Meet the dog
When Leo and Monika contacted me, their Australian Shepherd, Blitz, had just bitten for the third time. Clearly, something needed to change.
Blitz was three years old when I met him. He had lived the first half of his life in the Tyrolean mountains, unconfined and unrestrained. Leo used to take him mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and hiking. When Blitz was two, Leo had an accident that damaged his knee, and moved to Vienna soon afterwards. Blitz lost both the freedom of living on an unfenced property in a mountain town, and his daily exercise. He seemed to adapt to a slower pace of life well though.
… until the incidents. The first one happened two months before Leo and Monika asked me for help. They had friends over. Blitz spent most of the evening relaxing next to one of the visitors’ chairs and asking for cuddles every once in a while. When the friend got up to leave, Blitz jumped up and bit his leg. The friend yelled; Blitz let go; and Monika scolded him and put him in the bathroom. It had been a full bite; the teeth had left little red dots on the skin.
A few weeks later, Leo’s dad visited. Blitz waited for food to be dropped while he was making a lunch sandwich. Leo’s dad turned around, a plate with the sandwich in one hand, and reached out to pet Blitz with the other hand. Blitz bit his hand. Leo’s dad pulled back, and the dog let go immediately, turned around, and trotted out of the kitchen.
The third incident happened when a good friend was over. She sat on the floor, and Blitz dropped a toy in her lap. They played fetch for a few minutes; then she stopped playing to scratch his butt. Blitz seemed to enjoy it for thirty seconds, then whirled around and nipped her cheek, leaving a scratch.
The next morning, I got the call. I met them at their apartment, and was greeted by a wiggly, happy, very friendly red Australian Shepherd. He seemed confident and social; happy to meet me, yet polite, keeping his paws on the floor.
While Monika and Leo filled me in, Blitz rested next to my chair, looking content. Based on the owners’ account alone, there was no clear trigger to the three incidents: once, there was food involved, once a toy, and once no resource at all. The bites had happened at different times of day, and in different rooms. Blitz had bitten two men and one woman. The dog I observed during our conversation seemed friendly, social, and reasonably well mannered.
I gave Monika and Leo a management protocol, and sent them to my vet for a health check. She gave Blitz a clean bill of health, which was my cue to suggest a number of lifestyle changes in addition the management protocol.
Blitz’ Management Plan and Lifestyle Changes
Instead of getting kibble from a bowl, Blitz would get canned dog food from frozen Kongs in the future. He used to be fed in the kitchen, but would now receive all his meals either in his crate or in the bedroom. This ensured that both his crate and the bedroom became places he enjoyed hanging out.
Blitz would have no more direct interactions with visitors. Before opening the door to a visitor, Monika or Leo would take Blitz into the bedroom or send him in his crate. Once the visitors had come in, he received a frozen Kong. The order of visitor first, food second was so that the arrival of guests predicted delicious meals rather than the other way around.
Every time Blitz went out in public and might have interactions with people, he was going to wear a muzzle. We worked with cream cheese and peanut butter to make the muzzle a delicious rather than annoying experience.
Blitz’ everyday life had changed dramatically after Leo’s accident and the move to the city. Was this part of the reason he ended up biting three people? The truth is that we can’t know. Maybe it was – or maybe it wasn’t. Pointing out this possibility, however, motivated Monika to step up: she used to go running five times a week. From now on, Blitz would join her, which was a huge upgrade from his three daily walks around the block. Leo had given up outdoor sports – his main bonding activity with Blitz. He wasn’t into dog training classes or teaching tricks. After a little brainstorming, he decided to promise Blitz to work with him for 3 to 5 minutes at least twice a week. He’d set a timer, and work on one or two skills from a list of simple, useful behaviors we came up with together: sitting, lying down, staying while Leo moved around and eventually out of the room, going in his crate, leash manners, touching his nose to Leo’s hand, jumping on and off the couch on cue. I showed Leo how to set Blitz up for success, and how and when to reward him with a cookie. I hoped the short training sessions would not only increase Blitz’ quality of life, but also become a new way for Leo and Blitz to bond.
I worked with Blitz about two years ago, and have checked in a few times since. There have been no further bite incidents. Blitz ist still not allowed to interact with visitors, and he still wears a muzzle in public. I am proud of Monika and Leo for keeping up their management plan, which ensures that everyone is kept safe. After all, we don’t know whether physical and mental exercise or careful management are the reason Blitz has not bitten since.
It’s always a little unsatisfying to not know the precise trigger for or reason behind a behavior – for both dog trainers and owners! Sometimes we can only speculate, and lifelong management is the best solution. In Blitz’ case, however, I’m positive that his overall life quality increased after my intervention – which almost makes up for the fact that we still don’t know why he bit when he did.