your tips for dealing with an unpredictable dog
February 3, 2021 5:31 PM   Subscribe

We have a 1.5 year old mixed breed dog, who is generally sweet but can sometimes snap in seemingly unpredictable moments. We have an upcoming appointment a professional trainer, but in the meantime, I'm interested in your tips and resources for dealing with an unpredictable dog.

The incident prompting this question is that the dog made scary growl/bark noises and snapped as I was trying to attach the second velcro strap on her winter coat (under the belly). (Despite her outburst in my direction, she did not actually make contact with me.) Both my partner and I have put this coat on her dozens of times previously, several times a day, for the past several weeks--all without incident. That is why it feels so unpredictable and unexpected.

The dog is a medium-sized rescue. We got her about 1 year ago and do not know her prior history. We've had several prior meetings with a professional trainer, but moved recently and haven't done so in about 2 months. She's up to date on vaccinations and vet visits, and doesn't seem to have any current health issues. We have noticed that's she very sensitive to certain types of touch. Although she snuggles with us all the time, she hates shots at the vet and people touching her feet or ears. She knows a number of basic commands (sit, stay, come, etc.), and has generally been pretty trainable.

Last year we learned 2-3 other seemingly random moves that caused her to snap at us (all involved household chores, not touching the dog), so we are careful not to do these maneuvers in her presence. We consulted our trainer at the time, and they gave us relaxation and distraction protocols to work through with her, which we did, and all seemed fine for many months.

My question is, where do we go from here? Do you have any tips or resources on how to deal with seemingly unpredictable snapping, including training protocols or suggestions? How does one protect oneself in the moment, and how should one handle the dog in the moment and aftermath? How does one get over fear of interacting with the dog after such an incident? (My partner has put the coat on several times after, but I haven't yet worked up the nerve.) (Note that in public, the dog is always leashed, and due to Covid, we aren't currently interacting with people from other households, so I am focusing this particular question on our personal interactions with the dog.)

Again, we have an appointment scheduled with a professional trainer, but I'm concurrently looking for thoughts/tips/resources/personal successes from the Hive mind. Thanks
posted by smokyjoe to Pets & Animals (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you read up on stress signals and watch carefully you may be able to predict the snapping by identifying when she's getting stressed. Some easy ones are freezing, lip licks and whale eye, but there are many more - dog body language is complex and fascinating. Many "out of nowhere" bites are from a dog who's been giving stress signals every time they're in a certain situation and eventually loses patience.

Keep in mind that snapping is communication - dogs are very quick and have very good control over their jaws, and if she actually wanted to bite you, she would have. But she is saying that she's really, really unhappy with what you're doing at that time, and that can escalate if you continue. The trainer should have some insights on how to make her more comfortable with those scenarios, depending on the cause (or finding alternatives she's more comfortable with) but the more you can avoid stressing her out in the meantime, the easier it'll be to fix. For example I would stop using the winter coat if at all possible while waiting to see the trainer.
posted by randomnity at 7:11 PM on February 3, 2021 [12 favorites]

randomnity has great points.

"Seemingly unpredictable" is of you, not of the dog. She has reasons, you just may not know what they are yet. And you may never learn the initial reasons for the behavior, but you can learn when and why she behaves that way.

I hate shots at the people vet, so nothing is wrong there (I think, YMMV).

Hating people touching her feet and ears is a thing you need to learn to make fun and pleasant for her. You will need to get burrs out of her feet or ears, and she needs to learn that you're trustworthy. This is a gradual mutual learning event that sounds like some of the "relaxation and distraction protocols" you've already heard about.

A lot of particulars revolve around how many dogs you've raised, what breeds she's made up of, how dog-whisperer you or your partner are. You might PM me or randomnity some video and I'll bet we can be more specific just by seeing your awesome dog in action.

The main takeaway is that your dog loves you bestest in the whole universe. If her bark/growl at you were anything but "I'm uncomfortable with what you're doing" she would've let you know. Don't be worried or scared. Learn how to understand the doglish language. She's telling you everything in the best way she knows how, you need to learn her language speed and intent.

(Currently we have over 200 pounds of rescue dogs, one of which was feral for her first year. We currently say "Careful, she's feral," when she flops over for lovin'.)

PS- Consider letting her interact with other dogs and around people as much as possible within COVID safe behavior. She needs to learn socialization now, so you're not always guarding her or her behavior.
posted by lothar at 7:38 PM on February 3, 2021 [7 favorites]

Great points from lothar and randomnity. Dog body language and communication is a fascinating and complex world, and I think for about 99% of us dog owners we are totally oblivious about how much our dogs are telling us 99% of the time. As humans, even good dog owners cannot avoid putting human expectations on our dogs. And they are very good at living up to our expectations! But your dog sees the world and her body and your actions so so so differently from the way you do that it's really quite amazing that we two species get along as well as we do.

For you you see a simple chain of actions and reasons and interpretations that go something like: "It's cold out - we'll put a coat on the dog to keep her warm - this is nice and good and responsible - she is probably excited and happy because the coat means walkies - hey, why are you suddenly snapping??"

To her it might be something like: "rustly uncomfortable thing I was not evolved to need - with velcro that tugs at the thin hair and sensitive skin underneath my belly - trust humans but the velcro has tugged me so many times and I don't want that anymore - please stop putting the rustly uncomfortable tuggy thing on me- snapping is the only way I have to communicate like this"

It may well be that she goes from 0 to an air snap very quickly, whereas other dogs might try more subtle communication like fidgeting, moving away, displaying other stress signals, or growling. It's possible that your dog has not been respected in her previous life and has learned that people will ignore her so she goes straight to snapping to communicate- or its possible you are missing her earlier cues. Either way, it shows how important it is to really pay observe her and not do things to her that seem to you like no problem, so she doesn't need to resort to this behaviour which is understandably scary and stressful for humans.

It really is worthwhile to take a dive into learning about dog behaviour and communication. It shows you how AMAZINGLY accommodating and patient dogs are with our incomprehensible human actions. It's an absolutely great start that you've identified that she is sensitive about certain types of touch. You might well have a very very sensitive dog and so will need to be extremely slow and careful about things that you might think are super basic, like putting on her coat or a harness.

The good thing is that the more you learn to read her, the more you can see where you can put in gentle slow work to de-sensitising her to things that need to happen like nail trims etc.

In the meantime, no idea where you are in the world, but does she really NEED to wear a coat? Unless it's like -10c below, she may well do just fine in just her fur! Learning about dogs' needs and communication also allows us to see that a lot of the stuff we do to them that we think of as "for them" is actually for us, and at the least not necessary for their happiness, and at the most making them actively stressed.

One of my favourite resources is Eileen and Dogs. Eileen really showcases the extreme subtlety of dog behaviour and how we can really finely calibrate our interactions and training of our canine friends to make them more comfortable and happier.
posted by Balthamos at 12:44 AM on February 4, 2021 [7 favorites]

To all the great info above, I would add that a surprise change in behavior involving touching her might indicate a pain response. In addition to working with a trainer, it's worth looking closely at whether her belly hurts her (occasionally or otherwise). Maybe her skin is sensitive or maybe a vet visit to rule out gut problems is in order. Additionally, her threshold for irritation might be lowered if she is still feeling discombobulated by your recent move.
posted by ruddlehead at 2:43 AM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

We had a temperamental/neurotic dog. She was wall-eyed. If she was looking at you with her right eye, things were good. If she was looking at you with her left eye she was about to snap and lose her temper, so we'd then toss a treat in her crate, lock her in, and check on her in an hour.

It made life a lot more predictable when we realized the left eye thing.
posted by nobeagle at 6:53 AM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Everyone above has excellent advice. This article neatly explains why growling and snapping without biting is actually a healthy way for a a dog to communicate with you.

I also just really want to say that I'm sorry you and your partner have been going through this, I know from experience how fear can change your relationship with your dog and how hard it can be to trust a dog once you've been snapped at unexpectedly. Your dog sounds trustworthy to me.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 6:59 AM on February 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, I am generally of the school of thought that this kind of snapping does have an underlying logic, you just don't know what it is yet.

Also, from my own experience with unpredictable dogs, when a dog snaps it's because they do not want to bite, they are making a point that they are not biting. It's the same way they tell another dog to take a step back or a puppy to chill out, and it's not meant to break skin. They can accidentally catch skin between their front teeth and give a painful pinch, though, or accidentally break skin, and obviously that's alarming if your face is in the way. But that is a dog trying specifically to not bite you, but rather loudly communicate something. (But also know that putting your face in a dog's face is pretty standard Don't Do That territory, except how else are you supposed to put protective gear on them? You may need to train on your approach and methodology there.)

I am curious what kind of household tasks elicit the response, and whether the dog a) snaps at a distance b) snaps because it is happening too close c) lunges in to snap. I've got a long history of dogs, including fosters that were anxious from uncertainty or mistreatment, and have seen a fair share of weird responses to movements like sweeping, bending down quickly, throwing things at a wastebasket or laundry hamper, and of course the Dreaded Vacuum Machine. I've had dogs think I was threatening them, fighting off an enemy and needed their help, playing a game, or just freaking them out to the point they were trying to stop me from doing the freaky thing.

I was also taught by my trainer to really watch my internal barometer when I'm engaging in something a dog may only be cooperating with to please me. In the case of putting on a harness or coat, that may mean both formalizing the process - like having her get up/put front feet up on an ottoman or chair to get her coat put on, and also making sure that you are happy and cheerful when you put the coat on. Whenever we have to do something with our dogs that we anticipate they and/or we aren't going to enjoy, we do a big production of "oh boy let's go get some BIRTHDAY CAKE!!!" (my extremely suspicious dog *runs* to follow me to the fridge to get eyedrops or her allergy medicine, we're so good at this hype) so that we are internally giving off happy this-definitely-won't-suck vibes. Dogs can read your moods like a novel, so be mindful of that in your interactions.

I'm sorry you're frightened, that definitely doesn't help, but I think it's worth reframing this as "my dog needs to tell me something" than "my dog hates me and wants to hurt me" which is extremely unlikely. I would definitely say team up with your partner so that one can observe while the other does the (possible) trigger, so you can try to identify the other signs your dog is uncomfortable, uncertain, or annoyed by something.

In the case of the coat specifically, ideally you could both do Coat Drills with treats to establish a specific routine so that the dog has to position herself for coat application (thus providing clear consent) before the coat goes on. So that if she refuses, you have a clear sign to troubleshoot from - what's going on right this second that the coat process isn't okay? Is she having intermittent pain around her midsection, is the buckle system on the coat sometimes brushing against her skin in a way that might hurt/tickle/seem like it's going to catch her skin or fur in it? Is it making her nervous? Is it making YOU nervous? Can you come to an agreement with her about the angle at which you reach around her/lean over her that is more reassuring? Are you putting your face in her face, and can you find a different angle so that doesn't happen? Should you get a different coat? (Have you felt all around the coat to check for something poky sticking out?) Are there angles of approach that aren't in her line of sight and she's being startled?
posted by Lyn Never at 8:08 AM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I concur with all of the above. I also have a dog who is liable to snap, growl, etc. when he is afraid or angry about something (he is also very sweet, cuddly, and affectionate - but he has his unhappy moments, like all of us).

When I first adopted him, I really struggled with his behavior and it scared the crap out of me. I found him very unpredictable. After a couple months of working with a great dog trainer, I could understand him much better. After five years together, while his fear and behavior is still something I struggle with, I find him extremely predictable.

As far as what we do - the biggest thing is that I constantly monitor his more subtle body language. It's become second nature. As soon as he shows that he is uncomfortable with something (which includes signs like moving his ears, staring, yawning, or looking pleadingly as someone else), I remove the stimulus he doesn't like. If it's something we want or need to do on a regular basis, I work on desensitization until he is no longer bothered by it. If that's not possible (e.g. vet appointments, which are just every trigger combined), I use medication and a muzzle to minimize his stress and remove the risk to anyone else (plus still desensitization - fear-free vets are great!)

Dogs are not love robots, they're just normal animals - and like all of us, sometimes they just don't like something. I think it's fine to just respect that if it's an avoidable thing, and use training to address it if it's not. The biggest help, though, is learning to communicate better with them so that we can understand what they're saying and respect it. Otherwise, they'll escalate until we do understand.
posted by mosst at 12:46 PM on February 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the thoughtful and calming advice. The clear focus here is getting a read on signals the dog is sending. I also appreciate Lyn Never's list of things to think about specific to the coat (which I'm not currently using, although partner is, with no issues). I also like mosst's "success story" - gives me great hope!

If anyone going forward has great resources regarding understanding dog communication in general, I'm interested (have been looking at the Eileen and Dogs link, thanks Balthamos). Thanks everyone.
posted by smokyjoe at 11:52 AM on February 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here are some free resources about dog body language and communication.

Additionally, the excellent Donna Hill has a self-study course at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, Dog as a Second Language. Her emphasis here is on dog in sports, but the observation skills are universal. I haven't taken this particular course, but I've had the pleasure of learning from Donna Hill and I have no reservations recommending her or the FDSA.

Also from the FDSA is Melissa Breau's podcast episode Dog Body Language with Trish McMillan. Again, they approach the subject from a sports dog POV, but the skills convey to all dogs. In the list of other episodes you can find some conversations about dealing with dogs who are fearful or anxious or stressed that you might find helpful.

Some more not-free stuff: Patricia McConnell has a dvd set, Lost in Translation. Again, I haven't seen this DVD but can highly recommend McConnell. Here's a free preview from a site where you can view it and other dog training videos with a Netflix-like subscription. Here's their catalog of dog behavior videos.

Good luck to you and your pup!
posted by ruddlehead at 4:03 AM on February 8, 2021

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