I took a call a while ago from a lady called Marina, the owner of a 12 year old labrador.
She asked me if I could come see her dog as soon as possible because he was becoming very aggressive. Previously wonderfully natured around their small children who could always ‘hang off his neck” and ‘lie all over him’ when he was in his dog bed, Jake, their dog, now grumbled and growled when the kids approached the dog bed and had snapped at their youngest child last week.
” I don’t want to keep an aggressive dog at my house”, said Marina after she gave me the long diatribe about how upset she was with this dog who had become a stranger over the last few weeks,” He’s a risk to my kids and my husband wants me to put him down”.
I immediately got Marina to include her husband in on the call and we went to speaker phone, so I could ask them both some questions.
How long had they had Jake?
“We have had him since he was a nine week old puppy” they told me.
Had he ever been this way before?
“No never, in fact we had always bragged about his nature to our friends…the perfect dog, great with kids, cats, other dogs, we had even thought about him being a therapy dog at one time.”
When was the last time Jake went to the vet for a check up?
“Well, because he’s so good natured and there’s never been anything wrong with him, we only take him to the clinic to get shots once a year and to get our prescription for heartworm meds and frontline. In fact my husband said its ironic that the only time we’ll have had to take this dog to the vets, is to put him down…its heartbreaking, he was such a good dog….unless of course, you can help us….?”
I seriously couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I realised I needed to be rather dramatic about how I put things, in order to make the point.
I asked Marina how old her mother was, and she told me 76. I asked after the lady’s health and she told me that she suffered from dementia, but that they were looking at a long term care facility for her.
” Oh, I wouldn’t bother with that, I told her…I think you should just ask the Doctor to put her out of her misery”.
You can imagine how shocked the response was when she said ‘……….Excuse me?’
I could hear her husband in the background mumbling something about British people being whack jobs.
“Well, I’m guessing you maybe do this with all the members of your family, right? Just do away with them once they get a little bit antsy? But why stop there? Why not do this with the kids too?”
As they listened in stunned silence, I explained that they had enjoyed the companionship of this wonderful friend and family member for twelve years.
He had always given them everything he had to give; love, protection, warmth, a shoulder to lean on, a companion for their kids and a valued member of the community. This dog had been on every family vacation, been at every family celebration…Christmas, birthdays, christenings, you name it. He was a closer family member than most family members ever are.
Now, as he was getting old and probably just suffering from ill health, they were ready to give up on him at the first hurdle, when a vets visit, a thorough check over, could just tell them how to help Jake in his golden years, in the retirement that he had earned.
Well, by this time, Marina was bawling and Joe, her husband wasn’t mumbling ‘whack job’ quite so loudly. I told them to forget about hiring me and to spend the money on a visit to an excellent local vet for a thorough check over and some blood work instead, which they agreed to do. It had honestly never crossed their mind even once that Jake might not be feeling well. They assumed, because he was growling and getting fractious, that it was a behavioural problem.
Many people fail to see dogs as beings with problems. Man forgets at times that he is not the only one who can feel pain, experience anxiety, be overwhelmed with feelings of loss or sadness. The advent of all these TV shows telling us how to train away this behavior or not accept that behavior sometimes misses the deeper issue at hand, which is…how is your dog feeling?
As a behavior counsellor, I deal with many aggression cases, and here at the Ranch we work hands on with aggressive dogs all the time.
The first thing we do with any problem dog is not stifle them with rules and drills and training protocols. …
The first thing we do is to set them free; remove the harness, remove the collar sometimes and remove the leash…and then we watch. The dog’s body will tell us all we need to know. Where the dog will let us handle him will guide us to his problem and his response will tell us the depth of it.
All aggression comes from one of two places, Pain or Fear. It’s our job to diagnose which one it is and then help the dog to overcome the fear, or have the owner get a good hands on, instinctual vet to help if its pain.
Of course, in this case, I didn’t even need to see Jake to know that this dog was in pain because his behavior was totally out of the ordinary, and it was sudden onset; usually a clear indicator of pain. When I explained all of this to Marina, who, now she realised I didn’t really want her to have her own mother whacked, was listening to me intently and was feeling both guilt and relief that she hadn’t done the unthinkable.
A week later, Marina called me and told me that the vet had diagnosed Jake as being riddled with arthritis in his neck and his back legs, plus he had thyroid issues. He had been started on medications for both problems and was already starting to feel a bit more comfortable. The vet and I both counselled them to not allow the kids anywhere near Jake’s dog bed while he was resting in it, and to not let the children put any physical pressure on him at all. Instead of a collar for walks, Jake was fitted with a loose harness which freed up his neck, and Marina and Bob agreed to put all that money that they had saved on vet visits over the years to Jake’s ‘retirement fund’, and booked visits to the local veterinary rehab facility for work in the pool and the underwater treadmill.
Jake’s future is now looking much brighter; he may have three more years, he may have substantially less than that, but the family have committed to looking after him and understanding him in his hour of need and doing what is right.
As role models for their children, it was also important they showed compassion and patience, but above all, commitment, to this wonderful dog who had given them so much and now needed them so badly but just couldn’t give voice to this trouble other than to growl, as it’s the only language he knows.
God bless and keep you all this fine Spring weekend, and pay attention to your dogs’ voice. He might not be speaking English, but he still has a lot to say.