Case Information

Client name: Linda

Dog’s name: Joe

Breed: Dutch Shepherd

Age: 3 years

Additional animals in household: 2 dogs

Background

The client is a friend of mine, and the attack happened to me during a training session. There were no prior incidents of aggression toward people.

Behavioral Complaints

Primary complaint or reason for visit: Touch to rear (just above tail) caused charge, multiple contact open- and closed-mouth bites. There was a total of five points of contact. The bites caused the following damage: bruising (upper/lower canine punches), two open-mouth bites to back, bruising to upper thigh (grab/release), and a scrape tear on forearm and elbow, also with bruising. There were no punctures, but clothing was torn.

Additional behavioral complaints: Currently, Linda is having issues with Joe door charging, barking at things and people passing by, barking at strangers coming into her grooming area, and Joe’s inability to stop moving/pacing in the house unless he is crated.

History

Personal history: I have known Joe since he was a 13-week-old puppy. Joe is indifferent to people, generally not interested in interacting with humans other than his owner. His normal greeting is unusual—he jumps toward me (or anyone) with feet up, tags the person, flips around and returns to his handler. I have seen Joe on and off in classes over the past two years and have touched him and demonstrated skills with him. Joe is concerned about his environment, illustrated by vigilant scanning, restlessness, and occasional barking and lunging. He has been attacked three times by larger dogs. Until this incident, I was never concerned about Joe biting me, and our relationship history supported my comfort level with this dog.

General history: Linda imported Joe at 13 weeks from Holland, with the goal for this puppy to be her next working dog. Her prior working dogs were rescues, and she currently owns a Dutch shepherd who is a bed bug detection dog, but is reactive to other dogs. Her goals for this puppy were scent detection (bed bug and drug for private hire), ring sport, and dog sports.

Linda enrolled Joe in puppy class at 13 weeks. He was nervous in the environment: scanning, vigilant, and darting on the end of the leash. He growled and lunged at people or puppies anywhere near his area. Linda had trouble handling and touching Joe at home, and worked at desensitizing him for grooming at home following protocols she found on YouTube. Linda is a groomer and trainer, and successfully introduced Joe to play with her grooming clients. Joe completed his basic puppy classes, and Linda enrolled him in our advanced puppy class. She attended three classes before pulling Joe out of class on the advice of her local IPO club. Joe was introduced to bite work and Linda was advised to stop all obedience and control work until his bite work training was completed.

Linda stopped this training after four months due to lack of “hold” development on the dog, and dislike of the training methods. Over the next two years, Linda took many classes online and at different places with Joe, stopped ring sport, and worked on different types of skills. Linda’s main focus continued to be on arousal games and “building drive” using flirt poles, toys, games, skill training with release to more arousal, and exercise.

Joe is unable to stop moving unless crated, and has very high exercise needs. Linda did meet with me a few times for help with Joe’s general concern with the environment; we did some work on teaching relaxation in a crate and taught a “place” behavior. I encouraged Linda to come into some small classes (we have a 5,000 square foot facility) and work with Joe on watching and relaxing while people and dogs worked on the other side of the room. Linda joined a Rally-O class and Joe was successful at relaxing in his crate and working engagement with Linda in a small-group environment. Linda worked on focus and engagement (arousal with toys as reward to heighten “drive”) with Joe in the training room, and sometimes worked on Rally skills. Linda is currently enrolled in a number of online classes.

Immediate history: At a herding lesson a few months ago, Joe was attacked by the instructor’s border collie. When Linda was trying to separate the dogs, the instructor told her to grab and pull Joe’s tail up and away from the other dogs to separate them. Linda discontinued the herding lessons, but continued to use the tail pulling technique at home when she had problems between Joe and her blind senior German shepherd dog. When Joe attacked me, Linda grabbed his tail and pulled him away. I asked her to grab his collar instead and put him in his crate. This was the first time I had seen the tail pull, and I asked her why she pulled his tail. Linda explained the above history.

Health history: Joe had an iliopsoas injury at 15 months. Recently, Joe had been roughly handled by a vet tech at an OFA clinic for X-rays (he was muzzled, and they flipped him and carried him into the X-ray room). At a recent vet visit, Joe backed the vet into the wall during the exam. The week prior to the event, Joe had been nipping at his own hind end. Linda emptied the anal glands, thinking this might be the issue. Joe was still occasionally looking at his back end and nipping at it while doing normal activity.

Precipitating events prior to attack, and details of the attack: Joe had recently been entered in an FCI show (conformation), and squirmed in discomfort when the judge was touching his rear end and testicles. At a training session, Linda asked if we could practice show stacking and touching Joe’s body. Joe was in a standing position with Linda feeding treats. I started by walking around Joe. He was tense but accepting of my movement. I then added a light side touch. Joe continued to be tense but accepting of the touch and eating treats. I walked up and lightly touched Joe’s rump above the tail, and he attacked me. When he came at me, I froze, disengaged eye contact, turned my back, and moved away. He muzzle punched my back and continued to grab and bite my back, side, and arm. When the disengagement on my part did not immediately lessen the attack, I used my arm to deflect and take the bites and called for Linda to grab Joe. Linda grabbed his tail and pulled him away. I directed her to grab his collar and crate him. After Joe was crated, Linda gave me the above history of events leading up to this attack. I asked her to have a full veterinary work up, as I was very concerned about an injury.

Vet report: Joe has a neurologic injury to his tail, with swelling around the base where the tail meets the back (right where I touched him). Joe is on gabapentin for two weeks. The vet advised Linda to keep him quiet while his tail is healing and to make a follow-up appointment in two weeks.

Linda’s observations:

A few days after the incident, Linda sent this list of precipitating events she feels are relevant to Joe’s response:

I’ve been watching Joe closely and revisiting his past to piece things together. I now understand the behavior I have, and have some thoughts on the behavior that I want. It took 2.5 days before I felt at ease with what happened (Joe biting Renee) and for Joe to act normally again (he also had soft stool for 2 days).

Facts:

  1. Joe has no idea how to interact with other people. His default when he’s able is to run at them, jump on them, and retreat.
  2. Strangers never touch Joe, and when they do it’s been painful/scary (vets and I think he was really taken by surprise by the judge at the show and possibly decided then that it wasn’t going to happen again?).
  3. His bank account is full for positive interactions with other dogs, so the few negative interactions were buffered.
  4. His bank account is virtually empty for positive interactions with other humans, so any negative interaction is all he has to go by at this time.
  5. For various reasons, I’ve rarely taken Joe on leash to different places where there are many people or leashed dogs, so I’ve started easing him into that.

This morning’s leash walk gave me some good feedback on his level or reactivity with the world around him and reading his arousal levels.

Consult #1: Assessment

Linda and I met to discuss how behavior modification works, establish a baseline video of Joe in the world and how to move forward in a positive way for Joe. I asked Linda to commit to exclusively work with me for training during this process and to check with me before working with Joe out in the world. Linda had, since Joe was seen by the vet, been taking Joe to a local field and playing throw/run chase games with him for exercise, and also working on her online “focus and engagement” games in a local bus parking area. I asked her to stop these activities until Joe has received a clearance from her vet, as I was concerned about Joe’s pain level and possible inadvertent connection of that pain with strange people in the environment. Linda has agreed and will use a treadmill and leash walks for exercise at least for the next two weeks.

Note about Linda: Linda loves to train and has been focusing only on “drive” and “engagement” games with Joe. She finds control work boring. I know Linda well, she is a friend, and I know Linda will not stop training Joe. My objective for Linda is to get her excited about training control and relaxation.

Suggestions:

  1. I gave Linda a structured game to play at the field with Joe, which would limit his flipping in the air, jumping, charging, and chasing her (which is her preferred game). The new game is based on a field drill we use with retrievers, which involves holding a sit/stay while the retrieve object is thrown, sending for retrieve and returning to heel/holding the object until cued to release. My objective is to keep the rules clear for Linda and Joe, work on recall strength, developing impulse control (wait until sent), and keep the escalation (of body and mind) to a more thoughtful level (and try to keep the dog from hurting himself more).
  2. Mat work: We also discussed working on a stationing behavior, “place,” using Joe’s mat to address his vigilant pacing behavior in the house, his bird chasing, and his barking and charging at passersby. Joe understands to go to a place. We added duration to the stay, clarifying send and release parameters for Linda, and Linda’s homework was to watch for and reward the smallest signs of overall relaxed body posture while she worked on duration staying on the mat.
  3. Linda will set up a quieter area for Joe to relax in his crate. His crate is currently in the middle of her work area. In the home, it is where her other dog can run by him and bark at passersby.

Consult #2

Leash walking: Linda feels Joe is finally starting to settle a little more on his leash walks and was comfortable meeting some road workers on their walk. He rubbed his face and body on the one man and the man scratched his head. (Trainer note: Yes, I cringed a little at this as I know his tail still hurts. I did not say anything about this choice, as I think it is important to allow Linda to trust her own reading of her dog and make choices she feels will work. The dog has met these men before and had no issue with them.) Linda noted that Joe seems okay with groups of people or one person standing or moving laterally, but if they are walking directly at him, he tenses up.

Mat work: Linda reported she has seen a huge difference in Joe’s general agitation since working on his stationing behavior. He has started to choose to go to his mat and lie down at times. Linda is giving him things to chew on his mat when she is working at the computer, and Joe is staying in the location for longer periods of time. Linda is using a tether to support the location and keep Joe from running when her other dogs bark at things.

Moving the crate to a quieter area: The first day Linda moved Joe’s crate she said he slept for four hours. She feels that he has not been able to actually relax prior to this change due to all of the environmental stimulation in her work and home spaces. She was surprised and felt relieved that Joe was able to actually nap during the day, something she felt he was unable to do prior to this change.

Session Work

Linda and I have two sessions planned for this week, two days apart. We discussed working on desensitization and counter-conditioning in the outside environment and with me, as I am currently a stressor for Joe.

I plan to start with a simple Open Bar/Closed Bar1 game, from Jean Donaldson’s “Dogs Are From Neptune”, to help offset my presence in the environment and give Linda a safe game that can be played at a distance from people. I considered these factors before setting up the game:

  1. Joe will not always eat when he is out in the world or under stress.
  2. We might not have enough distance with the small field and the narrow street.
  3. There needs to be an exit plan for Linda to move Joe in case people or other things show up in our practice area.
  4. We need alternative ways to encourage Joe to eat (he knows and likes using his nose and playing “find it” games). If Joe won’t take food from Linda’s hand, he might take food dropped in the grass.

The game: Open Bar/Closed Bar

The setup: Joe and Linda are in a small, open area of grass across from Linda’s house. I am about 40 feet away, standing behind a truck out of view, and then stepping into view. Linda will feed Joe every time I come into view. We worked a few reps with me appearing on both sides of the truck. Joe was eating, so we added a few differing components to the game.

The plan:

  1. Initially, feed Joe when I come into view: see person, then feed. Stop when I go out of view. If Joe won’t eat, drop the food and cue his fun “find it” game.
  2. If Joe is comfortable, I will lessen the distance. We are using cars as visual barriers.
  3. Change the game to reward for tolerance of a person walking. If Joe is comfortable, reward for any relaxed behavior or general acceptance of the person in the environment. We started at 40 feet and played a little with distance decreasing. Our goal: note Joe’s comfort distance.

The result: Linda quickly learned when to feed and stop feeding. Joe stayed relatively calm throughout the process, and was quickly comfortable with me walking by at 15-20 feet. I explained to Linda that side body and no eye contact are important for her “helper” if she recruits other people to play this game.

 Suggestions:

  1. Take the Open Bar/Closed Bar game on the road, but be mindful of the area she is working in. Scout and plan her strategy before she plays the game. Have at least two safe exit strategies and leave her truck open for emergency containment. All of her set-up and planning should be completed before bringing Joe out of the truck. I would prefer for more work to be done in her immediate environment, but for Linda this would be stifling, and I really want to help her succeed. This option, taking the game on road, is important for this person.
  2. Place: I gave Linda a detailed list of exercises to continue working on the next phase of Joe’s cued relaxation skills. The list includes separating the various parts of the “settle on your place” skill, including how to vary location, duration, and distance, with consideration for the speed of the learner and increasing intensity within the home environment. This skill is for household practice only, which is an important point for Linda, because she wants to move Joe into the world now!

Consult #3

Place and house notes: Regarding the change of crate location and practicing relaxing on his mat, Linda has been using a tether as a back-up due to the other dogs in the house. She reports all the dogs seem more relaxed since Joe has a location and functional behavior when she is working in the house or relaxing. She is beginning to fade the tether.

Session Work

Linda has been working on cued relaxation on the bed in the house. Linda has multiple goals for this behavior, including using “settle” (Linda’s cue for “relax on your place” and “relax in a down next to me”) in a variety of environments. In this session we decided to take the game on the road to practice the skill and give Linda different locations in which to work on the behavior.

The game: Place—settle next to Linda

The setup: We set up a chair in the small field across from Linda’s house. This is an area known to Joe and, although the street is busy, he is comfortable in this location.

The plan:

  1. Linda will initially feed Joe for holding the settle position while I walk by at a distance.
  2. Linda will let Joe make choices in his behavior and reward any choices she feels are showing acclimation, relaxation, or checking in with her.
  3. I will walk around Joe/Linda at about 40 feet and close that distance as long as Joe remains calm and relaxed.
  4. I will move back out to the farther distance and add “looking at Joe” while I’m moving, as this is a stressor for him.
  5. In one of the sessions, I will stay stationary at a comfortable distance for a short period of time (two to three minutes, depending on Joe’s comfort level).
  6. We will give Joe breaks three times during the session to sniff, mark, or do whatever he wants.

Total working time: half an hour, with five minutes of working, then five-minute breaks for Joe.

The result: As you will see on the video of this session, Joe acclimated quickly and was fine with me walking by and around at a distance of 40 feet without looking at him. We were able to decrease that distance to 25 feet very quickly. When we added me looking at Joe, he appeared very uncomfortable, displaying an increase in general body tension, rapid head movements, flicking of the eyes, and increased tension taking food, even with the distance increased to 40 feet. I stayed at 40 feet until he relaxed, and moved in about 4 feet total during the session. Joe was fine with a stationary person at 30 feet for the duration of three minutes. We did not add “person looks at Joe” to the duration portion of the exercise.

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Suggestions

Linda was interested in taking this game on the road. We talked about using Joe’s crate contained in Linda’s SUV as his place, and her sitting with the crate door open, reinforcing any relaxed behaviors. We discussed having a tether attached in the crate for safety. I explained the importance of respecting Joe’s distance tolerances by closing the crate door and stopping anyone from approaching the truck and looking directly at Joe. I suggested Linda accomplish this by stepping in the line of sight of the person and redirecting/distracting the person while guiding them away from Joe’s crate.

Linda is excited to work on both games over the weekend and we will meet again next week.

Breakthroughs: Normally, Linda takes Joe with her in her truck wherever she goes. He is crated in the back and barks, snarls and bangs the crate whenever he sees people or things pass by the truck. This is “normal” behavior for Joe in the car.

While parking, Linda realized she was setting Joe up to practice this behavior by choosing to park in places where there was a high level of activity. She changed her parking choice to less traveled areas in the lot. She reports Joe is no longer barking continuously in the crate. Normally, when she comes out of a store, she would hear him barking; now there is silence and a happy, tail-wagging Joe when she gets in the car. Awesome, Linda!

Consult #4

Changes with crate location, and using the mat for relaxed downs are making a huge difference in the general dynamic within the household. There are fewer squabbles between dogs, and less agitation with Joe’s time in the house.

Linda is happy with how the controlled retrieve games are working for Joe’s exercise and reports that he loves the new game.

Session Work

We had two goals: increase Joe’s tolerance for people walking by while Joe and Linda are out walking, and work on Joe’s tolerance for people passing by when they are on trails (in a down/stay while people pass). Joe has been doing well with watching and tolerating people in the environment at a distance of 30 feet. Environmental stressors lessen his distance tolerance, and people looking directly at him is still an issue. Our plan does not include “looking at Joe” for this session. Our criteria change is distance while moving and stationary. We will work on “looking” in a later session.

The plan:

  1. Distance game: Tolerating a person walking while Joe is walking with Linda. We started at 40 feet and decreased to 20 feet in this session. Linda’s reward points were: checking in with her, non-response (choosing not to react, bark, etc.), or any relaxed behavior she felt comfortable rewarding.
  1. Sit and wait by Linda while people walk by: Linda likes to hike with Joe and needs this skill when she is on trails and can’t cross a street. We started at 30 feet and decreased distance to 10 feet. We ran into some difficulty with our environment as a large garbage truck was working on the street. Joe has issues with large trucks. We also noticed an interesting problem with Linda’s reinforcement timing. This is marked on the video. We changed Joe’s position relative to Linda and increased the distance. Once the timing was on track, we were able to decrease the distance to 10 feet.
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Plan time: Initially, we were going to work for four minutes, then break, then four minutes of work, then another break. However, we had some environmental challenges and revised the plan as needed. Our total working time was 12 minutes with four three- to five-minute breaks.

The result: The challenges in this session were wonderful, as it showcased to Linda the need to adapt and change her plan on the fly! The timing issue was also great, as the video really captured a potential problem and enabled us to quickly change the consequence for the reactive display.

Suggestions

Continue to work on tolerance games in a variety of settings. Watch and evaluate reward timing when an outburst happens. We discussed a brief pause and reset before marking and rewarding calm, looking behavior to avoid creating a behavior response loop contingent on ill-timed food rewards.

This is part one of an ongoing case study.

Renee Hall owns and operates Let’s Speak Dog Training & Sports Center in Nazareth, PA.  She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and serves on the IAABC Board. 

Photo Credit: Featured Image – By Teunie from nl, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1809203