Before Christmas I got a text from a trainer friend that grabbed my undivided attention: he had just left the Emergency Room with multiple punctures and sutures in both his arm and his neck. A large German Shepherd he was working with had "gone off" and attacked him. He was shaken, upset, sore, and above all worried that he had just cost this dog his life. He knew that after inflicting these extensive injuries the dog would most likely be killed.
Two days later he messaged me. The message was "Thankful to be alive but not handling this well. They are going to euthanize the dog. Physically I will heal, but emotionally I am torn up." The dog had been destroyed.
The next day he came over. We sat out in the carport and in between emotional flashbacks and tears he told me the story.
His call had come in a few days before. A local owner had been referred to him for an "aggressive" dog. My friend (for ease of reference we will call him "Joe"-not his name) is an experienced trainer, and has worked with many difficult dogs, so he listened. The owner, an elderly lady, explained that she had been told to call him by a Veterinary Behaviorist (who we will call VB) because they had heard that he was capable. The dog, a seven year old German Shepherd, was showing troubling behavior towards the owner and others. The behaviorist had been out and met the dog but did not observe any problems.
Joe was excited at the prospect of being referred by a high level professional. After all, recognition by a professional colleague as competent is always a big deal. Joe took the client's information and called the Vet. They spoke for some time about the dog and the Vet's observations. The Vet had been at the home for two hours and had not seen any of the problem behaviors the owner had complained about. No blatant aggression, no guarding issues, no hazard flags waving. This sounded like a pretty routine case, more a matter of reactivity than open aggression. The general plan was to make friends with the dog, find the specific behavior triggers, establish some routines and progressive desensitization protocols to reduce the dog's reactivity-another regular day at work.
So Joe made his appointment and went to work. He called and talked with the owner, a slight older woman. She explained that the dog was her husband's. He had wanted a German Shepherd for much of his life, and was rapidly dying. To ease his last days they had found a dog for adoption on Craigslist. The dog was presented as a mature 7 year old male with no problems. The original owners had the dog since puppy hood but were moving and could not take the dog with them.*
The husband met the dog and fell in love with this beautiful male. They went home thinking that this companion would make the man's last days more comfortable.
The dog appeared to love the man. He was a little touchy around other people, she said, but the man and his wife were more focused on the man's deteriorating condition. After the dog had been in the home about two months the man died. It was three weeks after the man's death that the woman contacted VB and Joe.
Through her grief the woman explained that the dog had shown aggressive displays towards other people while with her husband, and even some "difficult" reactions towards her husband, but the behaviour had become worse. She was torn between keeping a dog that was too big for her to handle and difficult towards others and the alternative of letting go of something that was, at least for a while, part of her late husband. She was not actually afraid of the dog, but she was becoming less comfortable, which is why she sought help. Her feelings towards the dog were colored by the association with her late husband, so she was motivated to do what she could to keep the dog.
Joe arrived at the house and spoke to the woman for a few minutes. Joe was seated in the living room when the client offered to have him meet the dog. Instead of bringing the dog in safely on lead the dog cam bounding in, straight for Joe. The dog placed his large head right in Joe's lap. Unsure of the dog's intentions, Joe did not touch the dog but spoke calmly to him "Good dog, good boy". Joe had a large amount of treats in his hands, and began feeding the treats to the dog, telling him "Good boy, easy dog". So far, thought Joe, so good.
Joe had been told that the dog had been kept on a prong collar. When Joe looked at the dog's collar he also saw that the dog was simultaneously on an electronic fence collar. The client explained that the previous owners told them the dog had been on both a prong collar and an electronic collar since puppy hood. They said that the prong was the only way to control the dog on leash, and that the electronic fence was the way to keep him in the yard.
Joe is a trainer who is dedicated to only using positive methods to train. In his mind his first priority was to get the prong collar off the dog, immediately followed by removing the electronic collar. Joe had not yet even touched the dog other than to give him treats. Joe decided the best way to "make friends" was to go from seated in a chair to sitting on the floor, at face level with the dog, to make himself seem less potentially threatening.
This succeeded momentarily. The dog allowed Joe to quickly reach towards his collars, even though he was tense. Joe, after two tries, got the electronic collar free, madly feeding the dog treats. Joe was still on the floor, with the dog right in his face. The woman seemed to be unable to direct the dog by voice, and Joe was determined to get the prong collar off.
Joe reached for the prong collar and the situation immediately changed. The dog "roared" (as Joe described it later) and engulfed the side of Joe's face and neck in his mouth. Thankfully for all involved the dog honestly showed substantial control of his powerful jaws-he did not rip Joe's face off. His upper teeth connected with Joe's left eyebrow and corner of his eye, while the dog's lower teeth engaged Joe's neck and the side of his lower jaw. Joe drew back and got his left arm up when the dog reengaged, grabbing Joe's forearm and latching down.
The dog's owner, meanwhile, began screaming. At less than the dog's weight she was physically not able to pull the dog off, and even though she did wade in to try and help she was unable to disengage the dog. Joe managed to grab the dog's collar and could somewhat control the action, but he was bleeding, still on the ground, and rapidly getting tired. He told me that he was afraid of the dog getting him again and afraid of the dog engaging the owner since she clearly could not fight the dog off or absorb the kind of punishment that he could.
Joe finally gained his feet and managed to shove the dog into another room. The owner screamed "he can open the door" and that was enough. Joe wisely headed for the street, with the front door between him and the dog, bringing the owner out with him.
Standing in the street a neighbor saw them both and brought Joe a towel with which to staunch the blood. After a few deep breaths he assessed his condition and found that he had been fortunate: the face and neck injuries were relatively minor (no pieces hanging off) and the arm bite was deep but of limited scope. Deep punctures and unquestioned deep bruises but nothing torn or substantially slashed. During the bite he had the presence of mind not to pull away as the dog grasped him, so there were no withdrawal tears.
Animal Control was called but never responded. After waiting for an hour Joe decided that the Emergency Room was calling his name and, after the owner assured him repeatedly that she could control the dog until she got him to her regular Vet's office, Joe left. At the hospital he texted me, which brings us back to the beginning of this story.
Joe was terribly shaken by this incident, even a few days later. He kept repeating that the dog's first rush was faster than he could have responded to, even in the best of situation, and he dwelt on what he called the "roar" of the dog as he closed on Joe's face. Joe said he had never heard such a terrible sound come from a dog. He had been waking at night, shaking and sweating, with that roar in his ears.
Joe explained that he had called VB the day after this incident and explained what happened. Several phone conversations and emails ensued, and the matters discussed will remain between the two of them as there are always two sides to any issue. One salient factor that caught my attention was that VB explained that they never laid hands on the dog: all of the "evaluation" was conducted by watching the owner interact with the dog. Not once did VB touch, handle, or directly interact with this problem dog. VB allegedly told Joe "It's not my job".
Before we move on to a detailed analysis of the incident, I want to mention one thing: when I evaluate a dog, especially to try and develop a treatment plan, I absolutely must lay hands on the dog to get what I feel is a valid evaluation. This is not some ego trip or contest to say "Oh, I can handle anything-I'm a badass!". No. Not even close. My feeling is that I can not adequately evaluate what a dog's triggers might be, where his/her sensitivities might be, and whether the problem lies in the dog or the owner, without directly interacting with the dog.
This takes time. I have to develop a relationship of trust-even fleeting-and cooperation to see where the dog's problems might lie. How much time does this take? As much time as it takes.
Why do I insist on this? Let me use a human example. A good physician never just looks at tests-they meet the patient, make a connection (despite the volume of patients corporate health care systems require doctors to see) and usually, even for a few minutes, lay hands on the patient. Maybe this laying on of hands dates back to times of superstition and magic, but it is still part of our human makeup. We touch each other to get to know each other. Our touch can transmit-and receive-threats, trust, compassion, love, violence. Feeling a dog react and relax or tense under my touch is essential to search for problems. Some professionals extend this need for touch with systems such as T-Touch. I am not trained in that discipline but I definitely value the input of direct interaction with a dog.
This is the long way of getting to the point that I feel direct interaction is essential to proper diagnosis and evaluation of a dog. In methods such as the SAFER test there is direct interaction with the animal. Even in the evaluations I have conducted with dogs that have killed people I try my best to directly handle and interact with the dog. Again, not to prove that I can, but to see what the dog can tell me by its behavior.
Now, back to this incident. We can all now, I am sure, see a series of mistakes. Joe also sees them and, as a result, has asked me specifically to share my observations with the rest of you to let us all see just how easy it is to get in trouble.
First, Joe was surprised by the dog while he was sitting down. This has happened to all of us. We tell the clients to have the dog secured when we get to the home-and how many times do the dogs run up barking and greet us at the door, bouncing between wanting so meet and eat the new guy. Sitting places us in a state of limited mobility and brings us much too close to the business end of the dog to start.
Secondly, Joe tried to defuse the situation by making himself less threatening by going to the floor. Bad move. This makes mobility even harder, and exponentially increases the level of threat the dog can present. Down is not good. Down is exposed, vulnerable, dangerous.
I understand why he did this. He was trying to make the best of a situation where the dog was already in his space-and face. Joe was focused on getting the collars off the dog. Being so focused on the collars Joe lost sight of safety and the body cues the dog was sending. A better plan would have been to disregard the collars for the moment, instead waiting to establish a safer physical position and then building connection and trust with the dog. Joe would have been better served by having the owner retreat with the dog, even if to another room, to let Joe get to his feet. I might have even, at that point, had the owner remove the dog and then had us reintroduced outside the home, in relatively neutral territory, with me securely on my feet. In the street the dog would not have seen me as an invader into his home but as a relatively neutral figure to check out.
Once Joe was on the floor with the dog in his face he pushed too much too fast by grabbing for the collars. We have all seen that many dogs have sensitivity to reaching for a collar. Dr. Ian Dunbar recognizes this issue and in his puppy socialization training stresses the absolute need to acclimate pups to reaching for the collar. His plan: reach for the collar, pup gets treat. Touch collar, pup gets two treats. Grab collar and we go the full payout of three treats. Thus we build a dog that looks forward to having his leash and collar put on-good things are coming!
Here there were warnings that the dog might have collar sensitivity. The owner explained that the dog had been habitually on the prong and electronic collars for his whole life. The aversive association with collars in general, and people reaching for the collars, would of course be likely to establish a negative reaction to someone reaching in to grab, or even kindly remove, the collars. This case would have had me approaching the collar slowly, in stages, with reinforcement for accepting contact.
One other lack that too many of us do not consider is the matter of protective gear. I always wear Kevlar/Spectra bite-resistant gloves when first dealing with a new dog. I have learned the hard way that not wearing these gloves has resulted in a couple nasty bite. All my fault I must add-and I would not have been hurt if I had worn them. This lesson goes back to my police officer days of wearing a bullet proof vest. I thankfully never needed it, but it was there just the same. With this dog I would have also worn my full length snake-proof bite chaps. They are heavy and hot, but I am on my feet and wearing them I can be bitten by a very large dog with no effect other than some minor bruising. I am not looking to be bitten mind you; but better safe than missing pieces. I am currently working with the manufacturer of the gloves to develop both sleeves and leggings for trainers that are lighter, cooler, and less restrictive than a bite suit or the heavy leggings I use now, but more on that in the future. Bottom line: if a dog has aggression problems, use protective gear. Too many dogs I deal with are one bite away from a Dangerous designation or death. Some have already killed. It is not about ego. It is about risking a dog's life if you make a mistake.
To sum this up, Joe was kind of doomed here. Although VB shared all of the information they had, according to what I was told they never placed the dog in a situation wherein the dog actually displayed the problem behavior-contact with a stranger. The owner was physically unable to assist when things went bad. Joe made some poor choices out of his desire to help and remove the aversive collars from the dog without making a connection first. The placement of this dog with an elderly couple that had limited physical ability, with possible knowledge that this dog was powerful and had potential behavior issues fed into the storm.
This post is not to criticize Joe or anyone else. We all have our styles and habits. Joe asked me to share this case to help educate other trainers and professionals about just how quickly things can tumble out of control. We can use our experience too minimize the danger, but there is always a risk. And remember-not everyone wants to, or needs to, address serious aggression issues. Too often I have seen people that, after training for a relatively short time, think they are equipped to handle such clients. And they may get away with it for a long time. But again, dealing with aggression cases is not a contest. No one cares if you deal with the hard cases or spend your time house training puppies; you are contributing to the health and welfare of dogs and owners in a positive and constructive way, no matter where you draw the line. There have been a couple dogs I refused to interact with-they were obviously too dangerous. I had nothing to prove by getting hurt.
Be safe. Be smart. Plan ahead. Look for cues and warnings. And wear your bullet proof undies.
*We hear this excuse all of the time. If you have had a dog for seven years, unless a lot of things (loss of job, terminal illness, military being sent to a country that won't take your dog, etc.) there is a simple answer; if your new home won't allow the dog, DON'T MOVE THERE. Usually we find that it is simple laziness. Oh, and by the way-your child didn't suddenly become "allergic" to a dog you have had for seven years. That is the oldest and lamest excuse in the book. What if your dog "became allergic" to your new kid? Dump the kid on Craigslist? Sorry. Rant over.