I’m sitting here with a very bruised calf and thigh, three punctures, one slice, one scrape and a ripped shirt all from a large, neutered young adult, about 90 pound male guard-dog type and yes I knew he had bitten another person(s), but I’ve worked with threatening dogs before – carefully.
The trigger was the handler reprimanding his dog for growling – which launched the attack and the second, harder bite was because the guy proceeded to yell at the dog. Me, I just stood there as still as possible, thinking that if this guy doesn’t quit yelling I might get bitten harder and higher a third time (the dog was working his way up my leg). Stillness, quiet and non-reaction is one of the best ways to defuse an attack – usually dogs won’t bite if you’re not moving, not talking and not looking at them. This strategy has worked for me many, many times.
The bite history I knew about: One when a woman came in the house door from outside (the resultant laceration was thought to be a bad claw scratch making a need for multiple stitches [nine] to her face, but facial stitching is often smaller) – now, I don’t think it was a claw. One when a woman kicked at him when he charged at her (in the road), which didn’t sound great, but not that unreasonable. What I didn’t know about were the other three they knew about, and who knows how many close calls or attempts.
I set up the situation in a way that should have worked. The dog was confined, I entered the house without knocking or ringing the bell (to avoid that trigger). I talked to the people about calm, easy movements, no reprimanding and lots of food rewards (classical conditioning to change the dog’s emotional state from fearful to pleased or at least less worried with company). I sat down in a chair that faced away from the room entry zone. The man let his dog in, in an easy un-rushed way. The dog came up and sniffed the back of my arm, as he moved on I carefully tossed several pieces of chicken in front of him – he ate them and seemed warily interested in me.
The woman talked to him, he became obviously more worried and he retreated to his bed in the corner. They tried to call him out and he refused. (Right there I missed my cue to end this scenario, since I had observed that his people talking to him increased his worry level, oops. Dog trainer stupidity).
I used the time to do a people lesson on dog socialization and fear, and talked to them about dogs who lacked confidence and socialization being likely to misunderstand, become frightened and aggressive. We went on this way for 6 minutes or so, nothing happening, but the dog on his bed in the corner, not really interacting in any way.
I had them do some moving around, get his favorite toy, play a little (he interacted just a bit), offer him his favorite treats. He ate one and went back to the corner bed. I stayed quiet, seated, non-threatening. Nothing happening. OK.
So I told them I was going to get up. I stood up, took two steps into the room diagonally away from the dog and just stood there, looking away from the dog. Tossed some more chicken onto the floor, he ate it and came and sniffed my shoe, my leg and took two pieces of chicken from my fingers very gently. (the woman offered some worried mumbling – maybe calling on a higher power). So far, so good with the dog. I had already hushed the woman before, so I didn’t do it again. (But really, if the client is mumbling in fear, what am I doing? Foolish dog trainer.)
Then he left to go back to his corner (likely because of her worried tone), the woman tried to encourage him to stay around, I glanced slightly back over my shoulder to get a peripheral view and he growled, so I dropped my eyes (calming behavior on my part).
Then the guy started reprimanding him for growling; crap, crap crap. Out came the dog, a fast rush, going for my calf and then because of the increased reprimanding, my thigh. Big, hard grabs, getting more intense. I remained solidly still, silently hoping the guy would shut up before I was really chewed up. The dog went back to his corner.
The wife, “Are you bleeding? Are you hurt?”
“Well, he bit hard, so I would say, yes. And it did and does hurt.”
(Do I always stay calm? Mostly, yes. Sarcastic? fairly likely. I save the upset for later. Anyway who wants to trigger another attack.)
Then I did the verbal recap of why that just happened (I’m still standing in the exact same spot, the dog is back in his corner), I’m talking in a quiet easy voice about not reprimanding – identifying the shaming as the trigger that launched him, about rewarding even if he growls because growling wasn’t attacking. You told him he was bad and he decided I was the reason for it. I needed to check the bite areas to see how bad they really were. Since I was going to move I wanted to make sure their dog didn’t come after me. So go make sure your dog doesn’t come after me. At this point I’m thinking they need lots more coaching, that they have poisoned their own relationship with the dog and that this dog is way over their capabilities.
Multiple layers of pants (jeans and heavy wind pants) really work as protection – against the cold, against dog bite. I was bruised and bleeding some, but considering the effort and intention, not bad. I’m impressed by my pants, wow, they worked pretty well and showed no damage, sheesh. And I do mean none, well there was blood on the inside.
I was very careful coming out of the bathroom (doorways and sudden appearance of people is often a trigger). They were still by the corner in the living room. The dog began growling after I took about four or five calm strolling steps and the woman started reprimanding him, I held still, crap. She continued.
I, friendly toned, “Please stop that, lady. I don’t want him launching himself…”
She did, and he quit too. I moved into the kitchen by the bar stools which I could use for cover. I asked if they were offering him any food rewards, they weren’t. So I started tossing them (with as little movement as possible standing sidewise to him and on the far side of the woman) – he was eating them well, seemingly fairly relaxed. Then he came, flew at me again, belt high, grabbing my shirt and waistband of my several layers of pants. This time pulling and shaking his head to rip, or maybe it was just that the man had grabbed him and was adding to the pulling. Only a scrape and shirt tear and small bruise this time, but higher up…not a good sign and no growl, really not a good sign.
Why that time? Hmm, since he came right through where the women had been standing I think there must have been some change of position on her part and/or more worried words from the family. All I know is that I had been in a safe spot and then I wasn’t.
Why? well there was shock collar use history and the relationship was poisoned. So family member’s tone, posture, movements became triggers for speedy, intent aggression – not good. And no growl in attack training means the dog is in full prey drive.
Oddly enough they made no move to remove him. I asked them to please take him out, I didn’t want any more episodes, he’s too wound up now. The calm, easy atmosphere I had tried to put (and keep) in place was blown to bits. Plus I obviously couldn’t trust them to not reprimand or do things that triggered him because they were too upset, too afraid, and didn’t understand or remember what they were supposed to be doing, they didn’t trust him enough to block him and I was paying for their errors.
The wife, “I told him when I was taking that last girl to the hospital that I want that dog dead when I get back. Do you need to go to the hospital? Do we need to put him down?”
“Well, the only way for me to safely work with him would be from the other side of a fence or with a muzzle on him. I’m very concerned because he attacked after he sniffed me, after accepting food gently from me, without me doing anything – no movement, no voice and bit more than once, big bites and if I’d been normally dressed there would be blood and punctures that would need the clinic, but no I don’t.”
“We do have a muzzle, but we can’t have a dog around like that. I’m still shaking.”
“Well, I’m not shaking, I’m OK, but I do need an icepack. Should you put him down? I hate to say it, but he’s not reasonable and he’s triggering over minimal stuff, your voices, your moves. Anybody else comes, reacts well or poorly, you do the same kinds of things and he’s really going to do some damage. It’s one thing if a dog is badly surprised or threatened, but he attacked and I was completely still and in the same spot he had already sniffed me, already accepted food from me. He doesn’t have the confidence to make good judgements.”
The wife, “She says we need to put him down.”
The husband in a defeated voice, “That’s what I expected.”
The wife, “Do you have to tell many people that they need to put their dog down?”
“Almost none. I’m so sorry.” Tears started to fall, because I really don’t like to say euthanasia might be the most reasonable answer.
So was it really a no win? Could this dog have been rehabilitated, maybe. It likely was very possible five bites/attacks ago. He was under socialized, under trained and had the trauma of a shock collar, which means a faster, harder aggression and a lot of rehab work needed and he had learned the thrill of the attack and how much power it gave him. He was a scary combination of things – not for the standard dog owners.
If I had understood that they couldn’t be silent about trying to shame him and that he had absolutely no hesitation in biting (there was no pause even with a solidly still target) would I have done it this way then? Nope, I would have wanted him behind a tall, strong fence or muzzled and held by an adept handler (neither of which could I get here). Would it have worked better if the husband was holding a leash? Considering how poorly most people handle leashes, especially people with dog trouble, likely not and I likely wouldn’t have been safer either.
Could it have worked if I did it differently? Maybe. Maybe I should have met the dog with neither of them there. On the other hand they didn’t have the facilities to manage him in the meantime and having another significant bite could cause financial ruin and permanent damage to some person. The damage that had been done in whatever attempts they made to stop the biting had increased the problem.
The biggest issue for me was this very short fuse in a big, strong dog and the fact the typical non-threat postures were not effective. So whatever someone did he would attack with multiple hard bites.
It’s been several weeks now since the bites. I still have hard sore knots where his teeth hit, but they’re healing. Will I still work with dogs who have bitten someone? Sure. He was an exception in his reactions caused by a perfect storm of failures and lack of understanding. He certainly taught me some things about paying attention of owner’s reactions, dog/owner byplay and not counting on the dog to be normal especially after electronic collar use.