In part one of this series, we looked at the overall picture of dogs who are aggressive when touched or handled. In this section we will examine the health and safety aspects of this type of aggression. When we have a canine companion who is aggressive with handling and touch, we first want to ensure that the dog and human are safe and that the dog is healthy.
Routine veterinary care is essential to rule out underlying health conditions that may contribute to aggressive behavior.
Since this behavior has the potential to be very dangerous, and typically takes time to change, we recommend adding in levels of safety so no one gets hurt in case of a misstep. Muzzle training is one of the first things we want to implement. However, we can’t just put a muzzle on a dog; we need to teach the dog to be comfortable wearing one. If we don’t, then we can be increasing the dog’s anxiety around handling, which is the opposite of our goal. There are many types and sizes of muzzles and it is important to make sure you have a good fit.
The Muzzle Up Project is a wonderful resource and can assist you in learning about the benefits of muzzles including how to teach dogs to wear them, how to make sure that they fit properly, and the various kinds. We typically recommend basket muzzles such as the Baskerville Ultra Muzzle, so the dog can drink water, take treats, and pant while wearing the muzzle. If a dog is wearing a muzzle, that may keep the human safe, but that does not mean we should handle the dog without the dog’s consent. We want the dog to be as comfortable as possible while remaining safe. We will talk more about consent in future posts.
Be proactive and take some time to teach your dog to wear a muzzle so we don’t add to his anxiety of also having something strange on his face, while also learning something new like being handled. To get started, let the dog sniff the muzzle or take treats off of the muzzle on the floor. Next, fold the straps back and away. Smear some soft cheese, baby food, or peanut butter (xylitol free) inside the muzzle. Let your dog choose to put his face inside the muzzle to lick out the food. Do not move the muzzle towards him. Never force a dog to wear the muzzle. Do this for a few days for up to a few weeks without fastening the muzzle on his face. The video below demonstrates how this is done. A next step could be to lay the straps of the muzzle on the dog’s neck. Next, we start to clip the muzzle on the dog for very short periods of time. Some dogs take to wearing a muzzle easily, and others do not, and it may take some time to achieve the goal of being able to wear one. If at any point the dog looks uncomfortable, go back to earlier steps to go at the dog’s pace. Muzzle training should be as fun as any other training you might do with your dog. There are additional intermediary steps that may need to be done to get a dog comfortable wearing a muzzle.
Baby gates, harnesses and leashes can also be used as levels of safety depending on the circumstances and the dog. You may need to desensitize your dog to the leash prior to having one on your dog in the house. If your dog is like mine, he sees the leash or harness and gets super excited to go for a walk. Leaving the harness on after a walk, moving the leash about the house, and periodically clipping the leash to your dog will help your dog not get too excited by this gear when you use it in the home.
For both muzzles and leash equipment, we would like these objects to be positive or neutral. We don’t want your dog to get overly excited or anxious around these pieces of equipment.
Medical or Behavioral?
There are some similarities between humans and canines. One of them is that if we are trying to work on a behavior in a human or a canine, we first always want to rule out any medical condition that can affect behavior. We want to do this for our dogs too. For example, if I touch a dog’s hip and the dog growls, perhaps there is a pain issue. Behavior modification is not likely to be successful if we don’t treat the root cause of the problem, in this example, the pain, and then move to behavior modification, if it is even necessary.
Often, if there is a sudden onset of a behavior change with no clear explanation especially handling, then we always first recommend that your dog gets a thorough check up from your veterinarian. Treating the medical issue can, in some cases, eliminate the need for any behavioral intervention and can ensure your pup is feeling happy and healthy. Other times the medical and behavior are more intertwined and both need to be addressed. Sometimes medical issues are not apparent so it is important to work with a veterinarian to rule out any possibilities of a medical component. If the dog is aggressive with handling at the veterinarian then you will want to see the next parts of this series that specifically addresses this concern. If there is an immediate need for the dog to have a medical exam or procedure, consult with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may recommend a pharmaceutical intervention to decrease your dog’s stress for an urgent exam.
Keeping health and safety in the forefront and as a foundation for your dog will make your lives together happier and safer.
Learn more about Beth and Wayne at CanineCompanionConsulting.com