I first met with Becky and David in early 2008 when Becky phoned me and told me that her nine month old Tibetan terrier, Dorje had bitten her in the face.
As with all incidents of aggression in dogs, this was not the first occurrence.
I went to meet the couple along with Dorje at their home and to see what could be done to aid the problem. Not everyone who gets bitten wants to keep their dog afterwards especially bites to the face. For many dogs in this situation, it would have culminated in a one way trip to the veterinarian. Becky and David are different though. It was immediately obvious as arrived in their home that Dorje was one much loved little dog.
As always, I sat with couple and began to collect Dorje’s antecedents and gather his general behaviour and lifestyle analysis.
Dorje had been obtained by Becky and David from a house breeder when approximately seven months of age. He had lived with another family and had been returned to the breeder due to concerns about how Dorje was interacting with the child in the family. (Presumably with our present knowledge of Dorje, one can assume he bit the child, but we do not know that for certain.) It is often the case when taking on adult dogs that we are not told the whole truth!
Once in his new home with Becky and David, he developed a penchant for mounting them and their guests. Each and every time that they attempted to disrupt Dorje’s embarrassing behaviour he would become most aggressive with his owners (the person that was intervening).
On 10th March 2008, Dorje was laying on the couple’s bed, which was commonplace for his cuddles. On this particular day, Becky went over to give him a cuddle, as she often did and as most of us do with our dogs. Dorje turned around quickly and bit Becky’s face. Due to the shock of the incident, Becky recoiled and moments later David came and put Dorje in a ‘hold’ that their veterinarian had showed them in order to get Dorje to submit. He instantly became submissive and appeared subdued for the rest of the evening.
This incident concerned Becky and David greatly primarily due to their social, moral and legal obligations towards other people and ensuring their safety.
Dorje was neutered shortly before this incident and the couple had observed a reduction in aggression (arguably because they adopted different measures to cope with/avoid or whatever the aggression). Fortunately, the castration brought about a complete cessation in his mounting behaviour.
Prior to and since his castration, the couple estimated that Dorje has bitten approximately thirty times, whilst primarily this was David and Becky on the receiving end, two of their close friends had also been bitten when attempting to remove ‘stolen’ items from the dog.
At the time of our consultation, David was able to remove toys and some food items from Dorje without aggression however; an incident the previous day occurred when David was walking Dorje and went to remove some food from him in the street. He turned and bit David’s thumb.
Becky at that time was notably a little less inclined to challenge Dorje and had numerous incidents behind her whereby Dorje has threatened her and she has had to recoil to avoid being bitten.
Upon veterinary advice, David and Becky began pinning Dorje to the ground whenever he displayed any aggression. This worked well for the couple initially, holding Dorje on the ground until he became relaxed before releasing him. Dorje quickly became wise to that and would wait until released before increasing his aggression and biting once more. Becky and David also had another technique with Dorje which involved covering him with a towel when he displayed aggression – this worked well for a while – because he could not see where to bite! As soon as he learnt to avoid that technique and perfected throwing towels off…something else was negated.
The bite on Becky was, as always not a one off incident, but was perhaps the most frightening and most serious. Dorje had been grumbling, growling, snapping and snarling for many months. In fact, when David and Becky went to view him as a seven month old puppy at the breeders, he bit David’s hand. Feeling sure that this was a one off and after falling for him at first sight, they took him home anyway!
As regular readers will know, it is not just the dogs’ behaviour that one must assess, it is the owner’s ability to listen, question, remember and implement advice. David and Becky were so keen to keep Dorje and felt that if they could not alter his aggression, he would end up being euthanased. That meant I had a captive audience hanging off my every word. There are sometimes when I leave clients houses that I feel unsure that they will follow all of my advice. When I left Becky and David’s house, I knew they would adhere to every word and that to shows how very much they loved and cared for this little dog and that’s just the kind of people I like working with.
I explained my view of the problem to the couple before we began embarking on the reformation training plan. Dorje was at that time a very young dog and was displaying relatively high levels of aggression (intensity) and showed absolutely no hesitation in biting / growling when he did not wish to do something. As I explained to Becky and David in consultation, the Tibetan terrier seems predisposed to inherited dominant behaviours – both with people and other dogs. For this reason they are not the easiest breed to own and manage. I am sure that will cause outcry with Tibetan terrier owners everywhere, but being predisposed to dominance is not the same as that dog developing aggression.
I felt strongly that these dominant inclinations could be altered, reduced and removed (removed in so much as you never observe those aggressive behaviours, but in another environment the dog may display the intrinsic responses through opportunity)
Dominance aggression is always made up of the innate canine drives and a learnt component (the learnt component in most cases is that it works well to achieve what the dog wants). When a dog is raised with young children, children can be somewhat unique and unpredictable in their behaviour and combined with a dog like Dorje can very quickly increase aggression; similarly any physical punishment at an inappropriate or incorrect time can quickly fuel the aggressive responses. It is patently obvious to me that Dorje’s aggression was most embedded and to conclude the cause – the innate predisposition has been greatly compounded by poor early handling throughout the critical development stages.
Even since Dorje had lived with David and Becky (eight weeks approx) he had also a great number of repetitions where biting and using aggression has been successful and in he needed absolute consistency from the family to ensure that this aggression reduced to a manageable level or better still was entirely removed. At the time of the consultation, I felt strongly that when Dorje matured at about 12 to 20 months (depending on the individual temperament) unless they had made sufficient headway, based on experience the aggression becomes virtually unmanageable as the dog learns more and more situations that it can dominate – it becomes a pleasurable activity to enforce his status. A comparison that I often make would be that at his present age and relative to a human age – Becky and David were dealing with the equivalent of a four year old child. When that child gets to eighteen (three dog years) you have a whole other level of aggression and self-confidence to deal with.
As I left Becky and David, I was hopeful as always that they would be able to alter Dorje’s behaviour, but I knew with the level of aggression it would be no easy task.
I had given them a strict plan to follow with Dorje to psychologically alter his state of mind, this included no more cuddles on the bed, no more cuddles on lap and everything delivered at the owner’s behest not the dogs.
Becky and David took up the challenge and kept in touch by email and phone. Within a few days, they were reporting good results and that the aggression had reduced. I tried to keep them motivated so that they would continue to improve and day by day stand a greater chance of success in their aim of keeping Dorje living with them and of achieving a normal tempered and gregarious dog.
After a few months, I went back to see Becky and David and to assess his mild aggression towards other dogs and to give them some ‘top up’ information. They had hit a plateau with his aggression. Although much improved and the aggressive incidents occurred rarely, they did occur on occasion. The couple were happy to put up with this occasional aggression, but I delivered some more information to use a sound aversion technique when Dorje displayed aggression. This really was David and Becky ‘biting’ back.
Now, at the present time, Dorje displays no aggression whatsoever. Becky loves to sit grooming him in the evening and even clips him herself which a year ago would have been impossible – not because Dorje didn’t like being groomed, but because he knew he could use aggression to dominate that situation as well. Now, he loves being brushed. Becky can once more cuddle him whenever and wherever she wishes – Dorje knows the rules and behaved impeccably. He gets along with dogs now and regularly comes to stay with me and my dogs as the pictures show.
Very few people keep dogs like Dorje; they either stick them in rescue or drop them off at the vets to be put to sleep. Becky and David did not create these issues with dogs, but they were determined to be the ones to reform him and keep him living a good and happy life.
I am sure reading these articles, it is nice to have a happy ending, but lots of cases don’t have a happy ending. Dog behaviour reformation is not magic; there is no whispering that goes on and no mysticism. It is the meeting of knowledge of dog behaviour through hands-on study combined with some one willing and able to carry out advice.
I admire Becky and David greatly, something that they probably don’t know. When the issues with Dorje began, they had only owned him a few days and most people would have simply taken him back to the breeder for a refund. David and Becky are different, two of the most caring and understanding dog owners that I have met. Their commonsense attitude, unity, ability to listen and to actively retrain their dog with consistency is what brought about this success. Not many people would bother, that’s why Becky and David are definitely in my top three favourite clients! When I see Dorje having a cuddle or being groomed or playing his favourite game of ‘Ghosty Dog’ (don’t ask!!!) I can’t help but smile.