Dog Retraining to End Food Aggression, or "My Dog Bit the Hand That Feeds Her!"
If you’ve read my hub, Some DOs and DON’Ts for New Pet Parents, you’re aware I never had a pet of my own until my early sixties. You also know I didn’t realize when I got my miniature schnauzer (who is not so “mini” now that she's middle-aged) the importance of training a dog.
Still, later rather than sooner, I managed to teach her to obey a few rudimentary commands, such as “Sit,” “Down,” “Come” (though she’s sometimes a bit slow with that one) and “Stay", but definitely not the Long Stay.
Two instructions that don't come easy to her are “Off” (for not jumping up on people) and “Quiet!” She's quite a barker, is Puppy Girl, and she loves to see her favorite humans.
A third command she never learned to comply with at all, which suddenly became very important, is “Drop it!” More about that in a bit.
Puppy Girl barks every day at the postal carrier, delivery people, neighbors, other dogs, squirrels, birds, and—especially—cats. She doesn’t care if the cat is across the street in someone else’s yard—she wants it out of her sight! There are a lot of cats in our neighborhood, and they walk slowly past my house, so a lot of barking ensues.
In a later effort to instill better behavior, I began turning my back on her whenever I walked in the door so she wouldn't jump up on me. I tried to get other people she knows to follow that action, but didn't get much cooperation. They either (a) suffer her attention as she jumps up, up, up to let them know how happy she is to see them, or (b) wait until I shut her in the bedroom before they come inside.
I know I was laissez-faire about teaching my pet good manners. After she outgrew her "puppy condo", she began sleeping on her own pillow in my bed. Next, she made herself at home on the sofas and chairs. Since Schnauzers don’t shed, and I keep her clean, that’s never been a problem for me. Of course, it may have given her the idea she can generally do as she pleases around here. I think she gained that impression of "a dog's life" here at Chez Jaye.
We might have gone on like this for the rest of our lives together had it not been for something that occurred that upset and frightened me. Before I tell you about it, I’ll rightfully accept the blame for the incident. After all, Puppy Girl is a dog, and I’m the human who was supposed to teach her the rules. A major problem? I've always treated her more like a child than an animal of the canine species. She seems so much like a toddler...sometimes a naughty one...that I've allowed myself to think of her as my baby. In dog years, however, she's past the "kiddie" stage, and should be a well-behaved adult.
I’ve been justly proud of her for practically housebreaking herself, not playing in the garbage or chewing on things other than her own toys. Even when she was a puppy, she didn’t have those bad habits, and I thought I was simply lucky she hadn't displayed them.
Oops! As soon as you say “never”, that’s when you can expect to choke on that word....
Why the "Drop it" Command is so Important
One day I walked into the living room to find a trail of torn tissue all over the floor. Tracing it to its origin, I found an open wastebasket turned on its side in one of the bathrooms. All the time I was cleaning up bits of paper, I scolded Miss Puppy Girl in a loud voice.
“Bad girl! Don’t you ever do that again! Bad, bad girl!”
I thought the wastebasket tipping was an aberration, but less than a week later, she did it again. Was I angry! This time I yelled at her. After the clean-up of scattered paper bits, I attempted to keep the bathroom doors shut at all times. I also ordered online two wastebaskets with pop-up lids.
While awaiting delivery of the new lidded wastebaskets, I continued to close the bathroom doors to keep little Nosy Rosy out, just to be on the safe side. However, one day the phone rang as I was washing my hands in the bathroom sink, and I forgot to close the door in my rush to find the phone and answer it.
After the call ended, I walked toward the living room. Oh, no! Not again! Puppy Girl had gotten into mischief in the open bathroom again. This time she still had a piece of tissue dangling from her mouth and another one lying just between her front feet.
Now, not only is it my fault that I never successfully trained her to "Drop it!", but I should have known not to do what I did next.
That's because I had a foreshadowing of this event when she was nearly a year old. A dryer sheet fell on the floor in front of her, she grabbed it in her mouth, I yelled, "drop it", but she didn't. Afraid she would choke on the strong-fibered sheet (the box read, "Keep away from children and pets"), I pried open her mouth with both hands and snatched the dryer sheet away from her. She wasn't happy about that, and my knuckles got grazed by her young teeth in the process, but my skin wasn't broken.
She thought the object was either something to eat or something to play with, but the issue is that she thought it was hers. No human shouting “drop it”--not even Mom--was going to make her give up what was hers without a fight. Territorialism in the making, but I didn't recognize it for what it was.
So, this time I didn't try to take the tissue hanging from her mouth; however, she must have thought that was my intent. I foolishly reached down to grab the bit of tissue lying between her front feet. That’s when she did it.
She BIT me!
I will never, ever forget the look on her face as she snarled a split second before she sunk her teeth into the fleshy part of my palm below my thumb. I’m a bit slow these days, so that second wasn’t long enough to stay my hand and stave off the bite that followed the snarl. I didn’t realize my little couch potato could move so fast!
The bite was shocking, it was painful, and it was bloody. I screamed, held my injured hand with the other one and rushed to the bathroom sink. My wound bled and bled over the drain. I shakily grabbed and wadded paper toweling to staunch the blood flow. I was so upset (and by then my hand was hurting so badly) that I had to sit in the chair and lay my head on the vanity top as I applied pressure to the bunched-up paper.
Gore soaked through the paper towels, and I grabbed fresh ones. It seemed like a nightmare, but I knew I was wide awake. As I sat there pressing clumps of paper against my hand, I started bawling. I looked up to see Puppy Girl peering in the bathroom door at human Mom gone mad. If it had been a scene in a movie, there would have been a chastened look on her doggy face. But it wasn't a movie, and her expression seemed simply curious.
“Get out of here!” I yelled. “See what you’ve done to me? Go away!”
Brilliant one-sided conversation to have with a dog, right? Like she could really add two and two to come up with four. Dogs may remember things, but they don’t live in the past. I was wanting her to feel guilty, but dogs don’t feel guilt. Humans do.
After a while my makeshift pressure bandage did its work, and the blood slowed to a trickle. I poured half a bottle of hydrogen pyroxide over my hand, then took a good look at what Puppy Girl's grown-up canine teeth had wrought.
I was stunned. Two deep puncture holes were joined by a semi-circular gash. I briefly entertained the thought of going to the emergency room because the gash was deep enough that it might need a few stitches. I talked myself out of that move because I wasn’t sure how ER personnel would react to a dog bite. Would they automatically call Animal Control to come and take away Puppy Girl? Might I lose the right to decide her fate if the hospital reported the bite to the authorities? After all, it was my hand that was bitten, and it was my fault--caused by my negligence as a dog parent--that it happened.
That line of thought kept me from seeking medical attention, and I was lucky the first aid kit yielded butterfly bandages. Using my unhurt hand, I pulled the edges of the gash together tightly and managed to get the adhesive strips into place. Then I piled several gauze pads over the wound and wound layers of stretch bandage around my hand to hold the whole thing in place. Not too easy a task without ambidexterity since my dominant hand was the injured one.
Then I took an acetaminophen capsule for pain and lay down on the bed. Puppy Girl came looking for me, but I shooed her away, got up and closed the door. I wasn't afraid of her--the bite had happened and ended. I didn't think she was going to bite me again for no reason, but I didn't feel up to having her around just then. It was nearly an hour before the pain lessened. During that time my mind worked overtime.
This must never happen again--to me or anyone else! What must I do to ensure Puppy Girl never bit anyone again?
As soon as the pain in my hand eased somewhat, I began my search for a dog rehabilitation expert. The phone book Yellow Pages yielded only one listing in my area for dog training to address aggression. I looked up the “doggy boot camp” website listed, only to learn that a one-week stint there would set me back fifteen hundred dollars before training even began. No way could I afford that kind of fee. I would ask the vet if she could recommend someone not so expensive. In the interim, I'd do a lot of research and try some doggy rehab on my own.
That night, Puppy Girl slept on her large pillow-type dog bed in the living room—the first time she’d been banished from the human bed in quite a while. I was already thinking I had to do something to re-establish myself as Pack Leader. No, that’s not accurate. I never established myself as Pack Leader, which was why she thought she had the right to literally bite the hand that feeds her. With scenes from the TV show, The Dog Whisperer , rewinding in my head, I thought of ways to get across to my dog the (to her, new) concept that I’m Leader, she’s Follower.
The next day I spent a lot of time on the computer typing “biting dog” into search engines--not easy with my right hand bandaged and only the tips of four fingers fairly usable. I found lots of online ads for dog training, but most were geared toward the training of puppies. In other words, prevention versus rehabilitation is the norm. Nearly everything about biting dogs referred to not letting puppies get away with nipping.
Puppy Girl wasn’t feeling guilty, but her human mom was feeling exceedingly so. I should have started her out right as a puppy with thorough training that would have shown her I was, indeed, the Boss. At the age perfect for my puppy to grasp these lessons, she was getting lots of love, but no puppy kindergarten.
The next step: canine rehab
During the time it took for my hand to heal (yes, there is a scar), I re-read all those books about dog behavior and how dogs think...books I bought and read soon after Puppy Girl came into my life. Sure, I'd enjoyed reading them before, sort of like I enjoy reading cookbooks and diet books (read, but don't use). I never put into practice most of their concepts and recommended actions. Now it was desperation time. I had to make sure my dog would learn to never bite a human again.
Out came Cesar Millan's books, Cesar's Way and BeThe Pack Leader. I read every word and began putting into play some of the steps he prescribed to show my dog I was indeed her pack leader.
While I hadn't let her sleep in my bedroom for several nights after the biting incident, I awoke one morning to find her curled up at the foot of the bed. I didn't chase her away, but gave her no morning tummy rub, either. The next afternoon and much of the night was one of those times when the area where I live is battered by line after line of thunderstorms with tornadic activity around a large part of the state. The storm sirens seemed to be going off at least hourly until after midnight, so I let Puppy Girl lie on the sofa beside me as I watched the continuousTV weather reports. She doesn't like bad weather, nor do I--especially since a 2007 tornado uprooted my hardwood trees, broke off several pines, damaged the roof, storage shed and fence.
When the storms finally abated enough for me to think about sleep, I gave her permission to jump up on the bed. Even Cesar doesn't absolutely forbid letting your dog sleep with you (though he doesn't think it's such a great idea, either).
Which method is the best one?
Fresh on the heels of my reading from the Dog Whisperer's books, I received a magazine with an article about Tamar Geller, the celebrity dog trainer who wrote The Loved Pet and whose latest book being advertised is titled 30 Days to a Well-mannered Dog . Her philosophy is the polar opposite from Millan's. She claims that, when she worked in Israeli intelligence, she saw the dominance over dogs theory put into practice to the extreme, and she equates it with dog abuse. Her methods emphasize loving your dog and establishing a mutual respect.
So, which is the best method? Which worked for me and produced the desired results with Puppy Girl?
Reading is my preferred method of learning, so I ordered two of the Geller books from Amazon and read them as soon as they arrived. In the meantime, I began giving Puppy Girl her daily tummy rubs again. I still used some of Cesar's "rules", but, truth be told, I don't really agree with him on a lot of things. While he has that huge pack of dogs at his Dog Psychology Center, in L.A., and he or a staff member spends many hours a day walking them (out of the question here), I've never read that he even has a pet dog or dogs at his home. Also, the dogs he grew up with on his grandfather's farm were all working dogs that lived out-of-doors. That doesn't equate to Puppy Girl's life. I'm not knocking Mr. Dog Whisperer, but it was Geller's method that spoke to me.
Tamar Geller uses only playful bonding and positive reinforcement to train puppies or modify behavior in adult dogs. Her method is so successful that the American Humane Society invited her to become a consultant. At the time she wrote her last book she was giving lectures about animal behavior at Pepperdine University. Pretty good credentials, eh?
One thing I found amusing from reading two of Millan's books and the article on Geller: they both claim Oprah Winfrey as a client! It seems Oprah didn't like the Pack Leader style either, so she went over to Geller for help. Who can argue with Oprah?
Other celebrities, including Ben Affleck, the Osbournes, Owen Wilson and Courtney Cox turned to Geller to learn her cruelty-free method of training for their pooches.
Geller's "Loved Dog" training plan, which ditches outdated methods that create stress for both dog and human in favor of a playful bonding that promotes mutual understanding and respect, proved to be the right way for Puppy Girl and me.
I also read Through a Dog's Eyes, by Jennifer Arnold, founder and executive director of Canine Assistants, a service-dog training school in Georgia. When I read her book, I knew I'd found another philosophy about teaching dogs that matched my own deep-down feelings. I encourage anyone who cares about dogs to read both Geller's and Arnold's books.
I put what I'd learned into action, and Puppy Girl's behavior improved dramatically. She has not been aggressive again with me, nor has she with any other person. My fur-girl still hates cats, even if they're across the street and not in our yard. I guess that will never change, but it's not a deal-breaker with me. I don't let her chase or harm cats--she only barks at them. After all, dogs bark, especially breeds like miniature schnauzers. No big deal.
I'm no longer worried she will bite me or anyone else. I'm vigilant, of course, but one of the things at which my vigilance is directed is something recommended by Jennifer Arnold, to wit: do what you can about the environment.
For example, If a dog gets into a wastebasket or garbage can, replace it with a covered can that the dog cannot open. Now, how simple is that? All low wastebaskets in my home were replaced by the taller, attached-lid bins I ordered (but which had not arrived) before "the bite." They are kept tightly closed and, therefore, are off-limits to Puppy Girl. She's never knocked over a garbage bin in her life. Problem solved.
UPDATE 2 1/2 years later: Since I taught her to wait until I give her permission to eat, Puppy Girl's manners have improved dramatically. There's never been another episode that made me think she might bite me. No growling, no misbehavior. She lets me take her favorite toys away from her all the time, and also remove her food bowl without any display of aggression. Looking back, I'm convinced it was an isolated incident that I could have prevented. Still, I'm happy that she shows no sign whatsoever of either food aggression or toy aggression. No aggression at all (unless she sees a cat or squirrel run through the yard, and she only barks about that!) She's a pleasure with whom to share my home, and her good behavior was and continues to be a relief to me.
* * *
I love my dog dearly and am not hesitant to admit it. While I still go through doors first and let her follow, and she now sits patiently on her rug and waits until I give her the go-ahead to eat dinner, that's the extent of my throwing my weight around. I don't believe it's necessary to be "alpha dominant" toward my dog for her to want to please me. And her good behavior is proving that my instinct (as well as Geller's and Arnold's models for teaching dogs) is correct.
We can show dogs how to make good choices through kindness and encouragement, rather than by instilling fear and submission in them. I don't know about you, but I'd prefer to have a happy dog living with me.
To dog lovers everywhere!
- Some DOs and DON'Ts for New Pet Parents
What I learned by getting my first pet at age 61
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Excellent Dog Training Books
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- Five Dog Breeds For A Writer
Every writer needs a reason to stop working, get up, and take a walk. One of these dog breeds should be chosen.