The bark is very rarely worse than the bite.
Wow guys, it’s been two weeks since my last post! The last couple of weeks have been amazing work wise, and fun during my off time, but also super busy. Regardless, I’m back!
I thought today we might talk pets! Specifically dogs, because who doesn’t love dogs. Maybe later we’ll talk about our feline companions.
As you might already know I am a vet student, which means I often deal with your pooch pals when they are feeling NQR (not quite right). I mean, yeah, I also see dogs (and puppies) coming in for vaccines or just a wellness exam but more often you bring in your dog because there’s something going wrong,
Now, I love my dogs, and much of the time I love your dogs too but… well, some dogs…
Let me be clear though, probably ninety percent of the time it is NOT your dogs fault… it’s YOURS. However, it is most often inadvertently your fault so, don’t feel too bad I guess (just bad enough to change a little bit).
I want to step back a second though. Over the last three decades much of the world has undergone massive urbanization, which leads to a disconnect between people and animals. While many people were closely involved with farms or related to people from farms one or two generations ago, today many people deal very little with what the animal industry terms production animals (cows, goats, pigs, horses to some extent etc.).
Those with family pets growing up might also know that while many farm kids have chores and learn a lot about the health of their animals, many kids with pets are not held responsible for paying attention to the pets health, eating and drinking habits, or grooming.
Together, the disconnect from farming and the low levels of responsibility given to young people for their pets means that fewer and fewer people (in the younger generations) know how to administer proper first aid, how to judge when an animal is sick enough to need a vet, how to train their pet, or even what to feed it. Even amongst the older generation there are many misconceptions with pet care because growing up the standards were different.
These are all hot topics but I’m really only going to talk about training today (in which I am not an expert, only a concerned observer). I will briefly say of the rest:
- Pet first aid is a thing and taking a course or asking some basic questions of the veterinary technologist at a checkup is super recommendable.
- On knowing if your animal is sick–if in doubt call the vet clinic and describe the problem to us–most clinics have fantastic reception staff who will quickly identify if your case requires urgent action or could be booked in for tomorrow or even next week AND if the vet is free they might even present a summary of your case to the vet and give you some free, sound advice straight from the horses mouth. Just please be friendly on the phone and go easy on us if we have to put you on hold, we are often quite busy.
- Finally on food, food is not love, and obesity is dangerous. There are myriads of options out there but the most important thing to do is feed the appropriate amount and keep your pet at their ideal weight, whatever you choose. If you choose a raw diet though YOU have a SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY to tell EVERYONE your dog interacts with that it is on a raw diet, especially when there are children involved (due to high risk of E. Coli, Salmonella and other pathogens possibly present in raw meat; and because dog kisses from dogs on raw diets are not welcome in any world including the veterinary world).
Now, back to the topic at hand–training. I personally hold all types of dogs to the same standard: NO JUMPING, NO GROWLING, NO BITING. I don’t care if your dog is a 90 kg mastiff or a 2 kg chihuahua, it should meet these three criteria to be what I would call a good dog. These are super basic standards, but when your pup is feeling NQR they can become more difficult for the dog to keep in mind if they aren’t well established.
Now I can hear some people already, “Oh, but Joey Chihuahua is so tiny, if he jumps up it doesn’t matter!” Here’s the problem, I have been climbed like a tree by chihuahua’s, pomeranians, and a variety of other small and toy breeds far more often than by mastiffs, german shepherds, border collies, etc. and their nails hurt like heck (nail trimming is also a pet peeve of mine).
Most people acknowledge that a large breed dog jumping up is not okay–they at least try to train them not to, and apologize profusely when they do. With the little guys though, their jumping is treated as a cute parlour trick. Not so, jumping sets a precedent. If you say yes to jumping you are saying, “My space is your space, take it!”
This creates tech/vet/student climbing tinies that try to perch on your shoulder like parrots, or jump off it like flying squirrels. Not only is this dangerous for the dog but it forces us to use increased restraint which is never as nice as being able to hold the dog loosely and calmly, and makes any procedure way more difficult than it should be.
Now for those of you who let your large breed puppies jump and say you’ll train them not too when they’re bigger and it matters, STOP. Think about it, if you want your kid not to throw food at the table do you wait until their five and their hands are big enough to throw significant amounts significant distances? I HOPE NOT!
Now, the no growling rule gets some people. Maybe your looking at me thinking, “Hey, look, he never acts on it. He’s just letting me know he’s not a fan. Plus, how do I stop him.”
If your dog is an adult this may get really difficult, and you may never totally fix it but bear with me and try, for the love of your vet okay? Your dog may never act on his growling with you but how hard do you push its patience? Techs/vets/students don’t have the luxury of saying “Oh, he growled at me as we were trying to get his pre-anaesthetic meds in, I guess we won’t do the surgery today. Lets wait until he’s in a better mood.”
Want to know the magic, no growl solution? Drive your puppy nuts, every day, all day, until he is full grown and barely blinks an eye at you. I mean pull their tail (lightly!), tug at and flip back their ears (if they are floppy and again, lightly!) and make them sit still so you can look in their ears; look at their teeth on a regular basis (lifting up their lips and shifting their head around), even scrape your nail on the surface of their teeth, brush their teeth (even if you think its stupid, it doesn’t have to be daily if you really hate doing it but try a few times a week at least), open their jaws (gently!) and look down their throat (this one takes time an patience to get them to accept it); trim their nails, play with their feet, lightly pinch their toes (lightly!); roll them over, lay them down, make them sit nicely on a scale, lift and move their feet and limbs (NEVER forcing them in any unnatural directions of course!); introduce them to new people all the time, and new environments, and new dogs (all once they have their first set of vaccinations of course); practice playing really energetically with them and then having them calm down quickly, take away and return their food mid-meal etc. Throughout all this REWARD them for every time they tolerate it/every time they succeed in getting closer to the desired behaviour.
When you do all these things make sure not to force anything, and be careful with the amount of pressure you apply. If they do growl at you, give them a firm vocal reprimand and a tap (on the nose, on the shoulder, on the paw) to refocus them (and I do mean a TAP, like you were playing a staccato note on the piano or finger painting a single dot with extreme excitement). Now rinse and repeat until your dog barely bats an eyelash when you do weird things.
Side Note: I would NEVER recommend you have young children try to train this sort of thing, as kids most often don’t know how to ensure they don’t apply TOO MUCH pressure to the dog. After you have established acceptance of some of these things though, you might be able to show your kids how to help the dog continue to grow in some areas like brushing the dogs teeth, or playing and then calming down, or sitting on the scale (with you supervising).
Alright, so your dog is being held to these standards now we come to the final and most important rule: NO BITING. First off–if your dog is a fear biter, or has been known to be aggressive LET YOUR TECH/VET KNOW!
You could even mention it while booking your appointment, it may help us choose a time for your dog to come in (maybe first thing in the morning before other clients are booked, maybe last thing in the afternoon after all the other animals are home) and it will help us to at least attempt to set up an environment that will be welcoming for your dog (we have pheromone sprays that we can use in the room, we can set up a dog bed, or maybe have his favourite treats around, or make sure he always has the same tech/vet, or even have a muzzle ready). We want you to be safe and we want to be safe.
That said, you may have done all the right things, and the vet team may have taken all possible precautions and your dog may still end up biting a veterinary team member because what can go wrong, did go wrong despite everyones best efforts. We understand this can happen even though we use every handling technique that we can to reduce the chance of this happening.
Now, to those of you who think a puppy chewing on your hand is funny… Do I need to say anything more than what I already have?
I will say there is, for sure, a difference between playful mouthing and actual biting but while some handlers may be able to make this distinction and train their dog to do one and not the other MOST PEOPLE can’t. So for most people: DON’T EVEN TRY.
Start with a strict no teeth on a person ever, rule and stick to it. Try to keep a toy handy. Have you ever seen canine unit police officers with Kongs in the side pocket of their pants, just below their guns? I have, and I would recommend it when you’re around your puppy (not the gun, the toy). If they want to chew on something, give them something to chew, just not you (and yes, I know police use toys to reward when the dog bites and get them to release sometimes, I’m not suggesting you use it in that way).
This may not prevent your dog from snapping at a veterinary team member at some point, when they are really pushed to their limit during a treatment or test but it will prevent them from learning that biting is appropriate/okay.
When your dog does snap (at you or anyone), which may or may not ever happen this requires immediate and firm correction (but also remember your dog will only connect discipline to an action for like five seconds after it has happened, so the reaction being immediate and short is important). How you correct depends on your training method, but remember reactions should always be proportional.
Adult dogs though, are a whole different kettle of fish. Established behaviours, which the animals have effectively employed to achieve a desirable result (being left alone, making a person stop doing something etc.) are very difficult to change.
Whether your dog is a puppy or an adult I would recommend obedience training, and at the first sign of aggression towards people or other dogs, or the first time it attempts to bite (and I mean a proper bite not puppy play), or when they begin to show abnormal behaviours, find and consult a professional.
You may want to take a dog to the vet and see if the behaviour is pain or disease related but if it is just bad behaviour there are certified animal behaviouralists out there (and I mean PROFESSIONALLY certified) that develop behaviour modification plans for dogs and even abnormally aggressive puppies. And again, ALWAYS inform the person your consulting of the biting/aggression issue BEFORE they start interacting with your dog.
Final word on this: I have seen more bite aggressive small dogs than I have seen bite aggressive large dogs, despite statistics that suggest large breeds are of greater concern than small breeds. I think a major factor of this may be the level of injury a single bite from a large dog versus a small dog can cause. While the 60 kg dog that was trying to bite me when I touched it’s collar earlier this week bothered me and was concerning, it was a situation a encounter less than you would expect and one that I see mainly in dogs that have lacked directed handling/training. Regardless, don’t think your chihuahua biting is any less concerning.
I’ll finish with a story: I once asked a woman if I could pet her chihuahua and when she gave the okay placed my hand, palm down a little ways from its nose to introduce myself. The dog proceeded to lunge forwards and chew up and down the side of my hand and snarl all the while.
Did the dog break through my skin? No.
Was it’s intent and desire to? Absolutely.
Do I consider it an aggressive and poorly behaved/dangerous dog? A hundred percent.
Was I hurt? No.
Was I upset? Not really.
Do I think it is just as concerning as a german shepherd or malamute or any other large breed biting me? Yes.
Was the owner laughing when it happened? Yes.
Have I seen versions of this happen more than once with small breed dogs? Yes.
I understand the owner was laughing because the dog was biting extremely unsuccessfully however, despite the chihuahua biting me being far less damaging than a large breed dog biting me, I find the behaviour equally disturbing and more often ignored. While a large dog that is known to be aggressive is almost always identified to me by the owner before I even get near it, or gives clear signals that it is going to behave aggressively near the outset of our interaction, a small dog with an extremely extensive bite history is often just mentioned to be grumpy, or a little nervous. A bite history is a bite history: whether they broke skin or not, whether the snapped and missed, whether they were “provoked” it is a BITE HISTORY.
I will never judge you for your dog being a work in progress, my dogs are works in progress until the day they die (I mean, there are always new things to teach and do with them) but I will one hundred percent not love, or even vaguely enjoy being around your dog if you are convinced it is an angel and refuse to acknowledge it has any need for additional training when it is clearly behaving poorly. AND if you laugh when your dog tries to bite me or anyone else, I will politely tell you exactly what I think of the dogs behaviour and yours, because that is not okay.