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.
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."