By the time people have come to me for help with a dog’s aggression problems, the situation is often pretty serious and it’s not unusual for people to be at the end of their rapidly fraying ropes. Though not every situation has a fairy-tale ending, I approach each new case with optimism, partly because that’s my basic nature, but also because it reflects my experience that once in a while, a dog improves more than I imagined possible. Every unexpected happy ending is an occasion to celebrate, both because success is wonderful for the people and dogs involved, and because I always learn something new.
The fierce look on my client’s face when she said she had been advised by a vet, two trainers and a groomer to euthanize her mixed-breed dog Bear was matched by her words: “We’re just not going to do that, so please don’t waste my time and money by suggesting it.” She adopted him after her husband died, and he had helped the kids with the loss of their father; they loved the dog and couldn’t say good-bye to him. He was an angel with the woman and her two children and aggressive with everybody else.
Bear’s aggression was clearly fear-related and extremely serious. On multiple occasions, he had bitten men, women and children, sometimes bruising skin, other times breaking it. Even more discouraging than the large number of bites was the fact that in the two years since Bear had joined the woman and her children, he had never become comfortable with a single person outside the family.
My deep concern about the likelihood of this dog overcoming his fear continued during the early stages of working with him. It took weeks of hard effort using counterconditioning for him to even marginally improve. It was nearly a month before we could be certain that he was making progress because it came at a glacial pace.
Then one day, everything changed. We were working with a person whom Bear had been exposed to at low intensities multiple times. She was sitting calmly about 40 feet away. Treats were tossed and the dog took them, though, as usual, despite being relaxed, he didn’t seem too happy.
Then, I swear, we could almost see the light bulb go on over his head. He suddenly seemed to make the connection between the person and the treats. Oh, I get it! I love treats, and people make them appear. I guess people aren’t so bad after all. This is a great world and it’s filled with great treats and great people who throw them for me. It’s all so wonderful! Bear looked at the woman, began to salivate, had more treats tossed for him and tried to pull closer. He was actually trying to approach a person outside the family for the first time, and he was happy about it.
After that, progress was rapid and easily generalized to new people. Within a few weeks, Bear stopped behaving aggressively because he was no longer fearful. He was glad to see new people even outside of organized sessions, and eagerly approached strangers in a way that was previously unimaginable.
Bear taught me that while most fearful dogs learn gradually and tend to progress at a slow and steady rate, some have flashes of insight. They experience what I can only compare to a “Helen Keller-at-the-well” a-ha! moment, followed by rapid progress.
In some cases, the big picture involves so much more than the dog’s behavior, extending well into family dynamics and human interactions. A couple came in with their Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Rusty. The wife was afraid of the dog and didn’t want to keep him, but the husband had no problems and wouldn’t agree to rehome Rusty. He had given up a dog as a child and never got over it.
The husband wanted me to tell his wife that she needed to stop letting the dog push her around. The wife wanted me to tell her husband that the dog would bite her again, she couldn’t stop it and it wasn’t safe to keep him. I knew that success would require compromise and cooperation, but the couple’s relationship and the woman’s relationship with the dog both seemed almost beyond repair. The humans were very angry with each other, and it was hard to imagine that changing. With all this conflict, nobody was happy, including the dog.