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— February 25, 2014 —

I turned down a training job last night.
Why would a dog trainer turn down a training job?
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

As a trainer, one of my biggest challenges has been to recognize my own limitations. When I first got started training, I really wanted to be able to fix every behavioral issue and save every problem dog. I have since learned that I can’t.

Last night, an old client came in with his girlfriend. She has a 7 year old beagle named Bailey with a few behavioral issues. Basically, Bailey bites his mom. He bites her over toys, bites her over his position on the couch and he recently bit her boyfriend because he tried to break up a fight between the beagle and his now senior English bulldog. Bailey had attacked the bulldog seemingly out of nowhere.

When I got the phone call, I immediately suspected that there were issues at play that were deeper than what training/behavior modification could fix. Bailey was a senior dog that was described as “nervous and high strung” by the owner. She had adopted him three or so years ago. When he was first adopted, he experienced a couple of siezures. There had only been two that she knew of, so they attributed it to the stress of the adoption and moving into a new home. Bailey had displayed some resource-guarding issues when she first adopted him, which had been worked out. He had also been defensive about being moved from the couch, but she had also made major improvements on that by working with him.

A critical point was made during our discussion. The owners related that Bailey had been much better on his “issues” up until about 3 weeks ago. That was when he had suddenly started showing the old bad behaviors. The bites aren’t extremely damaging. It’s scary and there are scratches, but nothing requiring a trip to the hospital.

During the evaluation, the dog did seem somewhat stressed. He was uncomfortable in the lobby, but never displayed any aggression. He let me pet him and seemed friendly enough. I tried a few tests and never solicited anything more than a startle. He never stiffened, barked or snapped. If I had not heard the back story, I would have thought he was just a normal dog who was nervous about being in a new place with lots of strange dogs.

Whenever a dog shows aggression, especially when it is part of a rapid temperament or behavioral change, the problem needs to be evaluated as a behavioral cause v/s a medical cause. Is the issue caused by simple behavioral changes, or is there a medical issue at play? The thought did cross my mind; the old, “He just needs someone to show him whose boss” idea. Some folks would just think that this dog is just being “dominant” and needed firm training and a more assertive owner. I discarded that idea pretty much immediately for two reasons.
  1. The dog was biting his owner, not a stranger. As a training issue, I generally feel that it is more serious of an issue when a dog bites their owner vs. when a dog that bites a complete stranger. Of course, biting anyone is bad, but biting the “hand that feeds” is to me a bigger challenge as far as training/behavior modification goes.

  2. The dog had suddenly started showing aggressive behaviors that had been successfully dealt with in the past. Since the initial issues were essentially corrected, the sudden increase in aggression indicated that the dog needed to be evaluated by a vet. Chronic pain, hypothyroidism and epilepsy, among other things, can all trigger aggression in dogs. This dog was certainly old enough to have arthritis or thyroid issues and had experienced seizures in the past. All of this pointed to a possible medical cause for his aggression.
Lastly, any time a dog displays aggression, there may be a learned component to it. What this means is that there actually may be a need for additional training once medical causes are either ruled out or addressed. I did ask the clients to follow up with me after the dog had been seen by a vet. If there is a medical issue that they can address, it may be the end of his issues. However, Bailey may have re-learned some of his old, bad behavior. The work that was done years ago may need to be refreshed to help him become re-desensitized to his triggers. However, without addressing the medical stuff, no amount of training is likely to help.

If I get an update from the owners, I will post a follow-up to this Tail. Please check back over the next few weeks to see what we learn.

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