Steve’s report on a serious case that was custom made to turn out bad.
I thought I would give an account of a dog that I worked with over the last couple of months, to give a bit of an insight as to some of the cases we get here at K9 Pro.
Permission from the family who owns DJ has been given but they asked not to be identified as they are wary of the Dangerous Dog Laws in our country…
- DJ is a 3 year old Labrador male, desexed and pure bred.
- Family are Mum, Dad and 3 children, all boys 6, 9, 11.
- Granny is 81.
DJ has never presented the family who he owned with any challenges or problems until Granny came to stay. Granny was living in her family home for a number of years after her husband had passed away, she had been to the family home before, been around DJ for many hours.
Living on her own became a little more challenging and Granny moved into her family’s large home.
It was after a couple of weeks, maybe three that the family remember DJ starting to reserve himself away from Granny and take himself off to another room, they thought he was giving her space. This went on for a little while and it was when Granny had been living there for about 8 – 9 weeks that the event took place.
She was making her way through the house and DJ saw her coming and left the kitchen, in which he had to walk past her to leave the kitchen, Granny gave him some space which knocked her a little off balance, she lightly touched his back to steady herself and DJ turned on her.
There is no better description of the event than, he mauled her, ripping her leg, arm and neck open before finally standing over her staring her down, she laid there in shock and the father came in to see the dog standing over his badly injured mother, before he could say a word DJ ran outside.
An ambulance was called and Granny received some repairs, stayed in hospital for a couple of weeks.
Call the Behaviourist
This is where I came in, the leaders of the family decided to have DJ euthanized and this set off big reactions from the children who loved DJ. They called me in distress wanting to know if there was any way out of this situation.
I know a lot of people will euthanize a dog for any sign of aggression but in reality, most people are over reacting, imagine any time you said a harsh word to anyone you were going to be euthanized?
My first impressions
An emergency in home consult was booked and I went over to the family home to see DJ in action, I arrived and he paid me no real attention, in fact he looked at me out of the side of his eye. I heard that he liked to get to know people in his own time. I asked if he was obedient and they said not really, he likes to do his own thing unless you have food.
I must admit the “he likes” conversations with clients dogs always sit a little uneasy with me… After quite a bit of questioning it unfolded that DJ had never had any training, never been set any limits and as he had never been challenged, therefore he had never shown any aggression either.
DJ Shows me what he doesn’t like…
It was time for me to interact with DJ and see where his trigger points were, I put a leash on him and he expected he was going for a walk, but when I led him toward the back yard, he froze and stood his ground, he was insecure showing lip licking – stoic behaviour.
I gestured him come on and he growled at me, gave me firm eye contact and kept staring at me, I held my ground and it took a good 3 – 4 minutes before he backed down. This is a long time for a dog to decide to re negotiate the terms
In that time I didn’t break eye contact, I didn’t back off and neither did he, DJ gave me the feeling that if I had done it any differently, we would have fought.
I gave the leash to the Dad of the family who went to move DJ who also froze, Dad coaxed him with a high pitched voice toward the front door and DJ moved on.
We proceeded with a walk down the street to the local park, I asked the Dad to do what he normally did with DJ, it became very apparent to me that this family never really asked DJ to do anything he didn’t want to do, and if they did they lured him with treats, but could this be the only reason for the attack?
I discussed my thoughts with the family and they were that:
• DJ was highly dominant, but an un challenged powerful dog.
• He would need a lot of work before he could even be assessed again.
• There was no guarantee that even after weeks of work; he would be safe in this home again.
• The family would need a lot of re educating to even stand a reasonable chance.
They all swore to do anything and everything that was required, but of course many behaviourists have heard this so at times it gets tricky to establish trust in these risky situations.
I offered to take DJ away from the home to initiate some behaviour modification and see how he responded for a couple of weeks, this was the only way I could think of to manage the risks and fully implement my programs on a measured daily basis.
Of course DJ didn’t like this, so of course he responded with aggression many times, safety procedures meant I only interacted with him with a muzzle on, so there were no more bites at all. It was not until after 8 days did he begin to look at guidance as a helpful but rewarding limitation. He became happy to have his muzzle on; happy to go where ever I told him and be guided by the directions I gave him.
We commonly use the Jafco clear (soft muzzle) for this type of work, they mean that if the dog strikes you when wearing the muzzle, the softness of the muzzle does not cause injury or pain for you or the dog. The clear look too really helps not give people that association that they are looking at a killer, it is a soft feeling and soft looking muzzle. Muzzle training your dog is a pro active and responsible step if your dog has any reactivity or aggression at all. Take a look at our article “Why Muzzle your dog”.
By day 14 he was not wearing a muzzle around me and he didn’t have any conflict at all with me asking him to do anything, I never had to fight him, correct him or anything of the sort, just wait him out in most applications and I actually finally shaped some behaviour with the clicker which he found both entertaining and rewarding but I have to mention that 14 days to be certain he would not bite is a serious case.
I progressed to teaching him that he needed to run all decisions past me and anyone telling him what to do was in his advantage. He thrived on the limits I set him and worked hard to be as eager as possible, I ran some Training in drive steps with him also to relieve that retriever tension I am sure he had (purely as a rehab procedure not to teach him anything) and at the end of 4 weeks I had a great dog that was eager, willing and delighted to do anything to please me.
Now of course he had to be tested with other people and finally the family AND Granny.
I had two experienced handlers take him for a walk and put him through his paces, poorly handle him and push him around a little to see how he responded, I watched from afar so that I could see his reactions on his own. DJ was happily submissive and avoided conflict all together; he behaved remarkably different in all situations.
I had been keeping the family updated with his progress along the way and made a time to take him back home for a visit.
The first time back at home…
I went in and the usual jokes were exchanged about how I survived, but I spent half an hour giving them the instructions on how to behave, e.g. not over the top like the King had returned. I chatted with Granny who I must say is an exceptional woman. All the while I had my doubts about her as I thought if she was showing reservations or fear, this plan may fail.
Granny was not in any way scared of DJ, she said “you can’t show them fear, they will have you!”. She was very committed to seeing how he went and was keen to see him.
I brought him in and he wandered straight over to Granny who reached out to pat him, he licked her through his muzzle and was looking very sorry for himself…
I stayed about 90 minutes with DJ and then DJ and I left in which I would spend another two weeks, in this time I asked the family to set him up an outdoor dog kennel and bed, in door crate and bed etc. When he did return he would call outside home until he was invited in, and then once in he would be assigned his crate, not allowed to free run inside the home. Over the next two weeks DJ went from strength to strength with me and all others we encountered, human, dog or elderly.
DJ goes home
The day came when DJ was to go back home, it had been a little under ten weeks and he really had made a big effort to understand and respect pack position, on arrival he was once again respectful and obedient, happily.
I took him out into their yard in which he was shown his kennel and bed, I went through the handling regime and instructed all adults how he needed to be treated. He had been very well muzzle conditioned and they had no problem fitting him with the muzzle. I didn’t use a muzzle at all on him in the last 4 weeks other than to keep up the conditioning but he was grateful to have it fitted. Muzzle conditioning means the dog likes to wear the muzzle and it is not associated at all with aggression, all our muzzles come with a Conditioning program.
Any time he was going to be coming inside for the first month he would need to have this fitted as a precaution. DJ was a serious case and although he didn’t show one bit of aggression after the first 14 days, it is always best to have a safety plan.
When we were all comfortable I left DJ with the family and asked them to report in once per day.
DJ has been going very well with no setbacks at all; it has been 5 weeks at the writing of this article. Granny walks him almost every day and he walks just at heel for her, he does exactly what she asks of him, and likes doing it now too.
I know the complete case was a risk that I know that many people would have walked away from, but when I see a dedicated family who have likely caused most if not all of these issues and one that is willing to do whatever it takes, it is always viable to run a temperament evaluation at least and assess the situation.
So much can be done through behaviour modification programs that it is rare that if we have a dedicated owner, we can’t provide a solution.
Dogs need structure and leadership; this means discipline, a measure of positive and negative guidance especially in their young life.
Train your dog, guide it and if you see anything at all that doesn’t look right, invest in a behaviourist, you can overt major issues if you address problems early.
After this story came out, a lot of people were critical that I took on this case, too much risk, plenty of dogs need homes, euthanise this one. Well DJ is still in the same home, Granny had her 85th Birthday with DJ recently and it has been about 4 years since the event.
There has not been one incident or uncomfortable moment since.
Yes I took a risk on this dog, it paid off, some might say “this time”, but I have a lot of cases just like this one that were still waiting for the dog to turn…