Eureka! Dog Blog

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Case Study 2 – Leader of the Pack

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This is a painful story from one of my first clients.  This experience actually drove me to move to a location where I could bring dogs in for training if necessary.

Mike and Laura are a couple close to retirement age.  They had a very smart little Jack Russell terrier called Jack.  Mike called me in, explaining that Jack had become aggressive at times, biting him and just recently trying to bite complete strangers.  He was afraid that he would have to have Jack euthanized, and he was looking for help to avoid that.

When I arrived at the house, Jack was out in the back yard.  I saw that food was left out for Jack in the kitchen, and also outdoors.  When Mike opened the back door, Jack rushed in, and by way of greeting me, he jumped on to every piece of furniture in the living room.  Jack was a smart little dog, and could do many tricks.  Mike explained that he loved the little dog, who had been his companion as Mike battled cancer, but on several occasions, Jack had been lying in his lap, and had suddenly bitten him, drawing blood.  As he told me about this, Mike played a game of tug-of-war with Jack using a soft toy, and allowed Jack to win.  Laura arrived home soon after, and it was clear that she was avoiding contact with Jack because she expected he might attack her.

We went through a lot of Jack’s history, but the situation was pretty clear.  Jack believed he was in charge of the house, and Mike and Laura were his staff.  He may have started out with respect for Mike, but lost it when Mike became weakened.  There was always food available for him, so he did not see that he was dependent upon them for anything.  He had control of the “high ground” – his jumping on all the furniture made that clear.  He consistently won contests of strength (when I asked Mike why he let him win the tug-of-war game, he said “I thought it would break his spirit if he lost”).  His biting was not an act of aggression, he was disciplining members of his pack who did not act appropriately towards him.  It is likely that he would lie in Mike’s lap, relaxing, but when Mike put a hand on top of him to pet him, Jack corrected him with a bite (the bite would not have done any serious damage to another dog, but Mike was weakened by his illness).

The right approach was also evident.  Jack needed to learn that he was not the leader of the pack.  Until he had learned to follow the lead of the people in his family, he could not be trusted.  If I could have taken him away with me that evening, I would have suggested it.  A few days of boot camp would set him up for coming home to a new world order.  However, at that time, I had nowhere to take him, so Mike and Laura would have to make the changes in his life.  Given that Laura was already afraid of him, and Mike was afraid that he could not control him, I was not sure that they would be successful.  The Jack Russell is small, but full of energy and determined to get his own way.

Sadly, the next day, Jack again attacked Mike, and he was euthanized.  I met Mike and Laura again a few months later, when they were adopting another dog – this time, a calmer, quieter dog – and they assured me that they would make the house rules much clearer from the start.

So, Jack, I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.  Now I live out in the country, so that if the situation arises again, I would be able to take the dog away for the first couple of days of the rule change.

For everyone else out there – please take a look at your household from your dog’s perspective.  More than half the time when I go to a new client, the question of who is leader of the pack is behind many of their problems.  If your dog believes he can demand what he wants from you (food, treats, petting, playing, going outdoors, coming indoors, etc.) then he thinks he is in charge of the house.  You don’t have to be mean to him, just make it clear that you are in charge – keep him off the furniture, have him sit before his food goes down, and pick up his food bowl after 20 minutes, have him sit (or down, or high 5, or anything) before giving him the things he wants, make him wait at doors so you go first, then tell him when he can come through.  And if your dog is putting any part of his body on any part of yours (even resting his head on your knee), then make sure that you have your hand on top of him – you are the king of the hill.

Written by eurekapaws

April 13, 2009 at 11:27 pm

Posted in Case Studies

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