Category Archives: Dog-Dog Issues

Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Two: Bites

Last week, I covered the scenario leading up to a devastating incident in which my younger dog, Trout, attacked my older dog, Layla, and the two dogs fought. While the fight was ended quickly with the fast actions of myself and my boyfriend, the injuries that the two dogs sustained took a bit longer to heal. This week, I want to talk about the story the injuries told me.

Where a dog bites another dog is very meaningful. Different bite locations tell us about the dog’s intentions during the fight – one reason why I always ask where one dog bit another when I’m working dog aggression cases. The severity of the bites is also very meaningful and gives a good idea of how safe the dog is to work with. Past history is a great indicator of future behavior, which means that knowing where and how hard Layla and Trout have bitten other dogs can tell us a lot about what they’re likely to do in the future.

IMG_1941After the fight, both dogs had injuries. Trout’s injuries initially appeared worse. She had a gash over her eye that was bleeding profusely and was eventually closed with two sutures, as well as punctures on her cheek and ear that were also bleeding but which didn’t require any medical care other than thorough cleaning. Since she’s a white dog, the blood from her wounds was starkly visible and very shocking. She fussed at her injuries, trying to paw at the gash above her eyebrow, so her paws quickly became red with blood too. She also had blood around her mouth from Layla.

Injuries to the face and ears such as those Trout received are the most typical injuries sustained in dog fights, and they can certainly be alarming at first. Ears and tongues especially tend to bleed alarmingly, and the wounds on ears often have trouble clotting as the dog shakes his or her head, reopening the wound and causing further damage (not to mention the crime-scene-like atmosphere that the splatter of blood such head shaking creates).

That said, injuries to the face tend to be the least concerning to professional dog behavior consultants. They’re the most common, as the skin there is thin and easily torn, and are also indicative that the dog(s) were not fighting with serious intent to harm but rather disagreeing. It’s the difference between a bar-room scuffle and a knife fight in an alley – there may be a broken nose or cracked knuckles in the bar room brawl, but no one’s actively trying to kill their combatant. Dogs who bite at other dogs’ faces or ears are angry, but not usually serious about causing damage.

Next up in the hierarchy of seriousness are bites to the sides of the neck, shoulders, or hips. These bites are a sign that the dog is taking the fight to the next level, but still is not yet intent on causing serious harm. Even more concerning are dogs who bite at the base of the skull, over the jugular, or on the other dog’s legs. These dogs are trying to disable or kill their opponent. The very most serious of dogs, who typically go for the underside of their opponent in an attempt to disembowel them, are intent not on disabling but on causing death, and dogs who injure in this way should never again be allowed in the presence of other dogs without extremely careful management such as the use of leashes and basket muzzles.

IMG_1943Layla’s injuries initially didn’t look too serious. She was missing tufts of fur and had extensive bruising over her chest and breastbone, and a deep gash on her right hind leg just above her knee. However, these bite wounds concerned me much more than Trout’s very visible and bloody battle scars. The wound in Layla’s back leg required the placement of a drain, and the entire wound took eight sutures to close. Layla was not able to bear much weight on that leg for close to 24 hours, and even today after the external wound has healed she still experiences some weakness and trembling in that leg after exertion, for which we’ve made an appointment with a veterinary rehabilitation specialist.

Bruising without punctures - a Level 2 bite.

Bruising without punctures – a Level 2 bite.

So, what do the pattern of Layla’s injuries tell us? Trout began by biting me on the elbow as I attempted to block her attack, bruising but not puncturing the inner part of my arm. This sort of bite is considered a Level 2 bite out of 6 using Dr. Ian Dunbar’s bite scale, which starts with Level 1 bites (snapping without making contact) and ends at Level 6 bites (where the dog kills the victim or consumes flesh). Generally, euthanasia is recommended as the safest option for dogs who cause Level 4 or higher bites, which refers to dogs who bite deeply enough to puncture more than half the length of their canine tooth, and who may grab the victim and shake or tear flesh as they slash.

After launching herself over me, Trout then began biting at Layla’s chest and over her breastbone, again bruising (and removing tufts of fur), but not puncturing. During this time, she had decent bite inhibition, a term that refers to how strongly a dog bites down. Bite inhibition is one of the most accurate predictors of rehabilitation in dogs. A dog who snaps without making contact or who bites without puncturing skin is much less likely to cause serious damage in the future, while a dog who has hurt another dog badly enough to require medical attention is much more likely to cause that level of damage in the future.

The fact that Trout was biting at Layla’s chest and over her breastbone tells us that she was much more serious about “winning” the fight than was Layla, who was biting at Trout’s face in an attempt to back her off. However, initially Layla had worse bite inhibition, actually breaking skin on Trout rather than just bruising. This is something I know about Layla, and one of the main reasons I am so careful when introducing her to new dogs. While she’s never seriously hurt another dog, she’s punctured the skin on a face or ear on a handful of occasions.

The intensity of the fight likely escalated after Layla physically hurt Trout. Trout suddenly became even more serious, biting Layla’s back leg badly enough to badly injure her. This wound was deep and wide, as Trout grabbed onto Layla’s leg with all the force she had and then shook her head from side to side. Layla also had bruising and extensive swelling on the back side of this same leg, and I suspect that had we not intervened Trout would have continued to try to seriously injure or kill her housemate. Note that I don’t think that Trout initially meant for the fight to go so far. The earlier bites where she only bruised rather than puncturing tell a story of a dog who started something she wasn’t able to handle, then likely got scared and began to fight more intensely. Of course, guessing this is anthropomorphic and it’s entirely possible that there were other motivations driving Trout’s actions. However, since we can’t ask her and she can’t tell us, I can make a good guess about what happened based on the evidence at hand.

As you can see, knowing the level of commitment and seriousness that different bite locations and varying bite inhibition levels convey provides a great deal of information on the involved dogs’ intentions. They also tell us a lot about safety, providing insights into the future behavior and possible liability repercussions of working with any given animal. Any dog who has done damage to another in the past is likely to repeat that performance given the wrong set of circumstances, and it’s important to go into any behavior modification program with your eyes wide open to the future possibilities of working with your dog. As sad as it can be, I absolutely believe that euthanasia is an appropriate choice in certain dog-dog aggression cases if your dog’s past history indicates a serious danger to other dogs in the future. And of course, no dog who has injured another should ever be bred, as there’s often a strong genetic component to dog aggression.

However, that doesn’t mean that all dog aggression cases warrant euthanasia, and it’s also important to know that given sufficient management and training, dogs who have a history of causing harm can absolutely live out the remainder of their lives safely and happily. In fact, this is one of the most common behavioral cases I take on, as I love helping people have success with their dog aggressive or reactive dogs.

Next week, I’ll discuss what I did to keep Layla and Trout safe after their fight. In the future, I’ll also discuss what I did to help the two girls learn to live peacefully with one another again. I’m happy to report that, other than some lingering weakness in Layla’s hind leg, both girls’ injuries have completely healed, and they’re back to coexisting well. In the meantime, have you ever witnessed a dog fight? What did the injuries tell you about the dogs’ varying intents? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part One: the Fight

In retrospect, we should have seen the attack coming. On two separate occasions after full days of running around, our normally sweet and friendly dog Trout had snarked at different foster puppies over food. Both times she stopped quickly without making contact when we intervened, and was then confined to a room to rest. However, both times she also showed a concerning lack of the typical warning signs dogs give off before lunging or snapping, only freezing slightly for an instant before she went after the puppies.

Waiting for treatment at the e-vet

Waiting for treatment at the e-vet

We chalked Trout’s concerning behavior up to soreness and not feeling well. With a mystery illness resembling Addison’s disease, her body struggles to handle stress, including the good stress of exciting events. Her muscles have wasted with the disease progression, and her energy level fluctuates. She has episodes of GI distress where her reflux is so bad that she will attempt to eat anything she can get in her mouth – cloth, cotton batting from dog toys, and even foam from dog beds. She has full-body muscle spasms, twitching and groaning as she lies on the floor. Her cognitive abilities have suffered too, and while on some days she’s the sweet, happy dog we’ve always loved, other days she seems confused by even the most simple routines or cues. We keep her comfortable on a regimen of medications, and she continues to have more good days than bad.

On the day of the attack, Trout was not having a good day. She had run hard for close to an hour at the park the day before, a special treat that we typically wouldn’t let her indulge in. However, it was one of the first nice days of spring, and she’d been doing well for a few weeks. She was extra sore this day, and I could tell that she was having some cognitive issues as we did a short training session. I kept the exercises easy, and at the end of the one-minute session she was able to end on a happy, successful note. I then called our other dog, Layla, into the room where I was working – something I’ve been doing for three years, since I always work one dog and then the other.

Today, that was a problem for Trout. As Layla entered the room, Trout stiffened up and growled, guarding me and the treats. I grabbed for her, missing as she launched across my body and bit my elbow, then attacked Layla. If you’ve never seen your beloved pets fight, the sight is chilling. Layla instantly defended herself, and my boyfriend and I each grabbed a dog. We had to wait for the dogs to let go of one another, as both were holding on in ferocious terrier grips, and pulling them apart would have caused more damage. The fight was over within 20 seconds, although in the heat of the moment it felt like much longer longer.

Unfortunately, that twenty seconds was all it took for both dogs to sustain injuries. We packed them up in the car for a trip to the e-vet as I contemplated the seriousness of Trout’s attack and tried to hold back tears over the sight of Layla’s deep wound.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be writing about our experiences with Trout and Layla. What did the location of their bites have to say about their intentions during the fight? How did we manage the two dogs to prevent future incidents? How did we re-integrate them into the same household? I’ll cover all of these questions as I discuss living safely with dogs who’ve hurt one another.

In retrospect, we should have seen the attack coming. However, love is blind, and while I likely would have picked up on the warning signs with a client’s dog, knowing and living with my own dogs skewed my perspective. There’s a reason that even professional dog trainers hire other professionals when our dogs have issues, and this story is a good reminder of that. I’m grateful that Matt and I were right there when our dogs went at it. This story could have been very different had we not been – one of the biggest reasons why I never leave the two dogs unattended together.

Have your dogs ever fought with their housemates? How did you handle the situation? Please share your stories in the comments below, and watch for the next installment in Trout and Layla’s story next week as I discuss what the location of the bite wounds told me about the two dogs’ intentions.

 

Overzealous Greetings (and Other Tales of Toddlers and Puppies)

The other day as I was grocery shopping, a toddler ran up to me and hugged me. I smiled and put an arm on his shoulder as his mother rushed up. “I’m so sorry!” She exclaimed. “He really loves to meet people.” I assured her that it was not a problem and spoke briefly with the outgoing little boy before heading on my way.

Later that same day, my foster puppy was accompanying me on a shopping trip at the local pet supply store. As we were ambling along the treat aisle, a large Husky came around the corner of the aisle on a flexi leash. My foster pup jumped on his head, and the Husky stood still with a soft, relaxed body while the squirmy pup wriggled around him in joy. I apologized to the dog’s owner as I calmed and corralled the excited puppy. “No worries!” she exclaimed. “Thor wouldn’t tolerate that behavior from an adult dog, but he really likes puppies.” We chatted for a few moments longer, and the dogs politely sniffed noses as we walked away, my foster much calmer and more polite after a few clicks and treats for appropriate behavior around his new friend.

Photo by Max Collins

Photo by Max Collins

Dogs aren’t all that different from us, if you think about it. I thought the excited greeting from a toddler was adorable. If an adult tried the same thing though, I wouldn’t react so kindly. In fact, if a strange man ran up and grabbed me in a bear hug, I’d likely respond quite violently in defense even though I’m not typically a confrontational or violent person.

Dogs also react differently to puppies, adolescents, and adult dogs. Most dogs are quite tolerant of rude and clumsy greetings from puppies. They understand that the puppies are still learning and aren’t all that polished. Just as we understand that toddlers are still learning social behavior, well socialized adult dogs generally forgive social blunders in pups.

The problem develops when puppies never learn appropriate social skills. Adult dogs who greet inappropriately (by rushing and jumping on other dogs, for example) become the canine equivalents of a forty year old man racing up to grope my breasts. It’s just not okay, and other dogs are likely to react aggressively even if they’re generally quite friendly and easygoing with other dogs.

A large part of the blame for such boorish social behavior in dogs lies at their owner’s feet. Just as responsible parents teach their children appropriate social behavior (for example, the toddler’s mother apologized for his rushing up at the grocery store and helped him to practice greeting me more appropriately by instructing him to wave and say “hi”), responsible dog owners can teach their charges to be polite around other dogs. Socializing your dog appropriately helps him grow into a model citizen of canine society.

So, how do I guide my foster dogs through appropriate interactions? First of all, I focus on teaching them to greet other dogs calmly. If puppies squeal and lunge in excitement every time they see a new dog, they grow into adult dogs who rush up to other dogs or react explosively on leash at the sight of each new dog. This isn’t a healthy social reaction, and preventing this behavior from developing is much easier and faster than fixing it once it’s become a habit. The solution is simple: I only let calm puppies greet other dogs. If my puppy is excited about the other dog, we move further away and do a few simple obedience behaviors until the puppy’s calmed down, at which point he’s rewarded for his calm behavior by earning permission to say “hi.” If my puppy absolutely can’t calm down, we may switch to the Watch the World game for a few minutes to get him in a better mindset. Just as parents of excitable toddlers may hold onto their children’s hands and instruct them on waving instead of hugging, gently guiding your puppy in social niceties will help him learn the best way to behave. Furthermore, since most puppies really enjoy meeting other dogs, they learn quickly that civilized behavior is the fastest path to gain access to their new friends.

In addition to teaching my puppy polite greetings, I also provide him with lots of opportunities to play and interact off leash with a variety of other dogs. Just as a parent will allow their child to converse with a variety of other kids, teenagers, and adults, letting my puppy socialize with others of his species keeps the doggy language skills he learned with his littermates sharp while also polishing away any rough bits. The bigger the variety of ages and sizes of dogs that I can safely introduce my puppy to during this time, the better. Ideally, I like to arrange 3-4 play dates a week for my puppy with known dogs. We avoid dog parks and other situations with dogs of unknown health and behavioral status for obvious reasons. Just as I wouldn’t bring a toddler to a frat party, I know my puppy’s not developmentally ready for the crowd of adolescents at most dog parks. And of course, I want to wait until my puppy’s vaccines are on board before going around other dogs who may be carrying potentially fatal diseases such as parvo or distemper, just as many parents are now avoiding crowded attractions like Disneyland until their children’s vaccines are current.

If you’re raising a puppy, remember that socializing him is more than just introducing him to others and waiting for him to figure things out on his own. Just as you would school a toddler on appropriate interactions with new people, it’s important to provide your puppy with lots of feedback on how to best get along in our world. Well-socialized adults of all species understand how to communicate with one another, including respecting one another’s space and using culturally-appropriate greetings.

Does your dog greet others appropriately? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!

Thank you for rehoming your dog.

I can’t always be the person I want to be. But I can try to be the person my dog needs me to be.

This thought hit me as I snuggled Layla the other night. My boyfriend and friends were out, but I’d chosen to remain at home to be with my dog. Layla was struggling with the side effects of some medication changes, and while I knew she would survive if I went out for the evening, I could also tell that it would be very difficult on her. She paced for awhile after Matt left, agitated with the stress of the day, but eventually settled to chew on a toy before sighing deeply and drifting off to sleep.

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While not common, this scenario has happened a handful of times over the nine years of Layla’s life. Just as there are times when I need her to anchor me and help me discover the joy in small things, sometimes she also needs some extra help. And isn’t that what a relationship is all about?

Balancing our needs with the needs of those we love is never easy. It’s important to remember that dogs are their own selves, individual as each of us. They have their own likes and dislikes, their own little peculiarities. Their individuality is part of what draws us to them, even as their alien culture sometimes confuses us or sets us at ends. We’ll never know what it’s like to live in their world of scent, just as they’ll never understand the joy of a sunset over a lake. But we can still connect over our shared interests, and that’s a pretty biologically amazing thing.

A good number of the training challenges I encounter are due to an imbalance in the human-canine relationship. While some give and take is healthy, when one side pulls more than the other side can bear, problems come to light. Often this is a case where neither party is a good match for the other. Perhaps the human wants an agility dog who will love the excitement and competition of a trial, while the dog just wants to hike in the quiet suburbs. Or sometimes it’s the dog who’s pushing, needing more and more physical and mental exercise while the person just wanted a snuggly companion to relax with on the couch after work. Mismatches like this can learn to live together, but making a better choice of companions in the first place would have saved a lot of heartbreak and frustration on both parts.

But what if you’re already stuck in a mismatch? Not all relationships are meant to last, and that’s as true for people and dogs as it is for people and other people. It’s sad that people are often guilted into keeping a dog who is a truly awful match for them.

Understand that I’m not saying that dogs can be thrown away or changed out like shoes with each new season. However, if you’ve found yourself in a truly unbalanced match with your dog, I think that rehoming that dog can often be a very kind and responsible choice. If your dog will not be able to live happily or safely with you but can do so with someone else, one of the best things you can do for that dog is to help him or her find that perfect match. Living in an unbalanced relationship solely because you’ve been taught to believe that a dog is a lifetime commitment is at its best selfish, because you’re letting your fear of what others will think interfere with your dog’s right to live in the best home possible for him or her. At its worst, this sort of situation often resembles the most abusive of human relationships, with one party for all intents and purposes held hostage by the other’s needs. It’s not healthy, and it’s a very strong thing to recognize that and take steps to repair it… even if those steps lead to the rehoming of your dog.

If you’re in the difficult position of considering whether to rehome your dog, it’s important to take an honest look at the situation and to do your homework. First of all, honestly explore whether your dog is a safe and suitable candidate for rehoming. If your dog has a bite history or has significant behavioral issues, consult a qualified trainer to get their opinion on whether your dog should be rehomed. In some states, you can still be held liable for your dog’s behavior (including bites) even after rehoming him or her to a new owner with full disclosure of any history of aggression. Other behavioral issues than aggression also deserve a thorough evaluation. Separation anxiety or fear issues can be very difficult to live with and modify, and if you, the person who cares for your dog the most in the entire world, are unable or unwilling to put the effort into solving these issues, what makes you think that someone else who doesn’t yet have that bond will do so?

Finally, do your homework. There are lots of rehoming options out there, and it’s important to choose the one that will be the best for your dog. If you’re rehoming your dog privately, make sure to thoroughly check references and perhaps perform a home visit before giving your dog up to anyone. Be honest about your dog’s personality and history, and ask open-ended questions to get a better idea about the sort of home your dog will be living in.

Rehoming a dog is never easy, but if done responsibly it can often be the very kindest option when there’s just not a good match between dog and owner. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. However, if you do need to rehome your dog for any reason, please be honest to yourself and others about what happened. Make sure to do your homework in the future so that you can make a better match with your next dog.

Layla would have been a horrible match for most families. She’s simply not what people usually look for in a pet. She’s quick and smart, but also anxious and touch-sensitive. She doesn’t tolerate fools (human or canine) and isn’t afraid of making a point with her teeth. That said, when I adopted Layla I made the sort of match that most people dream about. Instead of being at odds, our personalities complement each other. We understand one another and work well together. I’m forever grateful to her previous owner for recognizing that their relationship was never going to work. By giving Layla up, she gave both Layla and myself an amazing gift. She gave us each other.

May every family be so lucky.

Myth: Peeing on Your Dog

Since I’ve worked as a professional trainer for years, I’ve heard it all. Most myths about dog behavior are silly and relatively harmless. That said, there’s one myth that’s resurfaced in the past couple months which has me shaking my head in bewilderment. Multiple clients have admitted to spitting in their dog’s food, peeing on their dog’s head, or otherwise using their own or their children’s bodily fluids with the intent of putting their dog in his or her place (which is implied to be “below” the human in a rigid hierarchy).

Spit-free kibble. Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

Spit-free kibble (we hope). Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

It can be hard to separate scientific fact from fiction for someone for whom dog behavior is a mystery, and I can empathize with my clients’ confusion. In each case, a trusted friend, family member, or even pet professional had recommended this course of action. In each case, my client was at a loss as to how to deal with his or her dog’s problematic behavior. While I wish that these clients had contacted me first, rather than after they had tried this technique (and in most cases, other recommendations from coworkers or neighbors as well), their hope was that following this advice would save them the cost of a private consultation with a trained professional.

The old adage of “you get what you pay for” springs to mind here. Free advice can be helpful, but for serious behavioral problems where the risk of failure could mean that a person gets bitten or your dog winds up homeless or dead, the stakes are just too high. Practice makes perfect, after all, and the longer a dog has the opportunity to practice the problem behavior, the worse the prognosis becomes. My clients and I have the most success when I can begin working with them at the first sign of a problem, rather than after months or even years of them attempting to solve the problem on their own.

So, why isn’t it a good idea to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head to “show him who’s boss?”

The core idea behind this advice is to elevate the owner’s status, based on the belief that dogs adhere to a rigid dominance hierarchy. However, this myth has been disproven over and over again. Wolves do have hierarchies, but they’re based on family arrangements with the mother and father leading the pack of children. Based on this knowledge, it only makes sense to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head if that’s what you would do to your [human] toddler when he misbehaves. Good parents – and good dog owners! – know that parenting is all about providing a safe environment for growth, with lots of patience, clear rules, and love.

Knowing that wolves form family packs greatly impacts our view of their communication and dominance hierarchies. However, drawing conclusions about dog behavior based on the behavior of their closely related cousins can be as erroneous as studying human behavior by observing chimps or bonobos. Yes, we share similarities. However, we’re not the same species. Dogs and wolves evolved from the same ancestor, but it’s likely that wolves have changed greatly from what they were tens of thousands of years ago. Studies of dogs in their native environment (village dumps) show that while wolves form close family packs, dogs do not. Mothers and puppies stick together, and dogs will develop friendships with other dogs, but the close-knit pack structure is just not there. This means that even if wolves did develop rigid pack structures that required forceful dominance displays, it would be inappropriate to extrapolate those behaviors to their cousins.

Even if all of this weren’t true, there’s still a major flaw in the idea of using bodily fluids to assert one’s dominance. Sure, it grosses us out to think about someone peeing on our head or spitting in our food. But does it really have the same impact on our dogs? Frankly, dogs love bodily fluids! When Layla lifts her leg and pees on another dog’s head (which she does on a fairly regular basis), the other dog never acts grossed out. Dogs lick one another’s mouths and eat vomit on a regular basis. They use their tongues to clean their genitals and lick at other dog’s urine. Some even eat poop (and many experts believe that human fecal matter may have been the main source of nutrition for early village dogs). We may think body fluids are gross, but dogs think they’re pretty fascinating.

The bottom line is that peeing on your dog, dumping the contents of your child’s dirty diaper on your dog, or spitting in her food is unlikely to create the behavior change you want. In the best case scenario, your dog’s behavior may be slightly suppressed due to her confusion. Worst case, you could scare your dog, damaging your relationship further, or unintentionally reward her problem behavior by providing her with something she finds fascinating or delicious. Either way, true behavioral change is unlikely, and you’re far better off consulting with a trained professional. As an added bonus, just think of how much money you’ll save on dog shampoo!

5 Tips for Traumatized Dogs

In recent weeks, we’ve discussed fearful and brittle dogs. Some dogs can have the best start in life and still grow up with behavioral concerns. Other dogs missed out on critical socialization experiences as puppies, which impacted their development. But what about dogs who have had it even worse? How does trauma impact dogs?

Some of the dogs we take into our homes don’t just come from neglectful pasts but have lived with outright abuse. Sometimes this abuse has been due to mistreatment at the hands of a past owner, and sometimes it has happened in the current home despite to the owner’s very best intentions. Trauma has a lifelong impact on many dogs.

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Training is still an unregulated field, which means that there are still many so-called trainers who use aversive training techniques to address behavioral problems. There’s a reason why the AVSAB, the organization for the premier experts in animal behavior, has a position statement regarding the use of punishment in training. Manufacturing fear or avoidance in an already panicked animal does not create an environment where critical learning can take place. I’ve heard of trainers shocking dogs who suffer from separation anxiety for barking in their crates, hanging dog-aggressive dogs by their neck when they lunged at others, and strapping electronic collars to dogs’ genitals in the name of behavior modification.

Remember that you are your dog’s advocate. If something doesn’t seem right to you, it is up to you to put your foot down and protect your dog. Even something as seemingly mild as squirting a reactive dog with a water bottle or gently placing a frightened dog into a fear-inducing situation (such as setting a dog who is afraid of slippery floors onto the middle of the kitchen floor) and preventing that dog from leaving can have long-lasting consequences. While you may have had the best intentions when you followed the advice of the trainer on TV or tried a technique that your coworker swears by, if your dog responded by panicking or shutting down and if you’ve noticed that your dog’s behavior has deteriorated since that time, it’s possible that your dog could be experiencing a canine version of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD.

PTSD is most well-known as a disorder frequently experienced by veterans, but any survivor of trauma may experience the symptoms. Little is known about why some individuals experience symptoms that can range from mild to debilitating while others who were present in the same event can emerge unscathed.

Extreme fear oftentimes results in altered perceptions of the event. Triggers associated with the fearful event do not engage the hippocampus, which is usually responsible for memory, but rather the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions. Strong flashbacks to the original panic state can be instantaneous, and are not under the dog’s conscious control. Just as you’re unable to control the contraction or dilation of your pupils when you feel strong emotions, a dog experiencing Post Traumatic Stress symptoms such as this is absolutely unable to stop feeling the way he does in the moment.

The triggers for this flashback state may not make logical sense. Scents, textures, certain movements, and even the time of day can all trigger this instant fear reaction. While some triggers are easily explained, such as Layla flinching and dropping to the floor the first time I carried a rolled up newspaper into the house or a previous foster dog slinking away if he smelled alcohol on a visitor’s breath, others are less easy to tease apart and may never be completely identified. A foster dog several years ago would occasionally yelp when he was touched, even after soliciting attention, but the vet could find nothing physically wrong and his quick fear reaction never manifested twice when the same area of his body was touched. Another dog that I’m working with right now will begin trembling for no apparent reason several times a week, hiding under the bed and occasionally voiding her bladder in terror. While her owners are keeping diligent notes, they haven’t been able to pinpoint the source of these episodes.

If your dog has a history of trauma, whether suspected or confirmed, here are some guidelines to remember.

1. The dog determines what’s traumatizing, not you. While you may not have thought that holding your dog down for a simple nail trim was that big a deal, your dog may have a different opinion. Watch your dog’s body language for signs of stress such as lip licking, yawning, slower or faster movement, freezing, and turning away so that you can intervene if a situation starts to go south. Pushing through such situations can almost guarantee that they’ll create new fear triggers in many dogs.

2. Create safe places. One of the reasons that mat work is so very helpful for so many dogs is due to its clear structure of safety. By making the mat a positive place where treats, relaxation, and massage take place, we can create a positive conditioned emotional response to the mere presence of this training tool. Once the mat becomes a safe place, make sure to keep it that way. Don’t let anything bad happen to your dog on the mat. You can create other safe spaces as well – places in your dog’s environment where good things happen and where there is no pressure placed on the dog.

3. Give your dog choices. One of the fastest ways to traumatize any mammal is to take away all of his or her choices. Manufacture opportunities for your dog to make choices about his or her environment, schedule, and care as much as possible. Whether you let your dog decide which way to turn at the end of the block, wait for your dog to offer a foot for nail trimming, play with nose work, or give your dog several different beds to choose to sleep on, choice is hugely important. Set your dog up to make good choices, then reward those choices to build the dog’s confidence.

4. Always try to end on a good note. Research has shown that people who experienced identically unpleasant procedures created very different memories of those procedures depending on how traumatic the final moments of the procedure were. While we don’t know whether dogs have the same cognitive recall abilities, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try to make the last few seconds of any unpleasant experience as pleasant as possible. For example, Layla is very concerned about having her feet handled. I file her nails instead of clipping them because this is more comfortable for her, and she is in control of how fast or slow nail trimming sessions go. She is also free to leave at any time if she gets too scared. At the end of every nail-trimming session, I practice simply touching the nail file to her toenails for less than a second, followed by a food reward. Because each session ends with these quick successes, she’s more comfortable allowing me to handle her feet when it comes time for the next session.

5. Your dog is not his story. If your dog has a history of trauma, it’s important to be aware of that past, but equally important to help your dog succeed in the present. Too often, we get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves about our dogs’ pasts, and forget to pay attention to the animal in front of us. While trauma can have lasting consequences due to its huge impact on the way the brain develops and processes information, patient behavioral modification and an environment of safety can have equally powerful effects. See your dog for who he is in the moment, rather than who you expect him to be. He may surprise you.

If your dog has a history of trauma, make sure to read the posts on fearful and brittle dogs for more tips on helping him recover, and please share your stories in the comments below!

Brittle Dogs

Raven is a petite little mix of a dog. Dainty and precise, her movements are as graceful as a dance and she never seems to put a paw out of place. Her long legs and tail, sleek, short coat, and sharp muzzle remind me a bit of a canine supermodel. She learns new tricks at the drop of a hat (or a clicker, as the case may be), and is highly obedient.

Raven is beautiful and intelligent. She’s also alarmingly unstable.

Photo by Chris Suderman

Photo by Chris Suderman

The problem doesn’t lie in Raven’s owners. They’re lovely people, experienced in dog care and training. When they brought Raven home at 10 weeks of age, they started her in puppy classes right away and socialized her diligently. She became very friendly, playful, and polite with unfamiliar people and dogs, and enjoyed going to new places.

Then Raven had a scary thing happen to her. Late at night while her owners were walking her, a neighbor set off a firework. Just as the firework boomed, Raven noticed another neighbor walking past in the dark. She panicked, fighting and pulling to get home. Her owners were unable to calm her, and in her frenzy she was like a wild animal. By the time they got home, all three were exhausted, and Raven’s owners were very confused. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

After that scary night, Raven became highly reactive towards strangers after dark. She would lunge and bark at them, eyes huge. She was constantly on alert. Her owners started working on basic counterconditioning exercises with her and tried to get her walk in before dark each night. They were relieved that Raven was still friendly towards everyone she met during the day, and continued her socialization.

Then something else happened – this time, a painful procedure at the vet. Suddenly, Raven became afraid of new indoor environments. Taking her to new buildings became nearly impossible because she would refuse to go through the doors. She was on alert all the time in new places. She wouldn’t take treats or toys.

This pattern continued. Every time something even a little bit scary or uncomfortable happened, Raven’s behavior would shift dramatically. Her owners had never encountered fear reactions as intense as Raven’s before, and were at a loss about what to do. They had used the same socialization and training program successfully with multiple previous dogs. Nothing truly terrifying had ever happened to Raven. Yet within a year of the first incident, Raven’s owners found themselves living in a bubble.

Everything frightened their previously social and charming dog. Her owners no longer had company in their house because she barked at visitors. They no longer went on walks or took her with them to eat at outdoor restaurants. They brought a trainer into their home, but fired her after Raven’s behavior vastly deteriorated with the use of an electronic collar and some “hard love.” They talked to their vet about anxiety medication, and Raven started on Prozac.

So, what was going wrong?

Dogs are an amazingly adaptive species. They’ve evolved and been selected by us to live in every climate, every living situation, and with every species. Dogs guard vast herds of sheep in mountainous regions, trot down the busy Manhattan sidewalk amidst throngs of people, and work as a team to pull sleds in the frozen north. Dogs are kept as companions to adolescent Cheetahs in zoos. They guide the blind, sniff out explosives, and provide companionship.

Most dogs are every bit as adaptive as the history of their species would lead us to expect. With appropriate socialization, they can handle new problems with aplomb. Yet occasionally, I encounter a dog like Raven. These dogs do great as long as nothing bad ever happens, but fall apart at the seams when they encounter something frightening or uncomfortable. Once something has caused this general breakdown once, they seem to spiral even further down the rabbit hole, never recovering to their previous level of confidence. These are what I call “brittle” dogs, and if you’ve never lived with one, you can count yourself lucky.

Think of most dogs like a rubber band. If you pull on them a bit by exposing them to a situation that they were not socialized to as little pups, they may stretch out slightly, but will eventually return to their usual shape once the situation has returned to normal. They get stressed, but they have the coping skills to recover. They’re stretchy and flexible.

Other dogs, like Raven or like my dog Trout, are more like old rubber bands that have dried out. They look just like other dogs from the outside, but their core strength and elasticity is missing. If these dogs get stretched too far, they break. They shatter like glass, and no matter how hard their owners work to put the pieces back together, they’ll never be able to be used like a regular rubber band. They can only handle a little bit of stretch, and then they snap apart instead of snapping back together.

If you have a brittle dog and you know that your dog’s puppyhood and socialization were solid, there’s very likely to be a genetic component. These dogs are just wired differently. Nature provides lots of variety in the way it mixes the genetic cocktail of each dog who’s born. Variety is the stuff of survival, and desirable traits help their host live on to pass on the superior genetic advantage, while undesirable traits cause the host to die out. Except that our undesirable dogs are lucky enough to live in an environment where very little to no natural culling takes place. They don’t die out. They come to live with exceptional people like Raven’s owners, people who do their very best to help their dog become a normal rubber band.

Raven was four years old when I met her, but the truth is that she could have been any age. Had she not been startled by the stranger at the exact moment fireworks went off, or had she not had to have a painful veterinary procedure shortly after that, or had any of the other perfect storm of bad experiences not happened to her, she would probably be a happy, outgoing dog to this day. Bad luck and bad genetics ganged up on her and her owners in a very unpleasant way, and so instead of a bright and charming dog I met a stressed and fearful one who was absolutely not equipped to deal with my presence in her home.

So, what can you do if you suspect that you have a brittle dog?

1. Socialize, socialize, socialize. Remember that socialization refers to giving your dog positive experiences. Use treats, toys, and play to make new experiences fun and rewarding. Since brittle dogs put so much more weight on negative experiences than on positive ones, you need to make sure that the vast weight of your dog’s positive experiences can override the potential fear of one bad experience. Consider a dog who’s had thousands of good experiences with other dogs, meeting polite dogs and having a blast playing with them. This dog is much more likely to recover from being attacked by an unfamiliar dog than one who has only had five, ten, or even one hundred positive experiences with members of her own species.

2. On that same note, classically condition everything. Anytime your dog hears thunder or fireworks, meets a new person, goes to the vet, or encounters something new, turn the experience into a fun game using treats, toys, and play. Brittle dogs need extra feedback to know that novelty is not something to be feared, but rather an occasion to engage their curiousity. Since we know that brittle dogs develop fears and phobias more easily than most members of their species, the best thing we can do is to change their emotional response to new situations to one of joy and excitement.

3. Protect your dog. Brittle dogs are more fragile than most, and it’s helpful to keep this in mind. Since one bad experience could cause a dramatic shift in your dog’s ability to cope, take extra care to only expose your brittle dog to situations that you know he or she can handle. Understand that I’m not telling you to wrap your dog in bubble wrap – it’s still important to let him be a dog and to encourage him to explore new opportunities. But do be sure that you’re not setting him up to fail. Brittle dogs, for example, should not be dog park dogs, because you don’t know whether the other dogs at the park are always going to be friendly. A stable dog would be able to deal with the occasional snarky or possessive dog encounter at the dog park, but your brittle dog can’t. Instead, set up safer doggy play sessions by walking and enjoying off-leash time with known stable and friendly dogs.

4. Proactively teach your dog coping skills. Don’t just assume that your brittle dog can handle new situations. Instead, prepare him for each situation he’ll need to handle ahead of time. Teach him general relaxation skills using the Protocol for Relaxation, for example, or do some pretend blood draws while feeding peanut butter by gently restraining him, splashing cool water or alcohol on his leg, and poking his vein with a capped pen to prepare him for an upcoming vet visit. If you wait to work with your dog until he shows you where the problem areas in his socialization lie, it may be too late. Instead, assume that everything requires some proactive involvement on your part and avoid those issues altogether. Remember, an ounce of prevention will save you from a pound of cure!

5. Consider medications. Like Raven’s owners, you may find that your dog has a true chemical imbalance that needs to be corrected by medical intervention. Just as some dogs need insulin or thyroid supplementation, some brittle dogs need daily medication to increase the available serotonin in their system. Medications can also assist your brittle dog in overcoming new fears. A veterinary behaviorist is the best person to work with as you figure out which meds will be the most helpful.

So, do you have a dog who was given all of the proper socialization and early training but who just can’t cope with stress, or is your dog flexible and stable? And what about those “brittle” dogs who didn’t get the right socialization – how are they different? We’ll explore that topic next week! In the meantime, please share your experiences, tips, tricks, and questions in the comments section below.