Dear Inquisitive Canine:
Last year we took our dog, Colby, on vacation with us. Because of health issues with my stepmother’s dog, Colby ended up spending much more time in his kennel than he was used to. Since that trip, we have had behavior issues with Colby, even after returning home and being back into our normal routine.
Colby now growls at me and both of my sons, ages 10 and 6. He has snapped at both boys and actually bitten my oldest. I have read books on how to correct this behavior, and have tried advice from a friend who trains search and rescue dogs. Nothing has worked.
Can you help us find our kind, loving friend again, or are we to deal with a cranky dog for the rest of his life?
— The Hunt Family
Dear Hunt Family:
Thank you for continuing your efforts in finding a solution for Colby and his behavior issue. From what you’ve described, it does sound as if the initial triggers for Colby were the various events that happened during your vacation. Good job for recognizing that.
As a certified professional dog trainer and one who practices techniques rooted in the science camp of behavior modification, the training path I will send you down has more to do with creating pleasant and wonderful associations for Colby. In other words, the training exercises will have more to do with manipulating Colby’s environment so he’ll learn to trust people and feel excited about life again, as opposed to asking him to do something to get something. This type of “classical conditioning” will help Colby see the world in a different way, as opposed to his cranky perspective.
You and your sons, and whomever else Colby comes into contact with, are going to need to focus on the type of environmental predictions you create for Colby. From what you describe, it sounds as if Colby predicts an unfavorable outcome when you and your boys provide certain cues. The goal is for Colby to gain back his trust in the human race.
I will provide some basic training guidelines to help with the matter of Colby snapping and biting, as well as other tips:
» Medical screening. Although unlikely, especially since this has been going on for more than a year, if you were one of my private dog-training clients I still would ask that you have Colby examined by a veterinarian. Pain and discomfort make us all cranky. Colby may have obtained a minor injury that hasn’t healed, or some other illness that has caused him not to feel well. It’s best to rule out any medical issue first.
» Dog communication. It’s also important to understand that Colby’s growling, snapping and biting could be his way of communicating to you that something is upsetting him. To learn more about how to decipher your dog’s body language and warning signals, check out my dog training blog.
Most humans don’t like to be told how or what to feel, or that we’re wrong or bad if we feel a certain way. It’s even more irritating if we’re upset to begin with! I bet our pet dogs don’t appreciate it either. We want to know that we can trust our loved ones to be supportive, nurturing and trustworthy.
Here are a few activities you and your boys can practice that can help Colby achieve that happy state of mind once again:
» Start providing all things good for Colby, without asking him to do anything specific. If Colby is comfortable having you and your boys hand-feed him his meals, that would be a perfect opportunity to strengthen the human-canine bond.
» Take time to read Colby’s body language. Is he in the mood to play? Is he approaching you and your boys for attention? A wiggle-waggle loosy-goosey approach no doubt means “Hi! Let’s play!” He would be communicating the opposite to you by walking away and ignoring you, or growling as you approach.
» Is he guarding objects such as bones and toys, and doesn’t want to be disturbed? If Colby is growling and biting when he has a bone or item he doesn’t want you to touch, it’s best to work with a certified professional dog trainer who specializes in resource guarding.
» Allow Colby to set the pace on playtime and petting. Refrain from forcing him to interact if he isn’t showing any interest. Allow him to come to you.
» Enroll Colby in a reward-based dog training class to help you and your boys enhance your human-canine bond.
» Use high-value rewards such as small pieces of steak or chicken whenever you are training, and feel free to give them to Colby at random moments. Spoil him not as a bribe but as a way to help Colby gain trust while having fun at the same time. That will create a “predictive relationship”: boys = steak. For more information on using food treats for training and building trust, check out Poncho’s Prose dog blog.
With consistency and a little effort, Colby will begin to equate all of his human family members with everything that is fantastic for him, which in turn should get him back to his happy-go-lucky self.
— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified pet dog trainer and dog behavior counselor. Her column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.