Snapping at Mom


Is that OK?

Dogs are man’s and woman’s best friends but there are species differences. They walk on all 4s and they’re a bit hairier but like us, dogs are genetically programmed to look after their comrades. They’re always on duty; it’s our job to set them up for success.

Kipper was brought to me because of aggression toward the mother of his human family. He was a 2 year old Catahoula mix, a robust 65#. He was well-loved but he was not well-adjusted. He had lunged and growled and snapped at his female owner in the presence of her 5 year old son – often. Serious changes were needed. Punishment would have no place in his management.

I’ve treated thousands of cats and dogs for illnesses and injuries. Their people wanted their pets to feel better. Now, I’m residency trained in disorders of the brains of animals. These pets struggle with unhealthy behaviors. They need to feel better and so do their families. Everybody benefits if we prescribe kindness in large doses.

Kipper, along with his family of 4 humans, crowded into my consulting room. They vibrated with intensity. Dad, in particular, was dead serious about reaching an abrupt end to this dog’s aggression toward his wife. Not surprisingly, Kipper was all business too. In the back yard he attacked the trampoline if the kids squealed or screamed while jumping. His anxiety disorder was clear but why was he trying to hurt his boy’s mother?

The children were strongly bonded to Kipper but their parents believed he might be dangerous. If this dog was going to survive, he would need appropriate behavior modification. The adults’ hard line on his aggression needed a compassionate shift.

When things go wrong in an animal’s behavior it is their brain that needs treatment. Understanding and managing all factors is fundamental to lasting improvement but it’s the inability of these nonhuman creatures to speak in complete sentences that makes veterinary medicine so challenging. The collective angst of this family needed help too.

Part 2

Managing Fear
Find Out How
Fear is often the in-the-moment reason for canine aggression. Adrenalin-driven reactions aren’t always bad; it’s actually a survival mechanism that’s built into all of us. But if it gets out of control it can lead to defensive aggression, injuries, and more fear.

As I gathered the history on Kipper, the Catahoula mix, I came to learn that he endured frequent emotional outbursts from his female owner. The whole family was on edge. Mom unloaded often, triggering Kipper to react. This waiting for the other shoe to drop, for humans and other species, causes a problem called anxiety. It’s the worry that something unpleasant may be lurking around the next corner. I treat a lot of anxiety and fear.

Mutual caring – empathy – is another emotion that’s shared by dogs and humans. It’s part of the reason so many of us share our homes with pets. It’s the glue that bonds them to us. I encourage empathy because it makes kindness possible.

During our consultation Mom provided information freely. She told me that “whenever she severely scolded” her 5 year old son, as she put it, Kipper became aggressive toward her, lunging and snapping at her face.

The idea of frequent severe scolding of a 5 year old triggered an immediate reaction in me. I felt jolted back to the emotional and physical violence of my childhood. I immediately understood Kipper’s fear and his impulse to protect. I needed to help. But I’m a veterinary behaviorist. What do I know about family counseling? I was flying by the seat of my pants on this one.

Kipper’s aggression was not just about his boy’s mother; this dog’s unhealthy behavior also played a significant part. He didn’t just stand closer to his child to protect him. Kipper was reacting violently. Punishing him could only worsen his anxiety and fear. He needed to cope better and feel better too. Antianxiety medication, while never the only solution, improved this struggling dog’s wellbeing and his behavior.

Part 3

Kipper’s Boy Kept his Dog
What Changed?
I was just 8 years old when I made my first trip to the animal hospital with my new puppy. I felt inspired by Dr. Tuck; he was kind to me and my new dog “Scott”. I was fascinated and I was struck by this gentle doctor’s professionalism. I knew right then that I wanted be a veterinarian.

Scott was this boy’s best friend but my parents got fed up with his indoor urination mistakes and took him to the shelter. Kindness had no place in the discussion. I missed that little guy but I stuck with my plan. I was going to make a difference.

There were clear triggers for Kipper, the Catahoula, to lunge and snap at his boy’s mother. So I made a suggestion. I told Mom that by talking to her young son in quieter tones she could reduce the risk of Kipper perceiving a threat to his boy. This good lady was willing to make whatever change was necessary. She set her ego aside. Over several months new habits developed. She now reports that Kipper has stopped his aggressive lunging. She’s happier when I see her with Kipper and her son. Her kindness toward them both has improved everybody’s wellbeing. Mine too.

It was a good thing that Kipper’s family kept him. Had they gotten rid of him they would have missed an opportunity to practice kindness. Their children might have come away believing that challenging relationships are best abandoned. The kindness that their mother showed Kipper will help them become better adults.

Pets are excellent models for kindness because they never grow tired of us and they’ll never leave. They forgive our mistakes and give us a second chance. Pets can set a pretty good example.

I’ve often pictured the ancient Greek philosopher and storyteller Aesop with a cat in his lap, a small child by his side, or just a random adult nearby, somebody saddled with emotional wounds, when the old timer said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”