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Buddy's More Trouble As A Teenager Than The Girls Were!

We've had an incident with our dog Buddy, who is the most lovable and playful dog in the world 99% of the time. But that other 1% has been troubling, and got very troubling recently..........


I should start out by saying that from the outset we have approached our dog-ownership roles and duties from a behavioral point of reference. Dogs are social, pack animals; they respond to a hierarchical authority regime (alpha dog, pack leader, etc.). We picked Buddy up at a local animal shelter when he was 9 weeks old. We were told that he was a Black Lab and German Shepherd mix-breed from Nebraska. Over time it has also become obvious to us (cork-screw curly tail, a mottled black tongue) that he probably has some Chow in him as well.

From his first day in our family, Buddy has not been isolated from us or banished from being with us when we are home. He house-trained in very little time, and he sleeps with Lynn and me in our bedroom (initially in a crate, later on a dog-bed under the window). Because of these sleeping arrangements, we have never had a single night's worth of the stereotypical whining puppy locked in the kitchen. It was our intention to have Lynn be the alpha in Buddy's eyes, but in spite of our intention, I seem to have become the alpha to Buddy, and Lynn is alpha prime. Buddy's pack ranking relative to Audrey and Megan is the source of some of the problem.

Over the past six months to a year, we have had a small number (perhaps 4) of isolated incidents where Buddy showed overt possession or position/ranking aggression towards Audrey (who worked at a pet store and always had lots of different strange-dog smells on her, so Buddy was likely confused as to which pack she really belonged to), and recently Megan in certain circumstances (she has spent most of the year away at school, except for occasional weekends home, so was likely viewed by Buddy as a banished member of the pack who had recently returned).

It's hard to analyze a situation when you're in the middle of it, but in each incident our hindsight has been able to account for (though not to condone) his actions. In each case, he appeared to be trying to assert himself over either Audrey or Megan, hoping to overtake them in the pack order, or defending his perceived space, precipitated by either Megan or Audrey doing something like invading his space by hugging him when he didn't want to be hugged, or by butting in on quality time Buddy was having with Lynn, etc. In all incidents, he would growl, perhaps bark, bare his teeth, and perhaps snap his jaws (without ever making contact, though he easily could have). For most, if not all, of these previous incidents I was home, and when it happened I took over discipline immediately, usually grabbing him by his collar, holding him down to the floor by the neck, scolding him loudly, and then putting him roughly into his crate. On the occasions he growled at me during this (only twice), I either slapped or punched him across the jaw, letting my anger get the best of me. After each episode his contrition was palpable and directed to all members of the family/pack.

As I mentioned, on these occasions of misbehavior we would order him to his crate/cage (a large 6-sided wire pen, 4 feet deep, 3 feet high, and 2½ feet tall, with a hinged door) for confinement, once overnight. When he was a puppy and slept in a crate every night, he knew the word and when someone said "crate," he would head for his crate and hop right in. However, over the past 3 years we have only used his crate on these rare occasions so he has most likely forgotten the word.


The latest and most serious episode began on Tuesday, 30 May 2000. I had left for work with my suitcase in hand (some say that he knew I was leaving because of the suitcase, and knew he could get away with unacceptable behavior); I was flying to DC on business around noon and would not be back until Thursday evening.

Megan came home from her morning Calculus class before heading off to work, and noticed that the dog was nowhere to be found. She went looking for him and found him in our (and his) bedroom, lying on the floor beside his bed. She sat down on our bed and was about to reach down to pat him and say hello, when he stood up and growled at her, baring teeth. In hindsight, it was clear that he was being possessive of his den, defending it from another member of the family/pack who had just recently returned from being away most of the year, and was obviously lower in the pack hierarchy that Buddy, in his eyes.

This possession aggression was known by the members of the family to be unacceptable behavior, so Megan scolded him, and told him to go downstairs so she could put him in his crate/cage (literally she said, "Buddy, No! Bad Dog! Downstairs! Crate!" in a stern tone). She was stern and used only verbal commands. He continued to growl and be aggressive, left the bedroom and headed for the stairs, but went into the kitchen instead of going downstairs.

Audrey heard the commotion and came to see what was wrong. At this point she took charge of the situation, ordering him downstairs as Megan had done. He headed downstairs, but he was still upset. He went downstairs and into the family room, but turned right into the laundry room (a small confined area where the back door is - also where his outdoor dog-run is tethered) rather than left to go to his crate (as I said before, crate was a word we had used maybe 3-4 time in the past 3 years with him so it was probably not familiar, but downstairs we use 3-6 times per day, to mean go outside).

Audrey followed him into the laundry room and reached to grab him by the neck to move him into the family room and put him in his crate. Buddy bit her on the knee, breaking the skin and drawing blood, and on the hand (eventually requiring two stitches). Audrey then became enraged and began kicking Buddy, whereupon he bit her in the leg, also breaking the skin and tearing a hole the size of a half-dollar, a more serious wound that will take 4-6 weeks to fully heal.

By this point she was screaming at him to lie down, and he did. She then shut the doors to the laundry room (isolating him in there), and she and Megan began frantically to call my office looking for me, and to call Lynn at work. I had left on my trip and was in the air at the time. Lynn came home, and brought Audrey to the emergency room for treatment.

Based on the description given to her at the time and in the panic of the moment (the description was that Buddy had flipped out and attacked Audrey), Lynn had decided to euthanize the dog. She called the vet and made arrangements, and then with much trepidation she went down to the laundry room to bring Buddy to the car and take him to the vet. When she opened the door, Buddy was beside himself with happiness to see her, and was his playful and lovable self, wiggly and happy. This was quite disconcerting when she half-expected a mad foaming dog to come out of the room. With a great deal of nervousness, she put Buddy in the van (he sat right behind her head - happy as always to go for a ride) and drove him to the vet's. Megan and Audrey followed in a second car, in case something happened.

When she got there, Megan and Audrey came in to say their goodbye's, but the vet said that in bite cases, a dog cannot be euthanized for 7-10 days. So Plan B came into play; Buddy would be boarded at the vet's kennel until the quarantine time was up.

In the meantime, I had gotten the message in DC that something was wrong at home, so I called home repeatedly, and finally talked to Lynn around 5:30 pm (after they came home from the emergency room, but before taking the dog to the vet's). She explained what had happened as she knew it, and told me that she could see no other option but to put Buddy down.  I told her that I concurred with whatever decision she made.

I called again after dinner, and got caught up on the quarantine requirement and Plan B. At this time I talked to Audrey as well, and got a bit more of the story; there was more to it than Buddy flipped out.  Lynn decided that there was no sense to me coming home early from my trip, that everything was under control now and there was nothing further I could do by coming home, so I stayed in DC, and called home a couple of times a day to check in. Over the course of these conversations, more and more details emerged that had been overlooked or forgotten in the excitement of the initial emergency. By now we had also decided not to euthanize Buddy, but to find him a home other than ours. Once I got home, we talked a lot more, and by then most of the actual story (as I described it above) had been revealed. We also had a family meeting of sorts to try to talk about Buddy's fate, but it was still an emotional topic so nothing was decided.

The next day, in relating the story to a person at work who trains dogs (pit bulls, in fact), she was aghast at the events and pointed out quite emphatically to me something that crystallized the incident in my mind. In relating to her the part about Megan ordering him downstairs, and he headed for the stairs, she said "But he was doing what he was told! He didn't like it - but he was obeying!! Why was he being further punished for that??" As she so clearly pointed out, when he got punished (neck grabbing, yelling, kicking) for doing what he was told to do (go downstairs), he lost all his bearings and things he could trust - his world got turned upside-down, so he fell back on instinct. He was literally backed into a corner (up against a closed back door in a small confined laundry room), and he was being attacked by another member of the pack - Audrey - so he defended himself the only way he knew how. The ultimate proof that he hadn't snapped was the fact that after everything that had happened, all the yelling and biting and kicking, he did lay down when he was told to, so Audrey could shut him in the laundry room to confine him there.

What my colleague was telling me made a very big impression on me, and I made plans to have her come to dinner that night so she could talk to all of us and so that Lynn, Megan and Audrey could also hear what she had to say.

She explained to us her views on raising and training dogs, which were quite similar to ours, and she reiterated the points and observations that she had made previously. What we had slowly begun to realize, and was now becoming quite clear, was that even though we had done a great job raising Buddy in a host of ways, our methods of dealing with his occasional aggression were misguided. Reacting to aggression with more aggression does not accomplish anything except to give the human a false outlet for his or her own anger in the situation. We all needed to better understand dog-psychology in these situations, and to work with Buddy, not against him. Buddy is such a fine dog in so many other ways.

It became clear to us that Buddy did not deserve to be euthanized for his actions. What we needed to decide as a family was whether we wanted to continue to work with him as a member of the family, or find him a good home where his particular personality traits were understood and could be dealt with.

Whatever we decided, it was agreed by all that it had to be a unanimous family decision. We are all adults - there are no children in the family to protect, so the decision was a group one, and we all decided to keep Buddy with us and to work with him even more. We have met with an animal behaviorist (all of us, plus Buddy) who confirmed our assessment of the situation. We will be working with a trainer to work on ways to diminish Buddy's aggressive tendencies (infrequent that they are). We have changed our lifestyle and living patterns to give Buddy a more concrete picture of where his place is in the family/pack hierarchy (i.e., at the bottom). We have moved his crate/cage up into our bedroom and that is his den, his one and only space, clearly demarcated with cage walls - he sleeps there now. All other spaces in the house do not belong to him -  he gets moved on a regular basis to let him know that he does not own any other space.

So far, our efforts have been successful. We picked Buddy up from his quarantine on Saturday afternoon - almost a week after the episode, and he was ecstatic to see us and be back in the house. He has been on his best behavior, and the most remarkable thing has been his reaction to Audrey. Apparently she is the new Alpha, for Buddy follows her around a lot of the time and lies at her feet when she is in the house. He has, once or twice, exhibited his initial stages of competition reactions to Megan (tail down, head lowered, looking at her sideways), but when that happens, she gets the dog-treats and has him do a few tricks (at her command) before giving him a treat, to reinforce that she is in charge, not he. So far it has been working well.


So that's the status as of now. A long story but I think it needed to be told completely, as there are many nuances and explanations. We know that some folks will not understand why we are keeping Buddy and continuing to work with him, but it is our firm belief that the one and only actual attack was caused more by human over-reaction than anything else. Both Audrey and I now know that our anger with the dog in situations where we perceive him to be misbehaving does no good at all for the situation or for the dog, and sometimes when we think he's disobeying, on second look we see that he's not - he's just not doing exactly what we wanted or expected him to do. For the other problem (his possession aggression), I think we are making progress (allowing him his one den in the bedroom, keeping him from settling in at any one place in the rest of the house, calling him to us rather than us going to him when he is lying down, having him work for everything he gets, and having Megan and Audrey be the care-givers in most situations).  Time will tell; we'll keep you posted.


November 2001 Update:

The Budster has been on his best behavior for a long time now.  Our changes to the way we treat him, and what we do and don't allow him to get away with, seem to have paid off.  There have been absolutely no episodes or even hints of episodes with members of the family.  He does seem to be uncomfortable when meeting people while out walking and he is on the leash (leash aggression or leash fear is common, we are told), but there are very few people he is not overjoyed to see in the house.  Interestingly enough, there are a few people whom he avoids even inside our own house.  Mostly it seems to be people who were boisterous or physically rough with him when he first met them (someone who roughly rubs or pats the dog or tries to wrestle with him when they first meet).  When that happens, its a long time (sometimes months, or never) before he's comfortable around them.  When he's uncomfortable, he usually goes and lies down in my office by my computer desk (far away from the source of the fear) or sometimes he goes to his open cage in the bedroom and lies in there.

We still keep a close eye on him when he's meeting young children, especially when we're outside or out of the house and he's on a leash.  He's never ever made any motion towards them, but on occasion he will try to hide behind a family member to get away from children, and he sometimes can be heard quietly grumbling to himself - not a growl, no teeth shown at all, more of a grumbling complaining sound.  However, we'd prefer to err on the side of caution when children are involved.





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