Working with a mix breed dog is, as Forrest Gump would say, like a box of chocolates -- you never know what you’re going to get. So when Jessie Piermont from Norwalk called with her dire story about Toby, I was quick to react. Toby was showing signs of aggression and even though he was about the size of a large house cat, his behavior was unacceptable in polite society.
Jessie called me, frantic. She had adopted Toby about three weeks earlier. Billed as Lhasa Apso/Poodle mix, Toby was affectionate, playful and loving as long as you were a woman.
Men? Men were not Toby’s cup of tea. If a man came to the door or approached during a walk, this little spitfire launched into full attack mode, barking ferociously as he lunged at the door or flung himself full-force to the end of his leash; 20 pounds of merciless terror.
“As much as I love this little dog I cannot keep him if he keeps this up,” Jessie told me tearfully. We made the soonest appointment possible.
When I arrived at Jessie’s house, I met a floppy-eared, shaggy-coated little dog who was, in all likelihood, more of a Shih-zu than a Lhasa-mix. But no matter. I was smitten. Toby made the moves on me instantly, sidling up for a combination ear and belly rub.
He was receptive to training but his top priority seemed to be flirting and attention seeking. I took Toby for a short walk and introduced the directions “sit,” "stay,” get back” and “follow.” As soon as we sat back down, there was Toby, nosing me for more attention.
While I sat with Toby at my feet, Jessie told me his story. He was found wandering the streets of Brooklyn and taken to a high-kill city shelter. Unclaimed and scheduled for euthanasia, the wonderful Save our Strays of Westport made a dramatic, last-minute rescue and placed Toby with Jessie.
It was clear that this dog was at one time both pampered and loved. Why he was turned out onto the street is anyone’s guess, though as the cost of owning a dog climbs, many dogs are being abandoned by otherwise loving people. So how does one explain the reaction to men and the reactivity to their presence over 20 yards away?
“You won’t see his aggression until a man is present. Then it’s like a switch is turned on,” Jessie explained. “His eyes bulge, his body tightens and he doesn’t listen to me, even when I shout at him. It’s like I’m not there.”
As I listened to her description, I felt a profound sadness. Many rescue dogs (and even some raised from puppies) have what I refer to as “split” personalities. These dogs are mild mannered and loving a large percentage of the time, but due to lack of socialization or insensitive handling, develop fear and defensiveness toward the unpredictable situations, unfamiliar people and dogs. Though their triggers are often identifiable (children, men, dogs) their reaction is so pronounced that many families have no recourse but to return them or rehome them, or, in the worst cases, euthanize their dog.
In addition to the emotional and physical pain caused by dogs who bite, there are grave legal repercussions as well and homeowners insurance does not always cover the costs. In cases of aggression, I always advise the clients check their policies. In Toby’s case, he felt so threatened by men that according to Jessie, the mere silhouette of a man would trigger a viscous response.
Until our visit, she responded by gripping his leash or collar and yelling at him to stop and calm down. Although these reactions are well intended and typical of novice dog owners, they actually intensify the fear and reactivity. The dog feels trapped by the iron grip and the stress level increases. While aggression and dominance is not a personality type, it is a coping skill that Toby used to manage his emotional conflict prompted by fear.
In my next column I will detail the approach and techniques used to rehabilitate Toby and we’ll check in with Jessie to see how they’re doing! Meanwhile, read over and add to the discussions. While few people speak openly about their dogs’ aggression issues, it’s an important subject. Only by speaking openly can change occur.