Ankle Biter Redemption


Challenge Your Knowledge of Canine Behavior
Multiple choice: Dogs adopted as adults, who are aggressive toward the man in the home: (a) Were previously mistreated by a male (b) Are jealous, wanting the woman all to themselves (c) Are frightened by the macho, but gentle dude who guzzles battery acid instead of coffee in the morning (d) Are trying to be dominant (e) Have an Oedipus complex.

In my veterinary behavior practice I see a wide variety of disorders; the most common are manifested by aggression. Some dogs declare war on strangers, family members, cats, other dogs, hot air balloons, even TV animals. The targets of these hostile acts aren’t happy but neither are the perpetrators. Everybody wants the problem solved at least 10 minutes ago.

Sally and Raymond brought their 3 year old hound, Brandi, to me because she was chasing Raymond around the house while barking, growling, and snapping at his ankles. Brandi delighted in snuggling with Sally but she seemed to hate Raymond’s guts. None of the training methods they had tried made any difference. They were flummoxed and upset. They loved Brandi but they all needed relief, especially Raymond.

Knee-jerk remedies for aggression include yelling, dominating, hitting, surrender to a shelter, or even euthanasia. These quick and dirty methods fail because only the growling and snapping are addressed. Like withholding water from someone who drinks and urinates excessively, the symptoms may diminish while the patient worsens. It breaks my heart when well-meaning attempts to help actually cause harm.

Most humans, much like our dogs, carry the capacity for empathy. We can understand the struggles of another person by walking a mile in their shoes. If we shift our thinking, and learn what makes a different species tick, we can apply that kindness to them as well.

Whatever the symptom: lameness, coughing, vomiting, or unhealthy behavior, there is no substitute for a diagnosis. My job for Brandi started with figuring out why she reacted to Raymond. Only then could I set about helping her and her people. Oh, the answer to the quiz is (c).


Why are Men the Dog Devil?
If a saber toothed tiger is charging at you, an adrenalin surge is well justified. But Brandi had no logical cause for her fear. Raymond had treated her well since the moment she’d arrived in her new home.

Studies show that most women carry themselves more gracefully, speaking with quieter, more evenly modulated voices than men – who crash around like bulls in a china shop. (Who’s ever heard of a cow in a china shop?) A well-adjusted pet can accept these differences but Brandi struggled to adapt. She was immediately hypervigilant, ready for any threat that lurked around the next corner. Raymond was a quiet man but tall and quick in his movements. His demeanor was enough to establish him as an axe murderer, well, at least in Brandi’s eyes.

Most canine anxiety disorders are genetically programmed. Brandi’s behavior suggested that she may also have missed out on early socialization with people of various sizes, sexes, ages, and ethnicities when she was 7-12 weeks old, making her highly suspicious of aliens she never learned to trust. She wasn’t sexist but frightened. She barked and lunged at Raymond hoping to chase him across the county line.

When this nervous family arrived at my office, I watched quietly from a distance as Brandi was led out of the car. The poor girl crouched with her ears retracted as she scanned for bigfoot. Even my best imitation of a potted plant triggered a brief step back as she “boofed,” and then lurched at me hoping I’d make a run for the border. To diminish her perception of impending mayhem (I made a point of leaving my axe home that day) I slowly turned and led her and her people into the clinic.

I could speculate on Brandi’s first impression of Raymond. Not knowing any better he may have laughed loudly or exhibited an exquisitely exuberant embrace of his new dog. I found this good man entirely likable. I never asked about his quaffing of battery acid but, like most personal affects, it was better left unspoken. Brandi feared him because he wasn’t Sally.


Who had to Change? Everybody
I felt bad for Raymond, assaulted through no fault of his own, but it was Brandi the big hound who spent nearly every waking moment on the edge of hysteria. She watched Raymond with one eye, anticipating that this kindly Dr. Jekyll might transform into the murderous Mr. Hyde at any moment. But there was more going on in that confused canine cabeza.

Anxiety is an unfounded worry about what might lurk around the next corner. Beyond Brandi’s angst regarding Raymond’s purported evil intent, she freaked-out at doorways. Normal household noises like the furnace switching on triggered her to jump and bark. She hated going near the car, let alone getting in. Visitors scared the poop out of her, quite literally. She was snappish at doggy daycare. Brandi suffered from generalized anxiety disorder.

This suffering dog’s fear center, her amygdala, was on alert, ready to signal her adrenal glands to release a torrent of adrenalin whenever Raymond stood. Her prefrontal cortex, the thinking, decision-making part of her brain, got flooded. In those moments of overwhelm it was impossible for her to choose how best to respond. She defaulted to explosive aggression – every time. This poor dog desperately wanted to feel better. Her brain needed to function normally.

Part of our oath, on graduation from veterinary school, dedicates us to “the relief of animal suffering.” We also want the disorders we treat to improve. Brandi had to be able to relax in order to learn healthier behavior. I prescribed sertraline, a safe antianxiety medication with a very low risk of side effects.

Having Brandi drag a leash whenever she was inside made it possible for her people to teach her what to do instead of chasing, barking, and ankle biting. I advised Raymond to quietly announce his intention to stand. Wearing a treat bag on her waist, Sally would hold out a snack and call Brandi as she tugged gently on the leash. The food reinforcer was always there for her when she arrived. Compliance with another simple command like Sit, Down, or even a trick, would be reinforced with another tidbit. Meanwhile Raymond quietly moved about the house.

Notice that nobody scolded the wigged-out Brandi? Punishing fear would trigger more of it. Instead, Sally and Raymond set their dog up for success.

man with a wrench

Bite the Food, Not the Person
By calling Brandi and rewarding her with a treat Sally was able to preempt this big hound’s fear-driven assaults on Raymond. Her good man could now walk around the house without igniting a barrage of canine invective and hostility. Our patient had become somewhat more manageable but her people were getting tired of constant constable duty.

Could this relationship improve? Would Brandi and Raymond someday share a father – daughter dance? There was better living through chemistry: the sertraline was certainly helping. So I took the plunge and advised Raymond to “jackpot” Brandi by tossing a handful of treats prior to standing. My hope was that she’d wildly chase the scattered snacks instead of Raymond. Sadly, this adaptation of current learning theory consistently collapsed. Brandi barked and chased Raymond and, only after he left the room or sat back down did she enjoy winning the dog treat lottery. I had tried a giant leap when a baby step would have been more prudent.

We recalculated. I asked Raymond take the leash and wear the treat bag. He called his dog, gave her a treat, stood and walked while handing her one tiny snack after another. This worked pretty well. When Brandi heard her name she happily trotted to the big guy, ready to earn more food as he led her around the house. Of course, there was a fly in this ointment.

With her anxiety diminished Brandi was now learning like an A student but when Raymond headed for the door to fetch a wrench from the garage, take out the trash, or leave for work the wheels fell off. Exiting the house was a high crime, triggering a spate of barking, chasing, and raised hair over Brandi’s shoulders and rump.

When the neural circuits in the brain rehearse a ramp-up in agitation the synapses get stronger. Unhealthy reactions escalate even faster. We’d be accelerating down the wrong path. Sally and Raymond needed to ignore what they did not want because any response from a leader would validate and reinforce a canine behavior they were trying desperately to extinguish.

play ball

Correct by Not Scolding? Find out How!
Ignore bad behavior? Am I crazy? Sally and Raymond, like a lot of us, loved their dog like a little person in a furry suit. In many ways, that’s healthy for pets and for us but different species have different behavioral genetics.

Dogs do not believe they have the right to a response from their leaders. They earn this great privilege by their behavior of the moment. If we respond in any way, they are sure we want more of their antics – good or bad. Reprimanding “Brandi” would actually reinforce her fear-driven attempts to chase Raymond. She’d think he wanted more of her agitated barking and ankle biting, which he did not.

Raymond has maintained his commitment to Brandi. He still passes her treats as he stands and while walking around the house. Everybody is happy until he heads for the door, a transgression that consistently triggers this big hound to charge and bark fiendishly. But the aggressive element is missing now. Videos of her recent mad pursuits show high arousal, for sure, but gone are the retracted ears, pulled back lips, and raised hair. What makes the door so important? We’ll never know.

The goal of converting behaviorally disordered pets to model citizens is sometimes unrealistic. For a dog like Brandi we considered improved quality of life – for everybody – at least a base hit if not a home run. Poor long-suffering Raymond needed a break. A simple management adjustment would suffice.

The hero of our story leaves for work first. He now puts Brandi in another room, before her breakfast, gives her a stuffed food toy and then, adopting his best ninja moves, sneaks out the door unseen. After his car is out of ear shot Sally releases their dog. This daily ritual is the new normal.

Brandi and Raymond play ball in the yard. She comes happily when he calls her. She’s more relaxed, sort of, when he stands. The pathways in her brain are continuing to shift but they’ll never be fully normal. Those neural circuits of hers, just like everybody else’s, are in a lifelong state of flux. It’s a journey but she’s not alone.