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Can You Change a Dangerous Dog’s Behavior?

What factors make behavior modification more or less likely to succeed? The Dog Trainer explains

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
November 22, 2010
Episode #085

As my regular readers may know, most of my clients come to me concerned about their dog’s behavior problems--fear and aggression. The humans in the partnership often ask me two questions: Can I help their dog? and How long will it take? This week, I’ll explain what factors affect the odds of success in a behavior case. (1)

Can You Change a Dangerous Dog’s Behavior?

Danger is obviously a prognostic biggie. How much damage does the dog do? A dog who’s snapped and bitten 20 times but drawn blood only once, with a single tooth puncture, certainly has problems. But I worry more about a dog who’s delivered four or five bites that all needed stitches. Size makes a difference - a 20-pound dog and an 80-pound dog may do exactly the same thing with their teeth, but the 80-pounder will inflict a lot more harm.

A dog who aggresses only in a couple of predictable, controllable situations is much easier to help than a dog with issues around food and toys and bicycles and guests and random strangers on the street. Some dogs give a lot of notice before they bite--they stiffen, they stare, curl a lip, growl, and snap. Those dogs are much, much safer than the ones who say it first and fastest with their teeth.

It’s More Risky to Have Dangerous Dogs Around Old People and Children

Family circumstances affect risk and the odds of “success.” People who are elderly or ill often have fragile skin, so a bite that would be minor if delivered to me can do serious damage to them. Children, too, have delicate skin. They are also short, so their faces are at mouth level for most dogs. Now consider two equally hard bites, one to the meaty palm of a healthy adult’s hand, the other to the face of a child. The hand may need washing out with soap and a couple of bandages. “My dog’s behavior is much improved, but it’s possible he’ll nail my hand a couple of times in his life” is an outcome a lot of people can accept. Two dozen stitches and lifelong scars on the face of a child--that’s a different risk, and one many parents, quite reasonably, aren’t willing to take.  

Not only does the same degree of aggression become more damaging when directed toward a child, but also the margin for error is a lot smaller. Toddlers and small children can’t read dog body language, and even if they could, they’re too young to regulate their own behavior in response. I get very twitchy if there’s a two-year-old in the house with a dog who snaps when you take a toy away from him. The twitching ratchets down if I see that the adults in the household are well organized and capable, and if they respond eagerly to the safety measures I advise. It ratchets way up if Dad is in denial and Mom spends more of our session checking her Twitter feed than talking with me.

A Dog’s Suffering Affects His Prognosis

Most problems can improve, at least to the point where they’re manageable and everybody’s got a decent quality of life.

Problems can be severe without being dangerous, too. Separation anxiety costs many dogs their homes and lives, and not necessarily because their guardians don’t care about them. Behavior modification often calls for gradually longer departures, with the dog never being left alone long enough to provoke panic. The right medications can speed the process, but not every dog is helped by them. How do we balance the pace of improvement against the dog’s immediate misery? And what if the dog’s distress comes out in all-day barks and shrieks, there’s an eviction notice in the mail, and the family just can’t afford that house in the country with the nearest neighbors a mile away?

How Old Is the Dog?

A dog’s age can cut both ways. On the one hand, the behavior of young animals is generally more mutable than the behavior of adults. And in general, the younger the dog, the less time he’s been rehearsing an undesirable behavior till it’s well entrenched. On the other hand, if a problem behavior shows up early in life, it may well have a genetic component. “Genetic” does not equal “unchangeable,” but it might mean we’re swimming upstream.

Did the behavior show up suddenly in an adult dog? That, too, might be good news or bad. If your older dog who’s always loved petting snaps at you one day when you stroke her hindquarters, I’m sending you right to the vet. With any luck, he’ll turn up a treatable medical condition and solve the “behavior problem” right there. But a physical difficulty may be chronic and insoluble. For instance, an old dog going blind and deaf may snap not only because she’s achy but also because she’s constantly being taken by surprise. Maybe the best we can do is teach everyone in the household to stamp on the floor and let her know they’re coming.

You Can Improve the Chance That You’ll Succeed

Some aspects of prognosis are under your control. The longer your dog practices a given behavior--whether that’s a down-stay or lunging and barking at other dogs on the street--the more deeply it becomes entrenched. A few, very few, problems get better on their own. (Let me see, what’s that percentage of high school basketball stars who get contracts with the NBA?) So if you’re worried, talk to a good behavior consultant right away. Someone just contacted me about what I’m pretty sure is normal puppy nipping, but even normal puppy nipping, if you don’t know how to teach appropriate alternatives, can turn into an annoying and potentially dangerous habit.  

You also need to be willing to work. Alas, behavior specialists do not have a dog-repair toolkit--well, we do, but since we don’t live with your dog, the best we can do is analyze the problem, refer you for a veterinary consultation if appropriate, get you started on how to use the tools, and coach and encourage you while you do the work. Any behavior change is hard. It’s hard for our dogs, and it’s hard for us to learn how to interact differently with our dogs and manage their lives in the careful way that can help them succeed.

Two pieces of good news here. One: Although we can never consider aggression “cured,” most problems can improve, at least to the point where they’re manageable and everybody’s got a decent quality of life. Two: I’m the guardian of a puppy who ruined his own first playdate by attacking his date. So I’m in a position to tell you how powerful the bond of trust and love can be with a dog you work to save.

Note
1.  It’s probably impossible to assess real-world behavior change objectively. We have a pretty good idea of what methods are safest and most effective, but evaluating our results isn’t like measuring the percentage of Staph germs a given antibiotic kills in your Petri dish. (See “The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals,” a position statement by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior that explains why nonpunitive methods are better.)
 
For one thing, what counts as “success”? One client might be happy with results that would lead another to euthanize her dog. Have we succeeded if a dog who used to bark and lunge at children on the street can now walk calmly past them, but still has to be crated behind a closed door when the grandkids visit? What if a dog who attacked the first puppy he had a playdate with can’t visit the dog park but enjoys a few carefully introduced canine friends? With all this complication, we can’t tell for sure which factors are how important in making happy endings more or less likely. But probably most behavior professionals would include the factors in this article. (Check out Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB, “Assessing Prognosis in Aggressive Dogs,” presentation before the 80th Western Veterinary Conference [2008]. The outline is available at http://wvc.omnibooksonline.com/; click “2008” in the left-hand column and go to the table of contents.)

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