Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Working with Difficult Dogs

Recently, we have been going through a tough time with Bruno. When he first came home from the shelter, he was so scared that he didn't show his true personality. Now that he is becoming more confident (and gained 15 pounds!!!) he is starting to display some concerning behavior. He has been barking at strangers for many months now, but we were unconcerned because when people approached him, his anxiety would cease as soon as he realized they were friendly.

(Read my May entry on Bruno's anxiety issues.)

Lately, however, even friendly strangers distress him. In the past week, we saw the first behavior that truly tested us-- he growled at strangers. People who wanted to approach him were terrified as he growled and barked at them, and lunged.We realized that this was a stress-response, because his blood pressure would increase- his eyes would water and his ears would turn bright red and blotchy. We decided to take him to the vet and see if they could prescribe him some canine anxiety medication.
Unfortunately, the two vets that Bruno knows were not in because it was a Saturday. The vets he knows are females and this vet was a male. He was reasonably comfortable in the waiting room- barking and whining only to get closer to other animals. Once we brought him into the room with the vet and the vet-tech, he completely freaked out-- he barked and growled at them both. Usually Bruno can acclimate to strangers eventually, and he has ALWAYS been docile and friendly at the vet's office in the past (it was the exact same room he has been in many times), so we gave the vet a treat to offer him. Bruno sniffed it and actually lunged at him! We were terrified he was going to try to bite the vet! I've never feared Bruno would ever bite anyone- we can put our hands in his mouth while he is eating or chewing a bone and he will just lick our fingers! All of a sudden I lost my confidence that I could promise people that he wouldn't hurt them.

We know we have to work on these behaviors and nip them in the bud before he becomes more aggressive strangers. Has anyone worked through issues like this before? Have your dogs ever threatened to bite?

The vet suggested a behaviorist and when we can afford it, we may try that- but in the mean-time he suggested a muzzle. We talked very seriously about this, and I've ordered one for certain occassions, but we decided after a lot of thought that Bruno gives us and strangers a LOT of warning before he becomes agressive. He warns us that he is uncomfortable with his voice and his posture and if we continue to allow people near him- we are asking for trouble. We are pretty confident that if we explain to people that he is not friendly to strangers, he won't need to be muzzled on an every-day basis while we are working through his issues. (After all, he has never bitten anyone, even under extreme circumstances.) On routine walks, he sits very nicely by our side and as long as we can keep his attention on us- he is comfortable.

Unfortunately, we know that Bruno may not be a good mix with children-- we know that in the next 5-10 years we will want to have a family- but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

For the time being- I am going to take advice from this article about training a difficult dog named Feebe- that really touched me:

"There are no words to describe the amount of gratification we feel knowing we have helped Feebe live up to her greatest potential to become the best dog she can be.  Bad habits have been curbed because we did the work with her.  Good habits have replaced them.  She is not perfect – neither are you or I however, nor any other dog.  But she is good enough just being her goofball self, doing the best she can with our help, and she has enriched our lives exceedingly.  We did the work with her, and that is always what it takes every time.  We cannot expect these animals to teach themselves or to come knowing how we want them to live in our homes – and thankfully, we get to build our own personal characters as human beings because we help them flourish.

The best gift for me in having a challenging dog has been that she taught us the true meaning of unconditional love.  We have learned to love Feebe no matter what.  When she slips up, when she digresses, when she is imperfect.  She has taught us that she is worth loving no matter what, worth fighting for and working with despite her challenges.  We still separate our dogs when we are not home, we still have to give a little extra care when it comes to Feebe – and it is always worth it.  Its not that bad, it’s doable, and in the end, we get to fulfill the promise we made to her when we walked her out those shelter doors.
In exchange, Feebe loves us unconditionally too, when we mess up or are anything less than our best selves.  Maybe if we looked at it another way, she’s not a challenging dog but we’re challenging people?  If you can help a homeless pet in need recover and rehabilitate, if you can offer love and benevolent leadership to help them thrive, I guarantee you the challenges will be meaningful.  You just might be able to surpass your wildest imagination in terms of what you can do for another being, learn what you’re really made of, and expand your heart beyond belief."


  1. Sorry to hear about your troubles. Friends of mine are dealing with a similar conundrum - they know they'd like kids in a few years but one of their dogs is too unpredictable (and very strong/large) to currently have near children. He was dumped on their street and after trying to find him a home for months they ended up keeping him because they realized that he would probably be euthanized if turned in to a shelter. He is improving slowly but surely though so hopefully there's a way forward both for him and for you Bruno.

  2. My husband and I went through a very similiar situation with our very similiar looking dog Boss. Our story with him did not end as we had hoped and we had to surrender him. We tried a behaviorist, had him evaluated by a pro dog trainer and had him in an obedience class (which we had to quit soon after he started exhibiting aggressive behaviors), though BOss would have shining moments, they were quickly extinguished by unsettling aggression. For our lives it was not possible to keep an unpredictable dog, not with the amount of people and dogs we have to come into contact with on a daily basis just to get into and out of our condo. It was the most heart wrenching and devastating decision we have ever had to make you can read more about him and how we tried to help him on our blog. I am so so sorry for your situation and hope that your life circumstances allow you to be able to help Bruno over his fears.

  3. We had the same problem with Sadie. Our solution was to tell people that she wasn't very friendly towards strangers and not to allow people to pet her on our walks. At home, we required anyone coming over to behave a certain way when they entered (not to try to pet her for the 1st few minutes and to basically ignore her). Over time, the length of time it takes her to get comfortable around new people got shorter and shorter. I also worked on building my bond with her and increasing her confidence, both in herself and her trust in me. Now she knows that people = love and attention and that I will always protect her. At least I hope she knows that! She's definitely a much more stable and happy dog now.

  4. Hi Y'all,

    This is so sad. Did the vet do all the tests to be sure nothing physical is happening?

    What kind of lead do you use? Maybe one that goes on like a halter so you can keep his head pulled toward you when strangers come up. Carry treats, if you don't, and reward the proper behavior with LOTS of treats. Maybe you can get some friends to come up to you and practice. This way he'll hopefully associate good things with approaching people.

    This sounds like it may be a fearful reaction. Ask anyone you want to stop and speak with to ignore the dog. Strangers or even friends approaching, whether on a walk or coming into the home, can be intimidating.

    I like to charge when people come to the door with my loudest bark. My Human tells me it's okay and makes me back off and sit. Sometimes she puts me in my crate until guests are seated, then lets me join in. She's afraid that at 100 lbs. I might knock some of the more elderly guests down by accident. She lets me smell the guests then makes me go lay down.

    For the baby, if you get past the stranger "thing", get a cd of a crying baby and play it frequently; start well in advance of the birth. Get a dolly and set up a nursery of sorts. Teach Bruno the limits of where he can go and what he can do. Again, lots of treats. If you have a friend with a baby see if you can borrow a sheet or blanket or piece of clothing that smells like their baby and put it on dolly. Babies have a unique smell. Let him get used to the smell.

    Don't forget the treats and warm praise to reinforce the behavior you want. Now it's time to go back to playing dolls. Reinforce the behavior you want. The object of this is to let Bruno get used to you showing attention to something other than him. You want him to feel included in the process, just as if he was an older brother.

    When you have the baby. Send hubby home with some of the clothing the new baby has worn and let Bruno smell it and get used to it before you come home.

    When the new baby is home be sure to treat Bruno the way you did with the doll. Talk to him. Encourage him to be with you and the baby. Reward with treats all the behaviors you want. Make Bruno feel a part of the family.

    When my Human was a baby they had a dog that everyone said would never accept her. It moved into her room beside her crib and became a great baby sitter. Even let her pull on its hair when she was learning to stand.

    Paws crossed for Bruno,
    Hawk aka BrownDog

    P.S. Blogspot won't let me post to your blog, so I have to use my livejournal id.

  5. wow, thanks everyone for these amazingly encouraging words of advice!

    We use a gentle leader and it is great for getting his attention on us- and the treats are super important- he doesn't look at ANYONE when we have something yummy in-hand.

    I am feeling much more optimistic after seeing all your comments, there is always something you can try- I'm glad to see it works sometimes!!

    Jess &Chip

  6. I was going to ask if you had tried the gentle leader. That seems to be an option of choice for a couple of people in our training class that were struggling with behavior issues similar to yours.

    I don't know what your options for vets are in the area, but is there one that has experience with Pitts? We are in a Vet heavy area so we have options I know not everyone does. Our friend uses someone with more experience with labs for instance because his dogs have had some challenges. Prior vets didn't have the answers for his breed. We use a Vet we like because she has a no stupid questions policy. Sometimes finding the right person can make a huge difference in getting the right answers and getting the help your dog needs.

  7. I can't imagine how hard this must be to happen with your own dog. I know you live in a highly populated area, so he must be encountering a lot of people, and I'm wondering if having him in a muzzle will not only agitate him, but prolong the reason for his distress. I think you should contact your local pitbull rescue, because they will have a lot of resources, and they could probably help you find a behaviorist/trainer to help you at even a lower cost. It sounds like this could become a bigger problem, and I know that they honestly want to help people and it's not about the money.
    I know as pitbull owners we have to be that much more responsible, even if it means spending extra money, because any incident that might happen with one dog will reflect on all of us.

  8. Thanks again all-
    I think you are all right that reaching out for help early on is the best way to handle it. We have a recommendation for a behaviorist who is really great, but it might be better to contact some pittie rescues first- I know there are a bunch in the area.
    Bruno is such a good dog-he follows directions so well and is so easy to train! I'm really hopeful we can resolve it- I'll keep you all posted!!!

  9. I'm sorry you have to deal with this. It looks like you've been given a lot of good advice and I just wanted to echo the recommendation to see a behaviorist as soon as you can. I'm sure it's a really difficult situation to be in now, but hopefully with the right help and a little time Bruno will start to warm up to strangers more again.

  10. Try giving the behaviorist a call just to talk through some of the issues. If they're truly interested in helping, I'm sure they're willing to spend a few minutes on the phone with you starting with simple techniques to help.

    Our dog started lunging and barking at other dogs on the street (mostly unfriendly ones). She loves friendly dogs, but of course if someone saw her lunge at another dog that passed, they weren't about to let their friendly dog say hi. Every time she had a good encounter with a dog, ignored a dog, or kept her focus on us, she got a piece of cheese. Do I want to bark or do I want a piece of cheese?? She figured it out quickly. We're still in training mode and sometimes I forget the cheese, but Izzy will still look at me and say hey, I was good, where's my cheese when we pass other dogs.

    Just keep at it! No dog is perfect and I'm sure with some time and training, Bruno will become comfortable.


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