She doesn't attack, just gets super defensive.

She was a rescue. She's certainly never been approached or threatened by any be-hatted, be-jacketed men on my watch these past 18 months, but I'm thinking she must remember something from her past.
posted by mochapickle at 10:48 AM on July 8, 2014

I would assume that that was from experiences the dog had prior to adoption, not something that has developed later.

Many shelter animals come with trauma. This is often invisible mental and emotional damage. It can take years for them to start to trust their new owners enough to heal. My parents have done Siamese Cat rescue for decades. This is, unfortunately, quite common in their experience. Adult men are the most frequent triggers, but teenagers too can cause problems. Kids are another common trigger.

In the absence of other signs, I wouldn't read this as cause for concern about your brother.
posted by bonehead at 10:52 AM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think this has anything to do with B. I'm positive it's the pooch's past life coming back to haunt him.

For the first year I had him, my dog Max hated, HATED darker-skinned people. Barking, snarling, the whole nine. I don't know what happened in his past, but he was racist and it was embarrassing.

Luckily, I had some friends and acquaintances who were brave enough to give Max treats and pettings and he came around. Now when he sees a person of color he is on his best happy wiggly smiley behavior. It takes time and patience but something like this can be reversed.
posted by kimberussell at 10:58 AM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree with those who are suggesting that the dog is protecting your step-brother from the women, not protecting the women from your step-brother.

I have a rescue dog who does not like strange men. Over time, she's warmed up and fell in love with some of my male friends and relatives, but she still gives strange men a hard time.
I met my husband after owning my dog for about 6 years. She warmed up to him pretty quickly and now loves him and thinks he's part of the pack, for sure.
But if we hug or kiss in front of her, she still barks and gets upset, because she is protecting me from him.
(It's super annoying and hard to stop because the minute we break apart to correct her, she trots around like she won the argument. And it's not a jealousy thing because she allows for the cats to get lots of attention without her interference.)
posted by aabbbiee at 11:05 AM on July 8, 2014

Often what we interpret as trauma in dogs is not a result of trauma, but of inadequate socialization in early life. For example, a dog might bark and behave aggressively toward men with beards not because of a cruel man with a beard in her past, but because she has simply never, or only rarely, met men with beards, and does not recognize them as nonthreatening. Something similar may be going on here. For example, the dog may not be used to B being hugged, and may not recognize what's going on. Or a young child being present may just weird the dog out somehow.

Like pseudo nick says: dogs are weird.
posted by jennyjenny at 11:05 AM on July 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

Or is it equally likely that the dog witnessed something before he was rescued that traumatized him?

This is just an anecdote, but: I have a friend whose dog was randomly attacked once by a German Shepherd. It was pretty bad; they had to take her to the vet for surgery and she was a long time healing.

Ever since then (5+ years ago!), she has been and is still extremely vicious and aggressive against any German Shepherd she sees. We say she is "racist against German Shepherds" and chuckle about it, but it is actually a bit scary and she usually needs to be physically restrained around them.

So... yes. Dogs can remember traumatic experiences for a long time and behave in inappropriate ways as a result (at least, inappropriate for human society). I think it would be a significant over-reach to assume that your step brother has done anything wrong here based on the dog's behavior.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:07 AM on July 8, 2014

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