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Food Reactivity/Aggression: The Truth About These Behaviors

“You can cry, ain't no shame in it.

-Will Smith

Ben’s owners called me to help with some food reactivity.  They were both desperate, a young couple about to be married.  Sam had adopted Ben as a young dog, and brought him into the relationship.  Susie accepted Ben as her own, and did her best to help care for him. He’d been in their house about two weeks when things started to change.

He started resource guarding.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with resource guarding, or in this case, food reactivity, it is a very difficult thing.  A very scary thing.  You never know when your dog will react.  In Ben’s case, he was extremely unpredictable.  He had bitten at least 4 people that I know of, not including Susie, who he had actually punctured though her finger with his teeth.  A couple of his victims had actually been seasoned dog professionals. At least on one occasion, he had guarded his own vomit in an effort to make sure nobody else could get at it. It was an extreme case to say the least.

Susie was distraught, as was Sam.  The difference was, Sam was a little bit more confident around Ben, which made Ben a little less reactive around Sam.  Oh, Sam had still gotten bitten (fairly regularly), but the focal point of Ben’s ferocity was directed at Susie.  Susie happened to have a very nurturing demeanor about her.  Tall, beautiful, and looking just as at home in a Titian painting as she would on a fashion runway, she had a proclivity towards being a caretaker.  Sam wasn’t too far behind her.  They were perhaps the most emotionally healthy couple I’ve ever met.  Now Susie was before me, sitting on the couch, sobbing because she was (rightfully) terrified of her own dog.

So I explained the situation to them.  I helped Susie understand that her lack of confidence around Ben was making his reactivity even worse.  I showed her how to act more confident around him while still maintaining her personal safety.  I had her walk him on a leash, guiding her at first, until she became more comfortable.  I showed them both the merits of The PAW Method (Piloting, Activity and Work) as well as the three steps to working with a dog:

1) Control yourself;

2) Control the situation;

3) Answer your dog’s questions.

Most important in a situation like this was step 2: Controlling the situation.  In other words, in a stressful or high energy situation (food) the worst thing you can do is add more stimulation.  Calm was mandatory, and if the dog wasn’t calm (i.e., lunging at you and snapping), one must go against their nature and remain calm.

It’s okay to fake calm. Just make sure you win the Academy Award for best actor.

I walked them step by step, how to react when Ben was attacking.  I put food on the floor, far from Ben, and immediately Ben lunged and snarled, trying to attack me.  I showed them how to maintain control, as outlined here, and most importantly, remain safe.  Susie seemed to relax more and more.

But Susie was never quite comfortable, and who could blame her.  Sam and Susie asked me how long it would take to cure him of this behavior.  I gave them the brutal truth.

“Never.  You will never cure him of this behavior.  It’s like asthma…you don’t cure it, you manage it.  And just like asthma, sometimes you take all the precautions in the world, and you still have a flair-up.  This is about managing the situation, not curing it.”

They both looked crestfallen.  They admitted to me that they were going through training as not even a last-ditch effort, but more as a way to bring into light the truth they already knew: Ben wasn’t safe. Ben was downright dangerous.

They asked what I thought about re-homing a dog like this.  I gave them my honest opinion, that it’s akin to lighting the fuse on a stick of dynamite and passing it around like a game of Hot Potato.  You never knew when that fuse would run out.  Human safety must come first.  I wasn’t ready to give up yet, though. I offered a compromise.

“Keep him.  Work with him.  Remain safe, but you two are young, and you’re most likely thinking of children.  Just promise me that if you ever get pregnant, you need to take Ben to the Rainbow Bridge.  Don’t re-home him, because you know one day you’ll see a child with a scarred up face and wonder if his family adopted Ben and he did that.  Because you’ve seen the damage Ben can inflict.”

Both Sam and Susie started tearing up.  We finished up the session, and I saw Susie going from being terrified of the dog to slowly…very slowly, building up more confidence.  She would never feel safe without Ben on a leash, even in the house, and she was right not to.  She would never trust him if she accidentally dropped food on the floor, and she was wise to trust her instincts.  In other words, she would be relegating herself to the role of wary victim the rest of her time with him, because, while her self confidence was improving, and her recourse of action in these situations were being spelled out, she could never trust her own dog.

As I was leaving, I asked Sam and Susie to keep me updated on his progress, and to call me immediately with any questions.  Sam got quiet, and Susie turned away.

“We already made the decision”, Sam said. “We’re taking Ben to be put down tonight.”

I was floored.  It was so in-my-face.  I know not every family can have a happily ever after, but this family!  Susie worked so hard.  I have never seen someone struggle to overcome their fear so desperately, and finally succeed.  She was the ultimate Pilot!  She mentally gave her all to Ben, steeling herself even when she was scared!  How could they give up so quickly?!

But those thoughts quickly fled as I realized what that would be relegating her life to:  constantly being vigilant.  Constantly Piloting, lest she be attacked and injured.  I was still amazed by their decision, but immediately (somehow) respected them even more that they came to it. They both loved the dog (it was obvious).  Both wanted the happily ever after, but they both knew it could not be safely attained.

“That is the best example of Piloting I’ve ever seen, ” I told them.  I hated their decision, but realized there really wasn’t a safer option.  After all, what if Ben were human and treating Susie like that?  I asked her that very question.  She chuckled, because she said Sam had essentially asked her the same thing.

“I’d do with any victim of domestic violence would do….I’d try to change to make him happy so I’d be safe.”  And that was what her life would become with Ben. That’s why the decision had to be made.

So I left them, amazed by their ability to do the difficult thing. Both were faking that they were okay, but both were inwardly grieving already.

Sam found Ben in an animal shelter as a young dog.  Sam rescued him, and took care of him.  Fed him, walked him, played with him, and loved him, until it was no longer safe to do so.  He gave Ben the best one and a half years that any dog could wish for.  He didn’t merely extend his life, prolonging the inevitable, while Ben languished in some wretched state of limbo in a shelter or kennel.  He enhanced his life for that time.  But humans come first, no matter what, and Ben’s behavior was amazingly severe.

Ben died that night.  Surrounded by those who (tried their hardest) to love him.  I received a very tearful voicemail the next day from Sam, thanking me for what I had done for them, and helping them to see clearly the nature of what they were up against.

There are those of you who will be angry regarding this outcome. Who believe that under no circumstances should a dog ever be put down due to behavior, even aggressive dogs who have severely injured people before.  But whose circumstances are those?  Not theirs to live in.  Yes, perhaps they can claim that they’ve “been there” and never gave up on their dog  And they have the wounds and scars to prove it.  I applaud them…I truly do!  But no two situations are exactly alike.  I’ve worked with many people who have resource guarding dogs, and most of them are able to understand the severity of the issue, and yet are still able to take on the challenge responsibly, and live with their dogs in a safe, Piloted atmosphere.  However, each situation is different, and each human is different.  It was time to say goodbye to Ben.  Was he a bad dog?  Absolutely not!  He wasn’t a safe dog, and that’s what made their decision so difficult.

Dogs work in mysterious ways, though.  One can imagine the scenario as they were saying goodbye to their pet.  Crying, the dog softly licking them, as if to say, “It’s all right, I’ll be okay. We all did the best we could”, and then Ben quietly slipping off to run along the Rainbow Bridge.

Only our pets don’t work like that.  Sometimes they don’t give us what we want, but what we need.

Ben bit the vet.  Badly.  Part of me thinks it’s because that helped to drive the reality of the situation home for poor Susie and Sam.  Perhaps he was trying to help them to help him across the Bridge, because that’s how dogs work.  Giving until the very end.

I needed a drink after writing this post. Or two.  It was an incredibly painful ending, especially with two people as wonderful as Sam and Susie.  Pilots to the end.

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

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