New rescue dog lunged at vet; how concerned should I be?
May 9, 2016 8:16 PM   Subscribe

I adopted a 4-year-old Shar Pei a week ago who has been nothing but friendly to everyone so far. Today we went to the vet for the first time and he lunged at her (no contact made and I'm not sure if he was really trying to make contact) with fairly ferocious growling.

I've had family dogs in the past, but am still learning about dog handling generally, AND (big important AND here!) I have a toddler (who was not with us at the vet). I am trying to decide if this falls under the realm of "proceed cautiously" or "nope, too big of safety concern to have around a little kid".

Dog's background:

Adopted a week ago from a rescue. He was an owner surrender for reasons not related to behavior and was not abused, but some of his basic care was neglected. The toddler and I had several visits with him in which he was very friendly and not perturbed by toddler's loud craziness in the slightest. The fosterer reported he's extremely sweet and she'd never heard him growl and had lived with kids previously. She had him for about a month. Since moving in with us, he seems to be settling in and I've not seen any aggression. He's had some accidents in my apartment, I think just due to me learning his schedule/him adjusting to going out. We've been going out to dog parks and I've been letting people come up and pet him, including lots of kids.

He has some skin issues as confirmed by the vet today as well as an ear infection, and he's really been starting to itch and chew over the past couple days. He's still wagging frequently, but also doesn't seem very comfortable and has made himself bleed in a few places. We came home with quite a few meds to start him on.

What happened today:

We went to a vet for a new pet visit and to get his skin checked out. He was wagging and friendly to staff in the waiting room. We went into the exam room and he was wagging and friendly to the tech. The vet came in and he wagged. She started doing the exam and it was going fine for the first several minutes. Then she leaned over him and started to examine his back legs (which seem to have been especially bothering him over the last couple days), at which point he whirred around growling, and acted like he was going to bite. The vet withdrew her hand quickly and kind of shouted/screamed in surprise or maybe fear. I did not have him on a tight leash at that point, so I think he would have made contact if he actually intended to, but I'm not sure. They muzzled him at that point and restrained him to finish the exam. He growled some with the muzzle on. After that portion of the exam, they took the muzzle off and pretty quickly resumed friendliness and wagging.

The vet warned me to be cautious with him in public for now until I know him well. She said with rescues sometimes it's a matter of getting their stress down and some dogs only do that at the vet, but it would be best to let strangers know he's a new rescue and to keep some distance to be safe. She also recommended taking him to a class and seeing how he does. I was a little out of sorts and actually don't think I mentioned I have a toddler, so I didn't get her opinion on that directly.

I could have handled him better in the situation by not just assuming he would be okay with the vet (since he's been a happy camper so far, I just let him be on a loose leash and wasn't managing the situation at all really). Obviously I'll be more careful in the future.

If I didn't have a toddler, I wouldn't be asking this question, I'd just manage him carefully with others. But I do so... is this risky? I don't leave them unattended and there have been no issues so far, but I want to get an outside view on this.
posted by ABCApplePie to Pets & Animals (17 answers total)
It sounds like his legs are sensitive and he reacted in fear/anxiety to having someone touch them. It doesn't sound like he's an aggressive dog. It sounds like he was scared. It also sounds like the lunge was "leave me alone" not "I'm going to eat you."


Your toddler could touch his legs and his leave me alone lunge could A) Be a bit much for someone much smaller than him or B) If your toddler were to not take the hint, could become more than a leave-me-alone lunge.

I wouldn't get ride of him, but I wouldn't leave them unsupervised and particular wouldn't have the toddler climbing over him or such. At least until he gets to feeling safe and secure in your home and trusts you and your family.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:27 PM on May 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have a foster dog who is totally chill with kids and once --- just once -- went for the vet because she was in pain. If the dog has an ear infection, I'd give him a supervised hall pass and wait and see.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:29 PM on May 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

The dog is new to you and your vet so it's a high stress situation. But still I would contact the rescue and get some advice from them.

Most rescues have trainers that will help you with newly adopted dogs, often for free.

I've had growly, lunging fosters become great family dogs later, but every dog is different. Expect that any new dog will need to go through some kind of obedience training with you.
posted by answergrape at 8:32 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The nicest dogs can develop vet-hatred; it's a person they only see in a confined room that smells like other animals when they either don't feel good or need shots or are otherwise getting poked and prodded. I too would give the dog a pass, be extra careful with your toddler around the dog for now, and resign yourself to having a nice dog on the naughty muzzle list at the vet (it won't be the only one!).
posted by cecic at 8:35 PM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, and the day I adopted my last dog, he bit my friend's dog. Like the very same day. He actually drew blood and we had to take the other dog to the vet.

I never saw a whiff of aggression from him EVER again. Kids and other dogs pulled his years, pushed him, pulled his tail, pushed him, stole his toys, took his food (and he LOVED food), and never ever again did he so much as growl.

A stressed dog is not himself.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:36 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

My dog looooooves kids and all people and has only ever hurt kids inadvertently by knocking them over when trying to kiss them (when he was a puppy, I trained him out of that). One time, I took him to a new vet when he had a hot spot from licking, and he lunged and nipped the vet. I was mortified, but it's the only time it's ever happened at the vet or with any other people.

So I would say this incident is not enough to give the dog up completely, but do watch him carefully with your toddler and other kids - which you want to do anyway. And once he's feeling better, maybe hire a trainer or get him into a dog manners class to make sure he knows the right way to behave in all sorts of situations.
posted by lunasol at 8:45 PM on May 9, 2016

As a trainer, I think it would be beneficial to work on handling with him. For example, examining his rear legs and then reward him for being comfortable with that. There are also great online video courses on teaching dogs to tolerate vet visits such as Cooperative canine through the Fenzi dog sports academy. It's a really common problem, but not one that I would ignore. Keep in mind that general dog training won't address this. It needs to be small parts of the goal behavior which is accepting handling and touching and pairing that with something that creates a positive emotional response such as great food (chicken, cheese, hotdogs, etc). Growling is often very specific to certain triggers such as handling by unknown adults and won't grow to other scenarios like interacting with children.

Learning about stress signals and body language in dogs and reading about dog- child safety would also be beneficial. There are great child- dog safety websites with great information on early warning signs of the subtle body language that is demonstrated when dogs are running out of patience with kids. It is information that the dog growled at the discomfort of being handled by the vet. It does tell you that the dog will give a verbal warning which is a good thing, but the dog didn't choose to move away instead of growling. Being cautious and actively supervising the dog with the toddler is a great plan for the next few weeks while the dog recovers and gets comfortable in your home and environment.
posted by Mustlikedogs at 10:08 PM on May 9, 2016 [9 favorites]

Both my dogs will growl at the vet if they think the vet is going to take their temperature rectally. So holding the tail, looking at the back legs. They are not aggressive but that's a clear "nope" in their minds. My vet doesn't care, she says it's pretty normal, she definitely doesn't think they're dangerous. If she really needed to take temperatures she'd muzzle and restrain them but they've never been sick.
posted by fshgrl at 11:41 PM on May 9, 2016

A few things:

Just because your dog growled at an adult leaning over him, while he's in pain, does not automatically place your child in danger.

Growling itself should never be discouraged. It's a dog's way of warning that he's going to do something else. Between the choice of growling before biting, for example, or just silently biting without warning, you'd want the growling first.

All rehomed dogs, especially adult dogs, go through an adjustment period when they're trying to figure out what is routine, safe, expected, off limits, etc. You would be right to be wary of ANY new dog's behavior, especially with your toddler, and with strangers, for the first few months.

Please enroll your dog in obedience class so you can bond, build his confidence, learn about dog body language, and practice some commands like "stand" and "stay" for the vet.

This one incident doesn't automatically mean your dog is defective or aggressive or untrustworthy in your home. The evidence you have so far is that your dog doesn't like the vet handling body parts that feel awkward or painful. You have no evidence of anything else--until/unless you actually do. You should be watchful and mindful. But you should be that way with any newly rescued dog.

Contact the rescue, explain what happened, and ask their advice. The best rescues pay for some amount of behavioral evaluation/consulting for exactly this type of situation. If this were me and my kid, I'd be finding an in person evaluation by an animal behaviorist (not the same as an obedience trainer) to come observe the dog in my home and help me understand how all of our behaviors are working together--or not.

Good luck.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 1:59 AM on May 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Stressed adopted dog + new home for only a week + infections + some leg tenderness + a new vet poking the tender legs = growly snappiness.

We expect so much from our dogs these days that events that make the most common sense now receive admonishment about behavior and training classes. My dog's been on the vet muzzle list from day 1 because it stresses him out. It's not a big deal.

Obviously, watch your kid around this brand new dog because that's what you're supposed to do. But I wouldn't think twice about vet behavior at all. Enjoy your pooch!
posted by kimberussell at 3:51 AM on May 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

I agree, if your doggie is normally friendly and just was naughty at the vet...that's rather normal. Most animals HATE the vet. They may like the person, but they don't like the smells, the sounds of other freaked out animals and the way they're getting touched. Very few animals have had good things happen to them at the vet. I mean, we take our cats to get their nails clipped and they act like complete assholes.

Put a yellow ribbon on your leash when you go for walks, that signals that your dog may be aggressive, this should keep other dog owners from getting too close too soon. And for sure supervise any time with dog and baby.

It's your dog's first week in a new situation, of COURSE it's stressed and edgy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:55 AM on May 10, 2016

Some great advice here, especially from kimberussell.

A few more things - don't assume a tail wag means the dog is happy and everything is a-ok. Dogs wag their tails when they're uncertain as well.

Over time, you'll hopefully learn to read your dog's body language and be able to anticipate if he's reaching a point where he is very stressed and needs a break from whatever is happening. If your dog lunged as if to bite but did not make contact, that's probably a good sign. He was issuing a very stern warning to the vet but has bite inhibition and did not intend to actually harm her.

He's under a huge amount of stress right now, and with everything else, the vet leaning over him probably did not help because that can be threatening. Our vet sits on the floor with her canine patients so that she's never looming over them.

When we adopted our dog, the foster mom warned us that he had bitten her once. He was extremely ill and in the pound because his owners had requested he be put down rather than treat his condition. The foster mom led him out to her truck but he couldn't jump up into the seat, so she picked him up and he screamed and bit her. He was in pain and under stress!
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:09 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hi all,

Thank you so much for the advice! My instinct was to proceed along the lines of what you guys were saying, but wanted to get outside input.

I'm not sure how I feel about that vet... She told me to "yell at him when he growls" once they muzzled him. Maybe she just phrased it poorly because things were awkward and I wasn't sure how to respond to the initial incident. I might see if another one is a better fit that he seems more comfortable with.

The good news is he is already clearly feeling WAY BETTER. This morning his body language is much improved and he's playful and very happy, so the meds are giving him some relief already!

I'm looking into local classes and dog groups to start working on learning how to handle him better.

Thanks again, all!
posted by ABCApplePie at 8:05 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a veterinary technician and I would recommend you find a vet that doesn't ask you to handle your dog while he is being examined but has a trained staff member handle your pet. I would also find a vet who doesn't recommend yelling as a method of behavior modification.
posted by OsoMeaty at 9:28 AM on May 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

Came to say some of what Meaty said-- I'd look for a new vet pronto. Yelling at your dog will not train it to behave better, it will only stress him out even more! And restraining him to finish the exam also sounds like a poor choice to me.

By comparison, we also recently adopted a rescue dog (beagle mix, so cute!). Like yours, he is almost always friendly and good natured. At his first vet visit, however, he also growled and lunged at the vet when she went to examine his hindquarters. She calmly stopped the exam right away because she didn't want the dog to associate the vet's office with bad experiences, which I thought was quite smart.
posted by underthehat at 10:40 AM on May 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Two dog behavior related articles that may be salient and informative:
(1) "Growling is a dog’s way of warning us that she is feeling stressed. Dogs that are punished for growling learn to stop giving this warning sign and go right to a snap or bite. Instead of correcting a dog for growling, re-direct her attention and give her a break from whatever is causing her stress. ...
Dogs growl. Dog owners need to remember that growling is a normal part of dog communication."

(2) "'Aggressive' Isn't the Same as 'Bad'
"As usual, unexamined ideas floating in the ether have a way of getting dogs and their people in trouble, and of making trouble worse when it does arise. The ether is chock full of unexamined ideas about aggression. Among the most pernicious is the notion that there are good dogs, and then there are aggressive dogs. As a corollary, every dog is one or the other, and the two categories never overlap."

Finally, I echo the suggestion to find another primary care veterinarian for your new dog companion. Of course, continue to observe the dog's behavior, and mind that it has been only a week. It will take at least several months to get a general sense of what is baseline for your new dog companion. Give it time, employ pragmatism, resource yourself, and keep doing what you're doing. You're doing all of the right things: asking questions, observing the behavior of your new dog companion, and it sounds like you are committed to caring for this dog.
posted by simulacra at 8:48 PM on May 10, 2016

My dog who was sweet and adorable with everyone would growl at the groomer but only when she was trimming his back legs. He loved the groomer generally though and was happy to see her every six months or so. She ended up putting a muzzle on before she did his back legs.

At age 12, we found a lump on his back leg and it turned out to be a cancerous tumor. We considered amputation but the cancer had already spread.

I don't know how long he had cancer - there was a palpable lump by the time I took him in to have it looked at - but I always wondered if he had sensitivity on his rear leg due to due cancer a few years before it was detected.

Maybe get his legs checked out or x-rayed. Best of luck. You sound like a loving and responsible dog owner.
posted by mulcahy at 9:32 PM on May 10, 2016

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