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Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM

Rescue Dog Behavior Problem - Can You Help?

By July 22, 2009

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You Talkin to Me? American Eskimo dog by KellyWoolen on Flickr The following viewer question was sent to me after the Veterinary Behaviorists Take a Stand Against Cesar Millan post, and I would like to open it up to vets, rescue organizations, dog trainers, behaviorists -- anyone who can constructively offer some tips or advice to help this rescue dog with behavior issues.

From a viewer:
I had 4 dogs, who got along beautifully. Then, 2 years ago, I took a rescue dog (American Eskimo - I had that breed in the past), whose history was one of trauma and abuse. She bit me 6 times in the first 2 weeks.

She continues to urinate (even in front of the pet door) when "something" triggers this behavior in her. Now, after 2 years, she growls at the 4 dogs and they are in terror of her. I know it's not fair to them, but I want to try to keep Zoey because she's a sweet, loving, affectionate dog to me.

If she's THROWN AWAY AGAIN, I DON'T KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO HER. I LOVE HER TOO. Is there anybody who can offer me suggestions? Sincerely, Bev Brown

Can you help?
If you can, please offer helpful advice for this viewer to improve her dog's life. Comments that debate training methods or trainers will be deleted. It is time to show what you know -- please add in your comment below.

Got behavior tips? Put them to good use here: Behavior training tips that really work

Photo: You Talkin to Me? An American Eskimo dog by KellyWoolen on Flickr

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July 22, 2009 at 9:06 pm
(1) Greytdog says:

I’m wondering what the interaction has been between the dogs in the two years since Zoe came to live there. This post actually presents several behavior problems – biting (sounds like its unprovoked, therefore probably fearbased rather than agression), poor social skills/pack interaction, and then urination triggers. There’s really not enough information to really provide positive/constructive assistance. You might want to get an animal behaviorist in to observe the pack and make recommendations. Ask the local HSUS/Vet Association for referral of behaviorist.

July 22, 2009 at 9:35 pm
(2) Brianne says:

My first question would be how severe were the bites? Single strike? Did she break the flesh?

July 22, 2009 at 10:34 pm
(3) Christine Hibbard says:

There’s much about this case that we don’t know. For example, what has the dog’s behavior been like with the owner, family members, strangers, and other dogs (off leash and on leash) since the dog’s adoption 2 years ago? Have there been any more bites to humans? Has there been any damage to the other dogs in the home or just growling? Since we lack current details (and many others about this situation), I’ll post some generic thoughts:

Veterinary Intervention
We know that a client’s veterinarian should always be the first line of defense in preventing and treating behavioral problems. Has this owner discussed her dog’s behavior with her veterinarian? Has the dog been tested for a urinary tract infection?

Find A Qualified Professional
Clearly, this owner needs professional help to work with this rescue dog. There are various levels of credentials and experience in the field of dog training and behavior modification:

Veterinary Behaviorists: You can find veterinarians comfortable working behavior cases by visiting the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior web site.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists: You can find people with PhDs in Animal Behavior qualified to take behavior cases by visiting the Animal Behavior Society web site.

Dog Trainers: There are no state or federal licensing or experience requirement for working with animals. It’s important to ask any dog trainer about their credentials, education, and experience. It’s important to work with someone who uses scientifically sound and humane techniques for modifying animal behavior. If a trainer uses metal collars, e-collars, or doesn’t use food, keep looking. We recommend that owners search for a trainer with a CTC (SF SPCA) or CDBC (IAABC) credential.

Until this owner can find a qualified professional to help, I would not give this dog free access to the other dogs in the house. Not only is she making the other dogs uncomfortable, she’s stressed out (growling, urination). Baby gates covered with sheets or towels can keep the dogs separate and cut off visual access. While this dog is separated from the other dogs in the home, the owner can increase the environmental enrichment for the dog (work to eat, etc).

July 22, 2009 at 11:26 pm
(4) Janet Tobiassen DVM says:

Thank you so much for your comments. I truly appreciate you taking the time to share your knowledge (even in in the form of questions :) )

Unfortunately, I do not have the contact information from the original poster. She left the urgent request as a submission in the “Dog Behavior Tips” section and didn’t fill out her email address. I am hoping she will return to see this post. Great info here, and I know it will benefit many people who struggle with their pet’s behavioral issues. Thank you.

July 23, 2009 at 10:33 am
(5) Debbie Jacobs says:

Good advice to find a trainer that can actually see the dog. Many fearful dogs learn aggressive behavior because it works to keep scary things away. By changing the emotional response to the scary things you can change the subsequent behavior. So rather than focusing on how to stop the growling I would think about how to make the appearance of other dogs indicate that something fabulous was about to happen.

Just a thought.

July 23, 2009 at 10:37 am
(6) Debbie Jacobs says:

On a second read it sounds like maybe the dog is resource guarding, but my previous comment would apply to that as well, fearful dog or not.

By changing the emotional response for resource guarders you can get ‘oh please put your hand in my food bowl!’ Takes time, training & patience. MINE! by Jean Donaldson is a useful read.

July 23, 2009 at 11:31 am
(7) webhill, VMD says:

This is a tragic situation that can’t be remedied online. The first step is to separate this dog from other dogs who could suffer injury and to use extreme caution with this dog around any humans especially children. Never let this dog have access to visitors to the home or to children unless cleared by a professional! Then, once adequate safety precautions are in place, take the dog to see a professional, hopefully a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, but if one is unavailable, ask the local veterinarian to help find someone who can help. Loving someone (such as this dog) is not an ok reason to risk one’s personal safety or the health and well-being of one’s dependents (the other dogs in the home). Think about it. I used to love my college boyfriend and he used to occasionally hit me hard enough to knock me to the ground. But I LOVED him. And he’d been abused! Well, sometimes love isn’t enough. Either get a good, real treatment plan in place, or end the relationship with the dog. If the only humane way to end the relationship with the dog is via euthanasia, that is better than allowing a potentially dangerous dog to hurt someone else.

July 23, 2009 at 4:53 pm
(8) vetmedicine says:

Thanks for your comments. I hope this will be a helpful discussion for many.

While the problem can’t be resolved without a lot more information (and optimally someone on-site to evaluate/assist), I hope that this will help people research/question and create awareness for:
a) what is a behavior problem?
b) is it dangerous (for the pet, humans or other pets)?
c) what can I do and where do I start to remedy the situation?

I wanted to highlight Webhill, VMD’s comment:

The first step is to separate this dog from other dogs who could suffer injury and to use extreme caution with this dog around any humans especially children.

A good first step for sure. Thank you for your posts, everyone.

July 25, 2009 at 8:22 pm
(9) Charlie says:

@webhill, VMD, I’m mystified as to how growling at other dogs has been translated by you into this dog being a danger who possibly needs to be killed?

I’ve worked with problem dogs and while I don’t have much to add on this case, due to lack of further data, I think for the benefit of anyone reading this, it must be made absolutely clear that there’s a HUGE difference between dog-on-dog aggression, and a dog that’s aggressive to humans.

The two live in different worlds and have different motivations, and can be treated with different methods.

It’s not at all unreasonable for a dog with a past of abuse, fear and trauma to inflict a few bites at first, but nothing in Bev’s comment indicates that this behaviour continued for any length of time.

We should always exercise caution with ANY dogs around children, as the many who are savagely mauled by otherwise loving pets each year proves.

My only comment really to Bev is that the dog may feel that the others are competing with her, and since she has finally found a human who isn’t inflicting trauma and abuse on her, she needs to guard that human and keep her all for herself.

But I think we all need to hear more back from Bev before any sweeping generalisations can be made in this case. I also don’t believe there are any throw-away dogs, and that since humans inflicted this trauma on Zoey, we collectively have a duty of care to attempt to correct it.

August 2, 2009 at 1:24 pm
(10) Theresa DePorter, DVM says:

I composed my lengthy response as I thought there were ’0′ comments on this post..but I was mis-lead by the previous discussion. Many of my comments overlap points well covered by others so I apologize for any redundancy.

This is a good example of why behavior consultations are long and complex. They require:
1) Completion of an extensive behavior questionnaire for the primary dog: review early training/socialization, review beginning episodes of both the aggression to Bev, review beginning episodes of interactions to family dogs
2) Details about the history, personality and training of each dog involved
3) Observations of interactions between Bev and possible other dogs.
4) Observation of attention seeking or solicitation pattern. Communication of anxiety by overt signs such as growling, snapping or snarling are rarely missed but subtle signs of lip licking, yawning, diversion of eyes require skilled attention.
5) Discussion of severity, predictability and context of bites. Discussion of risk to other family members. Awareness of liability, risk factors to people, children, elderly and innocent bystanders.

1) Complete assessment of the situation would likely reveal many specific diagnoses for Zoey.
2) My common rule outs for the aggression would include: specific or generalized anxiety, fear/reactivity or phobic reaction to triggers, poor communication skills with other dogs; fear, defensive or learned aggression toward people; and fear, defensive or learned aggression toward other dogs.
3) The considerations for the elimination: separation anxiety, incomplete house training, fears associated with going outdoors, urinary tract infections, urinary marking or submissive urination.
4) Behavioral diagnosis also considers the logical progression, motivation and occurrence of episodes. Most medical conditions result in behavioral changes before there are physical changes. I have ultimately diagnosed dogs with similar histories as: food allergy, panosteitis, hip dysplasia, osteosarcoma, visual/auditory impairment, ear infections and urinary infections. Any medical condition which contributes to pain, discomfort, irritability lowers the thresh hold for aggression. Any medical condition which increases motivation for food/water may increase aggression regarding these necessities. (One dog I recall was equally aggressive to all other dogs in the home if they approached him and the water bowl – his temp was 104, he had panosteitis and he was quite thirsty due to the high body temp. The other dogs were terrified of him)

Management, safety and avoidance
1) First we limit, prevent and avoid the predictable aggressive opportunities. Leashes, crates, head halters, baby gates, exercise pens, runs, tie downs, doors.
2) Then limit, prevent and avoid the predictable aggressive, agitated or aroused displays. (ie dog in a crate growling, snarling and in a frenzied reactive state does not meet this criteria!)
3) Safety management: consider muzzle, drag line, head halter to allow disruption of a fight. (If a fight occurs than 1 and 2 above have not been met satisfactorily)

Behavior modification: Yes, finally we get to the helpful advice requested to help this dog. So you can see that general advice for inter –dog or familiar aggression is about as useful as “tips and tricks” for the dog that vomits. So I will offer some basic suggestions: dog-dog interactions are based on canine communication, learned experiences and relative motivation for resources. These relationships can change based on health, motivation, past experience and influence of fear/anxiety. These are ‘dyad’/pair based occurrences that may be predictable but are not permanent. A common scenario that results in fights amongst house mates goes like this: One dog, say Fluffy, is very social and attached to human, Suzy. Fluffy is on the couch with Suzy and another house mate dog, Max approaches. Max likes Suzy and wants to interact but is not social with Fluffy. So as Max approaches Fluffy lifts lip, snarls or growls and Max makes a dog decision to turn away, look away and avoid a confrontation that just isn’t worth it. Problem solved in the canine world. But wait, Suzy reprimands Fluffy for her “aggression” and coaxes Max to come over. Max comes reluctantly with a cautious glance toward Fluffy but Suzy insists Max obey her command. Max gets trained to ignore dog-dog communication and Fluffy is taught to suppress her communication to avoid reprimand. We haven’t changed how these dogs feel about each other – we have damaged normal canine-canine communication. The result is eventually Fluffy just can’t take it anymore and she attacks “Max out of the blue and without provocation”.

A complete behavior program for Zoey requires a complete history, rule out medical causes which is not as obvious as it sounds, diagnose/define Zoey’s behavior problems and treat accordingly. Cases like this often include training with a head halter (video resources available at http://www.ABRIonline.org) for both safety and gentle, positive training strategies, food reward based training to teach useful strategies (sometimes we teach the victim dogs to run to their crates/mats for a treat as a way to diffuse/avoid a dog fight) and, if indicated medication to reduce arousal, reactivity and vigilance. These are complex, difficult problems that require a comprehensive plan and a dedicated family. These dogs are at risk for an aggressive event 24/7 and any behavior problem that requires families to be proactive 24/7 will wear you out eventually. By teaching appropriate interactions, supporting normal canine communication and building positive associations the risk of aggressive events goes down over time with less vigilance and focus on the family’s part. Punishment or correction based strategies suppress rather than support normal dog-dog interactions, eventually the family member is distracted/tired and if the dogs aggression is severe enough, a fight ensues. The goal of a positive reinforcement/behavior modification based program is that less intervention is required by the family and the dogs learn to co-exist harmoniously. Of course not ever dog pair can get along. Often the severest cases of familiar dog-dog aggression are complicated by one or both dogs having generalized anxiety, poor social skills, chronic medical conditions (dermatologic or musculoskeletal are the most common and the most underestimated). If possible, Bev should seek assistance by someone board certified in veterinary behavior (www.dACVB.org) since clearly these are not ‘training’ issues but complex psychological, learning and medical issues. Because there are few diplomats available, she could see if a member of the AVSAB (www.avsabonline.org) is nearby. This is not an accrediting organization but does have veterinary members with advanced interest in animal behavior.

Bev – I hope this is helpful for you and Zoey, I understand how challenging and heartbreaking it can be when the dogs you love don’t get along!

Theresa DePorter, DVM
“practice limited to behavior”

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