Rescued dog in need of attention
This column deals with a fairly typical client concern, a rescued dog that becomes fearful. In the first of this two-part series, I will focus on the history and diagnosis. The second part will concentrate on treatment. In many of these cases the clients think that the dog was "abused" and was made fearful because of the abuse. In most cases the assumption that there was outright abuse is wrong, and the clients can benefit from knowing that dogs raised perfectly can also exhibit fear. This case is the exception: the dog really did have a traumatic upbringing and the nuanced way in which this may have affected his many behavioral concerns may never fully be appreciated.
The patient was a male, castrated, approximately 5 year old ~40 kg (large, but slender) German Shepherd.
The client obtained the dog through a local German Shepherd rescue service. They had received the dog after a raid of one of Pennsylvania's most notorious puppy mills. When this dog was seized, both his front legs were broken.
The owner of the establishment confessed to backing over the dog with the tractor and then just placing him in a cage. Since this dog was just one of their breeders, the puppy mill owner felt that lameness would not interfere with the dog's purpose. The veterinarian who worked with the rescue group plated both legs, and the dog healed.
Because this dog may have been used as a breeder as soon as he was first able (nine months), there is considerable debate about this dog's age. The puppy mill owner stated that this dog was a pup he'd bred on the premises. The youngest estimates, based on history and dental and coat condition, suggest that he may be only 3.
At this puppy mill, all breeding dogs were always kept individually in small cages. There was no play, training or regular exercise and no group activity.
After the rescue
This dog entered a household that had two other older German Shepherds. One of them was fairly serious when barking at the neighbors, and had earlier been successfully treated for behavioral problems. The other German Shepherd was very arthritic and dysplastic, but very good, behaviorally, with the new dog.
The client was very concerned that the dog that had been treated for behavioral problems, had "taught" this dog everything that was socially unacceptable and may have been responsible for the new dog's fearful behavior. The client had the dog for 14 months before our appointment, and in that time both other German Shepherd companions had died. She believed that this dog then felt he had to step into the "protective" role held by his former companions.
Shortly after getting this dog, the client went to a "positive methods" obedience class. She was very definite about this because she had taken her dog with the behavioral problems to another trainer in the area who used shock and prong collars on him, and recommended "alpha rolls". To this day she blames that trainer for her first German Shepherd's behavioral problems. Having been to a behavior clinic with her first problem dog, she knew that there was no logical rationale for such inhumane treatment and that trainers using positive methods were becoming more common.
By the third attempt to find a humane trainer, this dog was very wary.
When off-lead, a puppy approached him, he barked deeply, and the client felt she should only work him on-lead, a decision with which the leader of the class concurred because a few people in the class were afraid of his size. In addition, I spoke with the trainer who commented that both the woman and the shepherd were so nervous that everyone else in the class was nervous.
The trainer had recommended private lessons to teach some manners, and then suggested integration into very small classes with calm dogs. The client agreed that this was a good idea but was so concerned about her ability to implement the suggestions that she sought a consultation first.
Several months later, the client was working with the patient on-lead in a field when a huge Mastiff approached, off-lead. The patient barked, and the Mastiff owner, who had, by then, caught up with the dog, kicked at the patient, which then withdrew, barking frantically.
Other dog interactions were inconsistent. Sometimes the animal behaved normally around other dogs, other times it acted inappropriately.
General patterns of the patient's behavior that may be important to know included that, by the time of the appointment, he would bark and lunge at other dogs when seen and when he was on a leash (the client was terrified to take him off-lead), he barked and lunged at joggers as they passed, he barked and bounced off the door when people rang the bell, and he has occasionally, and only when he was initially in this home, charged random people on the street when being leash-walked.
Additionally, this dog occasionally vocalized (about 40 percent of the time) when left by the client, but this did not occur if the dog sitter came. He also reacted to anyone who tried to take a rawhide, a real bone, a biscuit or other food items from him. The client was also extremely distressed that whenever she pulled up to a stoplight and someone looked at the dog in the car, or if she went to a gas station, the dog was a ringer for the classic German Shepherd attack dog.
Realizing that this dog was highly energetic and very smart, the client had attempted to provide adequate stimulation and exercise, but her yard was small, forcing her to use public parks. Because of the situations already described, she was worried about keeping him safe from other dogs in these areas, and didn't even feel comfortable assessing his behavioral propensities with other dogs, so few had these been. The client did note, however, that the dog had been fine when he was off-lead and surprised by other dogs in a remote section of the park and that he was very good at pet stores where dogs were welcome.
This makes sense: leashed dogs are trapped - generally within their minimum approach distance (1-1.5 dog lengths); unleashed dogs can get away and have some control over the pace and type of interactions.
A prong collar was used once, but it made the dog worse, and she fit the dog with a Gentle Leader as she had her previous dogs.
Finally, the client noted in her written history: "If I am upset, he becomes more reactive. He is extremely affectionate and loving."
Physical and laboratory examinations:
He had recently undergone a complete physical and laboratory evaluation, including radiography of his front legs. He tolerated all the manipulation without a problem, and nothing untoward was noted.
My exam showed that he was sensitive about having his front legs manipulated, and that he did not like having his head handled from behind. If he knew you were going to touch his face he was fine, but if it appeared that you were going to hold his head or muzzle (or muzzle him) he snapped.
It's important to realize that this dog never connected with my skin, and could have if he wanted to. His actions were all about "warning". He continued to permit full physical examination, including examining all of his teeth and his throat.
Because this dog had been a total delight throughout the entire consultation, grabbing any available toys and placing them in my lap for "fetch", I conducted a provocative behavioral examination with him. This involved walking the patient on a leash with the Gentle Leader in two situations: (1) those involving unfamiliar humans and circumstances and (2) those involving an unfamiliar dog.
The patient alerted to strange humans and cars passing, and was pretty vigilant, scanning all the time. If I handled the lead, this tendency decreased. If I could engage the client in conversation while she walked the dog and paid less attention to him, his vigilance decreased.
It's important to note that the client was able to pay less attention to the dog because I told her that I would be responsible for "worrying" so that she didn't have to and she only had to rein the dog in if I said so. Once, someone stopped to look at the dog and he began to grumble. Since I had already taught him that if he sat and "looked" directly at me he would get a treat, I just said his name, asked him to "look", and he sat and calmed for the treat. The single clearest piece of information that I obtained during this walk was that the client was a nervous wreck. I almost had to physically stop her from using the leash as a winch every time something moved. It was clear that the dog's vigilance and scanning - classic non-specific signs of anxiety - worsened when she exhibited those behaviors. I had to explain to her that since the dog took his cues from her, her behavior was serving to tell him that he was correct in worrying in inappropriate circumstances.
The dog we used to test the patient was my rescue Aussie, Flash. Flash has the priceless talent - not only of speaking fluent dog - but being able to translate it for me so I can learn if the dog is aggressive because he must control another person or another dog, or if he is that way because he is fearful, uncertain, unschooled or unexposed.
On-lead Flash walked right up to this dog that was partially hiding behind the woman and licked the corner of the dog's mouth. He then took off for the walk, with the patient trotting calmly beside him and slightly behind. Whenever I asked Flash to sit on the walk, the client asked her dog to sit and look at her. This way, we had a method by which we could interrupt his reactions to cars, people, etc. By the time we had finished the walk, the dog was watching Flash for all cues. When we returned from the walk we let both dogs off-lead.
Flash immediately rolled on his back on the grass and rubbed around while the other dog sniffed him. When Flash stood, the other dog tried to push on him. Flash backed off and gave a play bow. The other dog clubbed him with his front legs and grabbed him by the side of the neck. Flash ducked out of this and then tackled the patient grabbing his neck and rolling on the grass. By now the client almost needed CPR. She was worried that her dog was too rough and that he would re-injure his legs. The chances of the latter were remote, and Flash was more than competent to judge and deal with the former. The dogs played like this for almost an hour.
The patient was diagnosed with attention-seeking behavior which was really only slightly out-of-context, fear aggression, primarily to other dogs, and protective and territorial aggression that I really felt was mostly in-context, but I wanted to alert the client to the fact that it could spiral into inappropriate and possibly dangerous behavior if not appropriately directed.
In addition, the dog had some food-related aggression that we decided to manage by just letting him eat in peace. Since there were no young children or other dogs that could be threatened by the patient, this wasn't a problem.
It was interesting, though, that the oldest dog in the household had been able to take food from the patient if he wanted to do so. In fact, when all three dogs were alone, the oldest dog always ended up with all the rawhides.
The second part of this column next month will address diagnosis and treatment strategies.