Handling a troublesome dog - Veterinary Practice
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Handling a troublesome dog

FIONA WHELAN presents a recent case from her files

Client: Mr and Mrs Jacobs and Toby (15-year-old son)

Patient: Megan, four-year-old Border collie bitch (neutered)

Age obtained: eight weeks, from reputable breeder

History: Generally very well behaved, responsive to commands. Taken to puppy classes when first obtained and went on to complete Good Citizen Bronze test with Toby. Friendly with other dogs if slightly nervous. Generally very active dog.

Medical history: Unremarkable, routine vaccinations, worming. Neutered at 13 months after first season.

Problem: Intermittent aggression towards owner, bitten both adults in family on four separate occasions. Frequent growling/guarding episodes that may have resulted in bites if owners had not taken evasive action! Aggression getting worse when reprimanded or “when she doesn’t want to do something”. Never been aggressive towards visitors/strangers or to Toby.

Additional information: Owners have previously sought advice from a local dog trainer who had diagnosed Megan as dominant and advised family to eat before dog, not allow her to get on furniture, always go through doors before her, remove all of Megan’s toys and ignore her for 15 minutes on arrival home. He also advised that Mr and Mrs Jacobs be more assertive with Megan and use a rattle bottle as a punishment to unwanted behaviour. The first bite occurred approximately three weeks into this new regime (previously she had only growled) when Mr Jacobs had reprimanded Megan for chewing her bedding and tried to force her outside into the garden.

The consultation: On arrival at the Jacobs’ home, the first thing that struck me was how shy Megan was. Whilst she was obviously keen to see who had arrived at the house, she did not come into the hallway but chose to run repeatedly between the kitchen and the lounge and only approached me once I was seated at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. Once we had made friends she squirmed repeatedly on her back at my feet, desperate for attention but obviously anxious about receiving it. I proceeded with the usual task of taking a detailed history of Megan, her lifestyle, upbringing and general day to day routine.

Megan had been bought as a pet for Toby as the Jacobs were keen for their son to learn the importance of caring for animals. They waited until Toby was 11 years old and “old enough to care for her himself ”.

Megan and Toby were obviously very attached to one another and Toby had been Megan’s handler through all the training classes. He also was the person who generally fed her, groomed her, etc. Walking was divided up between the family dependent on other family activities, time of day and the time of year.

As I visited the Jacobs in late February, the evenings were still generally dark so it tended to be Mr Jacobs who took Megan for her evening walk, at the weekends Toby was the main walker. Mrs Jacobs, who worked part-time, usually walked Megan at lunchtime before going off to work.

After talking through all the preliminaries, we went on to discuss the times that Megan had been aggressive. The first actual bite had occurred one evening when the Jacobs had returned from a family outing.

Mr Jacobs was the first to enter the kitchen where Megan was left when home alone, he had waited the required 15 minutes (as previously instructed by the dog trainer) before entering the kitchen. When he did he discovered that Megan had completely destroyed her bedding and the remains were scattered all over the kitchen.

She had also managed to reach onto the kitchen side and take down several of Toby’s school library books which she had damaged badly. Mr Jacobs was very annoyed and shouted at Megan and told her to get out into garden, Megan had run into the sitting room and sought refuge under the sideboard, shaking and growling (as she had previously done when reprimanded).

Rather than ignore her as was the usual response, Mr Jacobs took the trainer’s advice to “be more assertive” and insist that Megan “do as she was told”, he reached under the sideboard and dragged Megan out to the garden. As he forced her through the back door she had bitten him hard enough to require a trip to casualty for a tetanus injection and two stitches in his hand!

Following this event, Megan had snapped on numerous occasions particularly at Mr Jacobs but also occasionally towards Mrs Jacobs. These snaps were nearly always associated with being reprimanded or when being asked to go out into the garden. Sometimes she made actual contact with her victim, sometimes she did not.

There was never another serious bite but that seemed to be more down to the quick actions of the Jacobs rather than any restraint on Megan’s part. The behaviour had also progressed onto walks and Megan would often refuse to walk in a certain direction, if pushed she would start to growl, followed quite quickly by a snap. Recently she had often refused to go for a walk at all, taking up her position under the sideboard when the lead was presented.

Again this behaviour was saved almost exclusively for Mr Jacobs, Mrs Jacobs continued to walk Megan without incident and Toby was always able to walk Megan in any direction he wished without problem.

It was obvious that Mr Jacobs was feeling a little “victimised” by Megan and that the relationship between them was breaking down. He had again contacted the local trainer who had told Mr Jacobs that Megan was challenging him because he was the “pack leader” and she was vying for the “top dog” position. He advised more assertive behaviour and that Mr Jacobs should force Megan to the floor by her scruff if she growled at him.

Mr Jacobs, however, had decided to ignore this advice (probably because of his previous trip to casualty when taking on Megan) and decided instead to ask assistance from his veterinary surgeon who had given Megan the once over and having given her a clean bill of health had referred her on to the Animal Behaviour Centre for a consultation.

Mr Jacobs offered to give me a demonstration of Megan’s behaviour; it seemed impossible that this sweet, subservient little dog could be such an intimidating force, so I agreed that if Mr Jacob’s could induce some of the behaviour without getting bitten then this might be helpful to me.

Firstly, Mr Jacob’s presented the lead, Megan initially looked a little excited and for a moment I thought she was going to defy all that had been said about her and behave like a perfect pet (as so often happens at consultations!) At the last moment, however, Megan had a change of heart and hid under the sideboard instead.

Whenever Mr Jacobs moved towards her, she snarled threateningly and air snapped several times for good measure: there was no mistaking her message, “Come near me and I will bite you.” Sensibly Mr Jacobs did not pursue her and Megan remained under the sideboard for another 20 minutes or so, grumbling occasionally to remind us she was in residence.


We discussed in detail all of the occasions when Megan had been aggressive and indeed when she was the normal “nice Meg” that all the family loved. Mrs Jacobs thought that Megan had schizophrenia and that her behaviour was as a result of her split personality! Up until this point Toby had been very quiet throughout the consultation.

I asked him why he thought Megan behaved the way that she did and he replied that she “just gets stressed out about stuff sometimes”. When I enquired about what kind of stuff stressed Meg out he shrugged, “You know, usual stuff, strange noises, thunderstorms, that kind of thing.” “Fireworks?”

“Oh yes, she hates fireworks.” There it was, as straight forward as that, Megan had an excessively fearful reaction to loud noises such as fireworks, thunderstorms, bird scarers, etc. Her aggression was a desperate attempt to prevent being forced into her worst situation, outside in certain areas after dark!

The fact that Mr Jacobs was the victim of most of her attacks was largely incidental, it was always him that walked her in the evenings when it was dark. Like many noise phobic dogs, she had learnt to protect herself by avoiding certain situations, usually those that she had previously had a negative experience in.

On further investigation it turned out that the evening that Megan had destroyed her bed, one of the neighbours had been letting off fireworks in the garden. Megan, unable to escape the terrifying noise, had become stressed and taken her frustrations out on her bedding.

The library books that she had taken and chewed had been put there by Toby immediately prior to leaving the house: it is likely she took these items as a form of comfort blanket as they would have had a strong scent of Toby still present on them.

Meg had become increasingly fearful of Mr Jacobs in the three weeks prior to this incident as he had become “trigger happy with his shaker bottle, she was now being tormented for her fearful reactions with the thing that frightened her most – loud noises, no wonder poor Megan was confused!

When Mr Jacobs tried to force her out into the garden (the source of all the scary sounds) she finally lost it, unable to retreat she finally resorted to biting. Of course, from her point, biting was a successful outcome to the evening. Mr Jacobs let her go so that he could take himself off to casualty and she was left at home with Toby and wasn’t forced to endure the garden.

From this point on, growling and snapping became standard behaviour whenever she felt threatened or scared; like us, dogs will transfer successful behaviour into more and more situations.

Megan was less tolerant with Mr Jacobs as she had had the most negative experiences when out with him. In the end she decided that going for a walk with him just wasn’t worth the trouble! Treatment: The treatment for Megan was quite straight forward, although as with all behaviour modification programmes took time and consistency!

  • General de-sensitisation to fireworks/loud noises through the use of both a specially recorded CD and the introduction of other noises (doors banging, dropping items on floor, etc.).
  • Counter conditioning so that once tolerated these noises created an expectancy of a rewarding outcome for Megan.
  • Banning the use of the shaker bottle which was compounding Megan’s fear reaction.
  • Non-confrontation over unwanted behaviours. Instead, a lightweight house line was attached to Megan’s collar so that unwanted behaviours could be interrupted in a calm, hands-off fashion and a more appropriate behaviour encouraged.
  • Mr Jacobs to stop trying to walk Megan in the evenings until her behaviour improved dramatically. Instead he should become involved in the weekend walks with Toby, although not be the instigator of the walk until Megan’s trust in him was returned.
  • The introduction of a covered crate into which Megan could retreat if worried, the rule being that no one should pursue Megan in her crate and it is her exclusive retreat.
  • More general training and consistency by the whole family, using a system of reward for good behaviour and unwanted ones simply ignored or interrupted.
  • The reintroduction of Megan’s toys so that she could entertain herself and the family as only a border collie can!

Progress report: Although the desensitisation programme is going well, Megan can still be a little anxious if she hears a particularly loud bang. If at home she will retreat to her crate and come out when she feels calmer. She is now enjoying walks again with all the family and as the lighter nights draw out she is happy to walk in the evenings again (even when it is starting to get dark!).

There has not been a single biting incident since our meeting and the Jacobs are happy that they not only have more control over Megan but they also understand her behaviour and react accordingly.

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