Bit by my own dog.
July 8, 2006 12:18 PM   Subscribe

My own dog just bit me. Why, and how do I deal with this?

My dog, Sam, is a probably St. Bernard/Golden mix about three years old, whom I rescued from a neglectful and possibly abusive home, though I don't know for sure, only suspect, about two years ago. He's a wonderful dog, friendly and goofy with all people, gets along wonderfully with my aging greyhound, and most other dogs- until he's tired. Then he gets grumpy, and will growl at any dog near him, though he's never attacked Hobie, my greyhound.

I'm keeping my friend's dog, a pit bull, for the weekend while she and her husband are out of town, and he and Sam get along wonderfully, they played all day yesterday and most of the morning today. An hour ago, Sam was getting tired, and starting to growl at Tank (my friend's dog) a bit. I noticed but before I could seperate the two, Sam went after him, snarling and biting at his face and neck. Tank didn't fight back, only tried to get away, but Sam wouldn't let up, despite my yelling at him to stop. I approached from the side and reached down for Sam's collar, at which point he snapped his head around and bit me on the arm. He didn't break the skin, and Tank got away and ran outside.

I am not so surprised or upset that Sam bit me, having reached for him during a fight, but when I held his muzzle shut and told him NO, and then popped him on the ass, he continued to growl and snarl at me, even after realizing it was me, his Mom, and this is what upsets me.

This is my dog who is normally goofy, happy, and loves me. I sleep curled up with him at night, he usually exhibits a Golden Retriever type demeanor. I've always known he's grumpy when tired, but he's never gone after me before, and even forgiving that, I am shocked and upset that he would continue to growl and snarl when I was reprimanding him. Does he just not think of me as the alpha, or what? I can't be okay with a dog who will bite and snarl at me, and despite all my very wounded feelings, I'm worried that the next time something like this happens he will bite again. How do I handle this?
posted by Meredith to Pets & Animals (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
you should prevent it by not dogsitting any more ... your dog doesn't seem to be able to cope with it when he's tired
posted by pyramid termite at 12:25 PM on July 8, 2006

Best answer: I suggest you read "Lucy won't sit", its a great book about the messages you communicate to your dog. If you are sleeping with the dog and he is allowed on your bed, on the couch besides you etc., then you've been giving him the message that he is your equal, and yeah, he doesn't see you as an alpha. If you want to maintain dominance, you do so not by dominating the dog, but by behaving as a high status animal yourself. Unfortunately you have not been doing that.

If you get into a big confrontation with him, then you both lose. Also, side note: I would suggest separating dogs fighting by grabbing the tail and pulling him away that way. Less likely to get bitten.

One more thing: Given he snapped and didn't break the skin I would take that as a warning, not a true challenge. I would ban him from your bed, and from any surfaces (e.g., couch etc.) where he is on the same level as your for a while. If you want a cuddle, you get down on the floor beside him (thus signifying you are condescending to his level, he is not elevated to yours). Also insist when you go for walks that he sits, he waits for you to go through the door, and then he follows you (another great way of bringing home your high status to him) and sits again until YOU release him from the sit to go on the walk with you.

If you really want to bring it home to him, you could go into crate training mode, tho that can be tricky if he was not crate trained as a puppy so I would try the above first.
posted by zia at 12:39 PM on July 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Redirected aggression. When you pulled Sam off Tank, he had already had more than he could handle, and dogs can't shut themselves off quickly.

Hitting or manhandling a dog in a state like that is a great way to get yourself bitten. Never grab an angry dog's face. Don't hit them. Get them away from the other dog, and then get them calmed down. If you act aggressive, the dog's behavior will escalate. When dogs fight, the important thing to do is separate them so nobody gets hurt, not make a show of being dominant.

(Establishing dominance is better done through simple things like obedience and behavior modification -- NILIF is great for this -- not strutting and posturing. That's what mid-ranked dogs do. Alphas just are, and everyone knows it.)

The thing that concerns me most is that he gets aggressive when tired. I'd almost expect some sort of underlying medical reason, and would suggest you have him fully vetted. Could be he's tired and hurting, and pain makes everyone cranky.
posted by cmyk at 12:39 PM on July 8, 2006

Guh, lost my link. NILIF is great for modifying behavior.
posted by cmyk at 12:43 PM on July 8, 2006

Best answer: Dogs are generally upset when the power hierarchy isn't well-established. It sounds like this is a combination of Sam/Tank battling out their place in the hierarchy, plus Sam not really being comfortable with you as alpha dog. He may have learned what he can get away with as far as arguing with Tank, and how much you're willing to put up with.

As for the dogs, they'll probably have to work this out on their own, or you'll have to learn when to separate them.

As for you, this is more difficult. It's no surprise that Sam bit you in the middle of a fight... fights like this have to be broken up by drenching them with water or using something else besides your hands. This is water under the bridge anyway. The more ominous thing is Sam ignored you and careened into the fight. It seems you have some serious work to do with Sam as far as respecting your authority. This means learning to deliver an authoritative, deep "no" and Sam taking it like a lightning bolt. Sam probably needs a refresher course on accepting your authority, which means working with the dog (in the obedience school / behavioral context) and getting him used to you being in charge. You also need to project your voice like a drill instructor when saying "no"... this is easier for men than women.

I'm sure you'll get mixed advice on the slapping but IMHO physical punishment is "no no", except for sharp jerks on a leash at the precise moment they're misbehaving. In a fight you will get bitten anyway, so you're better off drenching them with water.

This advice comes from a top-notch dog trainer we hired several years ago who got glowing recommendations by several of the vets where we lived. We paid a pretty penny but he completely solved our problems.
posted by rolypolyman at 12:49 PM on July 8, 2006

And consistency, consistency, consistency after getting him trained, or you'll be back to square one.
posted by rolypolyman at 12:51 PM on July 8, 2006

Just in regards to your understandably hurt feelings, I would just say the fact that Sam didn't bite mom when she grabbed him on the muzzle and smacked him in the mood he was in actually does indicate love and some respect for mom. I think Sam does have a behavior problem that needs appropriate correction but I've probably read the same books as you have so I won't speculate further.
posted by zaebiz at 12:59 PM on July 8, 2006

Best answer: Definitely redirected aggression, this wasn't about you, it was about the other dog. Pit Bulls are rarely appropriate playmates for other dogs, especially dogs they don't know well, like most terriers, they're quick to take offense to things, and after generations of breeding specifically FOR dog aggression, they can very easily shift from "play" to "fight", especially if they're in a relatively enclosed space (which in this case was ALSO Sam's territory), in addition, the natural physiology of Pits can look posturally aggressive to other dogs, which is why many dogs react badly to Pits off the bat (I know you say Sam started it, but it's rarely the case that dogs start a fight completely out of the blue - odds are really good that there was a lot of dog-language discussion going on long before the actual argument started). I don't think the problem in this specific instance has anything to do with you, it has to do with the situation.

That said, grabbing his face and smacking him is NOT the way to handle things like this, to a dog already in a worked-up state, physical approaches tend to rev the dog up more and make him more likely to bite you with intent (as zaebiz says, the fact that your dog didn't do this speaks well of your dog's basic temperamant). There are relatively safe ways to break up dogfights (no way is absolutely safe, and two dogs actually fighting is a very dangerous situation), and grabbing the dog's collar is never ever the way to do it (ideally you need two people, one grabs each dog's HIND legs and pulls them apart, dogs high on adrenaline from fighting can and will bite anything and everything that touches them). It is far better to allow the dogs to fight than to try and separate them the way you did, you are very lucky you weren't seriously injured, and Sam must have good bite inhibition to have avoided injuring you.

As others have said, the very first thing I'd do is take Sam to the vet for a thorough workup to make sure there's not an underlying physical reason for his occasional grouchiness, I would also make a point of crating him or otherwise giving him a safe place to go when he is tired so he won't be bothered and have to get grouchy in the first place.

Are you in regular training classes with Sam? Do you spend regular (daily) time with him and him alone working on obedience? If not, AND he is allowed to sleep in your bed, you are possibly establishing a precedent for Sam not knowing where he fits into things, which might be a problem in the long run. This specific incident doesn't seem to be a problem to me as described, the problem as I see it was in your allowing the dogs to play until Sam had had more than enough, then trying to separate them as you did, and THEN trying to discipline an already worked-up Sam with grabbing and smacking for something which wasn't really necessary to discipline him for in the first place (disciplining a dog for redirection aggression is pointless and unfair, and grabbing and smacking is not an appropriate correction anyway). I would be very cautious about allowing Sam to play with this dog in future (I wouldn't do it again, period, myself), and I would also be cautious about allowing Sam to have extended playtime with any other dog too, he's told you as best he can that he has limited tolerance for playing with other dogs, and there's really no reason he needs to be placed in a situation where this could happen again. He is lucky that the Pit is a tolerant enough dog that it chose to leave rather than fight (this time), I can assure you that situations like this can be extremely ugly, and the odds of there being an actual fight (which this wasn't, or else one or both dogs would have been injured) next time are much higher.
posted by biscotti at 1:59 PM on July 8, 2006

If you are sleeping with the dog and he is allowed on your bed, on the couch besides you etc., then you've been giving him the message that he is your equal, and yeah, he doesn't see you as an alpha.


Biting towards family members is the #1 dog behavior incorrectly attributed to a dominance problem.
posted by rajbot at 2:24 PM on July 8, 2006

THANK YOU rajbot. Dominance is a relatively useless model for human-dog relationships. Dogs do look for and need leadership in order to feel secure, but people get way too hung up on "dominance" rather than leadership. This is precisely why I asked about regular obedience work - there is no better way to establish an appropriate relationship with a dog than by regular, mutually-rewarding obedience work (fun, fair and frequent), and as an added plus, it teaches you how your dog thinks and learns. The combination of lack of regular training and more general things like dogs on furniture in addition to a lack of leadership can sometimes lead to a situation where the dog feels insecure and doesn't trust their owner to be an actual leader (hitting and grabbing are not leadership behaviours, they're behaviours lower-placed dogs who are unsure of their place perform, which, if people really insist on using wolf-pack models for human-dog interactions, should be shouted from the rooftops, rather than the highly inaccurate "alpha" nonsense that people like to spout. The true alphas of the canid world almost never get physical with members of their own pack, that's reserved for the lower-down animals). The number of domestic dogs who are TRULY dominant is astonishingly small, so attributing behaviours to dominance is pretty silly, especially biting. My dogs have always been allowed on the furniture, my dogs have always slept on my bed, but my dogs have also always had regular obedience work and a more general understanding of leadership. I have no problem with dogs on furniture, but this is something which needs to be allowed appropriately and always in the larger context of an appropriate and reasonable relationship.
posted by biscotti at 3:01 PM on July 8, 2006

By the way, this book offers the following advice about dealing with a dog fight.

The most effective method I know for stopping a fight requires that someone pick up the most aggressive of the warring pair by the tail, just high enough so its hind feet cannot touch the ground. If both dogs are aggressors, then both must be elevated. It seems that lack of rear-quarter traction turns off hostility in most cases. If either has a docked tail, the hind legs may be picked up to equal advantage. There are exceptions, of course. I know of one Pit Bull whose owner had to carry an axe handle to pry the determined gladiator off other dogs or people's legs or arms.
posted by zaebiz at 5:10 PM on July 8, 2006

Response by poster: Well. Thank you all for your great advice- I've clearly been going about things in the wrong way. Just to clarify a few things- Sam didn't break Tank's skin either, not just mine, and he easily could have, so it was probably also just a warning to Tank as well, though he wouldn't stop when I yelled NO so I didn't know what else to do. I held his muzzle shut and popped him on the backside, but not enough to hurt him- not that that makes what I did any better or more correct, but I don't want y'all to think I hit him in the face or hit him hard enough to hurt.

I've kept them seperated since, and will until my friends come and collect Tank tomorrow.

Sam just had his annual exam a few months ago but I'll call my doctor on Monday and speak with him and see if he recommends me bringing him back in once I explain the situation. I have NOT had him enrolled in regular obedience classes but it certainly seems like something I should take him to.

I feel pretty horrible now in that it seems I was doing all the wrong things, and reacting in all the wrong ways, and generally being an irresponsible dog owner, but hopefully with some classes and research I won't make similar mistakes in the future. Thanks again, all.
posted by Meredith at 6:05 PM on July 8, 2006

Meredith, don't feel too bad. I'd guess that the majority of dog owners are doing all the wrong things, too. Most people raise their dogs the way that their parents raised dogs, instead of learning a few lessons from all the advancements in understanding dogs. There are lots of good books by dog trainers out there, if you are interested.
posted by MrZero at 6:46 PM on July 8, 2006

listen to biscotti!!!
posted by yodelingisfun at 7:57 PM on July 8, 2006

Please don't feel bad, you're doing the right thing NOW, finding out what you need to know and taking steps. Depending on where you live, look on the AKC or CKC's website (assuming you're in the US or Canada, in the UK check the Kennel Club) and find obedience clubs in your area, going through actual obedience clubs means you'll pay less and have a better chance of finding a good instructor. Remember, it should be fun for you andyour dog.

And MrZero is exactly right, as Jean Donaldson says most dogs learn in spite of us, because most people really don't bother to learn what they should know and end up with decent dogs anyway. There are loads of great books out there as well, but truthfully, I think this was simply a case of the situation being more than Sam could handle, I doubt you have a greater problem than that (which is not to say that obedience classes won't be helpful, they definitely will, but I don't think you actually have a real issue because of this incident). Good luck, and please don't be hard on yourself about it, your dogs are lucky to have an owner like you!
posted by biscotti at 10:57 PM on July 8, 2006

Meredith, don't feel bad! You clearly love your dog and want the best for him. Very few people follow *every* rule of human/dog interaction - bet a lot of people on here let their dogs on the bed, etc. You're doing the right thing by recognizing that there is an issue and dealing with it. You're obviously a dog lover, owning two (one being a rescue) and babysitting a third all at once. Sounds like you're on the right track.
posted by radioamy at 12:44 AM on July 9, 2006

Meredith, don't beat yourself up. Every dog owner I know (myself included) has gone through something similar. Just remember Sam is a dog, not a little person in a hairy suit. The fight and the bite are signs that there's a communications problem you need to solve. But he hasn't betrayed you or rejected you or lied to you -- dogs can't do any of those things. And he doesn't feel that you've done any of those things to him. Mostly likely, he's confused and uncertain.

biscotti's suggestion of daily one-on-one obedience training, now and in the future, will improve things tremendously. Again, think of it in dog terms. Most of us tend to bristle at the phrase "obedience training" because it sounds too much like the rote learning we hated in school -- plus, who wants to be trained into obedience? But that's not how Sam (or any dog) experiences it. Dogs love to have jobs to do, and they love to be with their people. There's nothing better than regular, purposeful interaction to not only reinforce discipline but also get to know and trust each other.

On a quick skim, it looks like cmyk's NILIF link has good suggestions for day-to-day communications. Get trainer recommendations from your vet, or from friends with dogs. Check with the local ASPCA or Humane Society for obedience classes. Then figure out what works best for you, Sam, and your other dog.

And because he's a big dog, it's worth having Sam x-rayed for hip dysplasia. If he has it, he might be hurting after lots of activity -- which could explain his grumpiness. My akita-spaniel-mystery mix had horrible dysplasia and started feeling the effects of joint damage and arthritis around age five. Supplements and buffered aspirin helped a lot.
posted by vetiver at 7:02 AM on July 9, 2006

Another person telling you not to be too harsh on yourself - after all you're willing to work on this problem and care for your dog, which is something we all respect. Personally I always think these issues are harder on owners of larger dogs - as in when the dog is smaller and more easily managed it's a little easier than if the dog's weight is approaching that of a small child or person. All the more reason that it's good that you take this as seriously as you do. (Again, good for you - I know many dog owners of very big dogs who don't see this as anything to bother about.) And like vetiver said - obedience training is a good thing despite the way it may sound (like punishment) - more like communication lessons for you both.
Hang in there!
posted by batgrlHG at 12:58 PM on July 9, 2006

This is a no brainer.
You should have the put down before it bits someone smaller than you and does real damage.
I'm amazed the lengths that people with dogs will go to in explaining away dangerous behavior.
Get a clue. Your own dog bit you. What will it do to a child if it's having an off day?
posted by cccorlew at 1:03 PM on July 9, 2006

What will it do to a child if it's having an off day?

Nothing, since responsible dog owners (which I know Meredith is) never allow their dogs to interact with children unsupervised and outside of direct control. If this dog had intended to do damage, it would have, but it didn't, and nobody was invloved except Meredith. Do you expect dogs to act like passive robots? Dogs are animals, yes, there is a level of behaviour which is unacceptable, and yes, there are dogs who cannot live well with people and should be put down. This dog is not one of them, this was in all likelihood a situation-specific incident which is unlikely to be repeated if Meredith manages her dog differently in future. Dog aggression and human aggression are not the same thing, and this was neither of those things, this was simple redirection aggression stemming from annoyance with the other dog - this dog is not human aggressive (and is likely not even dog aggressive), please do a bit of research into dog behaviour before you go ignorantly telling someone to put their beloved pet to sleep and making it sound as if they have some kind of slavering maneater menacing the neighbourhood.
posted by biscotti at 3:03 PM on July 9, 2006

Response by poster: Well, Sam just went after one of my cats, and I have no idea why. That is something he has never, ever, EVER done before, and I've had the cats long before I've had Sam. He growled at Hobie, when Hobie tried to edge in on his sleeping space on the couch, got up and walked over to his bed where my cat was sleeping (as usual, mind you- the cats adore Sam and often curl up with him, and usually sleep on his bed anyway when he's not there), and just lunged at him, snarling and barking. The cat got away fine, but there is clearly something wrong with Sam. I'll be taking him to the vet first thing in the morning. More redirected agression as he was annoyed with Hobie, maybe, but he's never done anything like that before and I cannot believe this is all stemming from just being tired. I have felt him all over and he doesn't seem to be in any pain anywhere that is obvious to me, but I'll leave that up to my vet to determine.
posted by Meredith at 7:20 PM on July 9, 2006

Meredith, you're doing the right thing to have the dog physically checked for some health problem that will explain his irritation and problem behavior. But some dogs do have an abrupt "personality change," and it is important to recognize the problem, if this is what has occured.

If you can find and cure a health problem that will return the dog to it's former predictable behavior, that will be great, and it's obviously what you hope to see. But, what if the vet can't find a physical ailment?

Living with an unpredictable dog of any size can be dangerous, and the danger is greater the bigger the dog. If you don't have facilities to isolate the dog, to wait for any underlying conditions to further manifest, you may have no choice but to make some difficult decisions.

Please don't send a dangerous dog to a shelter, or give it away privately, by trying to disguise its history. I don't know you, and I'm certainly not implying you might do anything dishonest, but many good hearted dog owners do something along these lines, in an attempt to avoid putting a dog down "prematurely." If a dog is exhibiting aggressive, biting behavior, it's a dangerous animal. If you can't cure the dog, have the courage to do the responsible, if difficult, thing.
posted by paulsc at 8:10 PM on July 9, 2006

Oh, hon, I'm so sorry. You must be freaked out, but you're handling this exactly right. A coupla points:

* Sam may be be in pain even if you can't elicit a response. Jupiter, my akita-hereford-whatever, never ever yelped or cried but I saw his x-rays and his hip joints were ground down to bone. He was markedly surlier with our other dog if he'd been running around too much, or I'd slacked on the aspirin.

* Have you ever dog-sat before? There may be territorial issues kicking in here. Rilla, the other/current dog, absolutely will not allow another dog to cross the apartment threshold. Even with dogs she knows and adores, she flips right over from floppy-tongued frolicker to snarling stalker. I have no idea if that response can develop over a few days but it's worth considering.

* You need local advice and support. How did you end up with Sam? If you got him through a rescue organization, give them a call. If he came to you through the random "my friend found him tied up to a gas pump" network, call the local ASPCA or any other animal welfare organizations.

Really and truly, you're doing all the right things. In the short term, you're making sure Sam can't injure you, Hobie, or anyone else, and in the longer term, you're taking steps to correct his behavior. Please please please don't torture yourself.

Feel free to email me, and please post a follow-up.

On preview: I think paulsc undervalues training and neglects the possibility of decent adoption alternatives -- but I agree with his larger point, unwelcome as it must be. However, I do think you're a ways away from having to make that decision. Get Sam checked out with the vet. Start on an obedience program. Keep monitoring his behavior. Chances are, things will improve markedly, and soon. If not -- well, that's another AskMe question.

Please do keep us posted.
posted by vetiver at 9:22 PM on July 9, 2006

Best answer: Meredith, please please please get Sam's thyroid checked (ideally send it off to Jean Dodds), even low-normal thyroid can cause behavioural issues like aggression. I would also make sure that he doesn't have a spinal or muscular issue going on. Please keep us posted.
posted by biscotti at 6:06 AM on July 10, 2006

Maybe he feels threatened by the other dog's presence (the one you are sitting for) and he is reacting to all the other animals with a threatening behavior. (This is *MY* SPACE--get away from it now!) But yeah, there could be a problem a vet needs to look at.
posted by cass at 8:41 AM on July 10, 2006

When my dog wheeled around, and grabbed my arm with his teeth (without breaking the skin) last summer, I was shocked.

Turned out what he was trying to tell me was that my house was too damned hot. I got a window a/c, installed it, and the problem was solved.

Sam is probably trying to tell you something (the alternative is the less likely personality change). It could be that he is in pain. It could be that he's feeling crowded, and needs his own space. Whatever it is, I'm willing to bet you'll figure it out, and solve the problem. You are getting good advice here, and it sounds like you are hearing it. You and Sam will both feel better when you figure it out.
posted by QIbHom at 1:51 PM on July 10, 2006

Response by poster: I took Sam in to see my doctor today, who worked me in, and after a long wait, we determined he's not in any pain- full range of motion in his hips without any resistance whatsoever, and no apparent spinal problems. I hadn't even checked this thread this morning so I hadn't even seen biscotti's response about the thyroid levels, but he brought it up as a possible cause we did a thyroid check. He just called me back and left me a voice mail with the results, and it is low, or low-normal (I'm not sure which he meant). He said it was 1.0, which doesn't mean anything to me and my googling for normal levels has come up short (biscotti, do you know?). But he thinks that could very well be the problem and wants to put him on something called soloxine, but said he'd talk about all that with me when we actually got to speak. Of course he'd call in the five minutes I spent taking out the trash... but I'll be able to talk to him tomorrow if he doesn't call back.

My friend Jill told me she has some great books on dog training, and my Doctor also recommended a great trainer who is a client of his. Even if it is his thyroid that is causing his agression and meds cure him of that, I'm going to go ahead and enroll him in some sort of obedience classes or personal training, as it certainly couldn't hurt, and we probably both need it.

Thank you again everyone for your help and advice- were it not for your responses it may have taken me much longer to realize this could all be stemming from physical problems and not just mental. Sam and I thank you, as do the rest of my quadroped household members, who I am sure will soon be grateful to be grumped at a lot less. :)
posted by Meredith at 4:30 PM on July 10, 2006

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