This Dog Is Biting His Owners, But Is It Correctable?

Kelly wrote:  “I desperately need your help. My husband and I adopted a dog from a shelter about a year and a half ago (the dog was 1 1/2 years old then; he turns 3 this month). He’s half German Shepherd, half Alaskan husky. He was abused (we’re not sure of the full extent, but it was physical), and he was skin and bones when we adopted him. The shelter thought he’d been chained up and left without food, kicked and hit, etc. He was 45 pounds and all of his bones were visible when we adopted him; he’s now 70 pounds and very powerful.

dog bites owners

He had a host of problems when we first adopted him, and we almost didn’t keep him several times during the first 4-5 months we had him. The short list of his problems when we first got him: severe separation anxiety with extreme destructiveness and self-injury when left alone; panicking when crated and non-stop working to bust out of the crate, even if it meant self-injury; resource guarding, especially with toys; urinating either when he thinks someone is going to take his toy or when he thinks he’s in trouble; fearfulness of certain things, like the vacuum or anything that vibrates; fear of people’s feet and fear of having his feet held; and, last but not least, aggression. We’ve dealt with a lot of his problems, although he still has some (i.e., resource guarding, urinating, can’t be crated when we leave the house), but the reason I’m writing is because of the aggression issues. We thought he was improving, but I fear he’s actually getting worse.

Long story short, he was aggressive towards me a few times when we first got him. I was the only person he had aggression issues with. He would either do a scary growly-bark and lunge at my face for a) me correcting him for doing something bad, like biting my hand when I was wiping mud off of his feet or b) for no reason whatsoever. He would also growl at me a lot. He was totally fine with my husband and, I thought, obsessed with my husband.

After the first four or so months we had him, we put him on Clomipramin for the separation anxiety, as we exhausted all other ways of handling that problem. The dog actually jumped out a second story window in a panic when my husband left for the store the day after we moved to a new apartment, and we realized we had no choice but to medicate him. It was like flipping a switch. He went from panicked and destructive to totally fine when we left in a matter of two or three weeks. He also stopped being so aggressive towards me, although he still guarded his toys when I was in the room.

Generally, though, I got the sense that whenever the dog felt he was in trouble for misbehaving, he would immediately lash out with aggression (even before being corrected, and by correction, I mean a tug on the collar with his lead and/or a firm “no”). Other times, he was aggressive with me for absolutely no reason and without warning.

After 7 or so months on the medication, my husband and I wanted to wean him off. We never liked the idea of medicating him, and he was doing well, so we worked with the vet to gradually lower his dosage. Once we were on the lowest dose before stopping the meds, the dog suddenly started becoming extra-aggressive towards me. He bit my hand when trying to get him out of the car. Then two days later, he came up to me when I was on the couch to get petted, and when I reached to touch him, he bit me really hard and didn’t let go right away. This was without any sort of warning. My hand was bruised and scraped. We then took him to a vet that specializes in behavior issues, and she put him back on the meds (she said he has a seratonin imbalance and OCD and must stay on the meds for life). She also gave us a program to follow. The biggest thing was that she told us was to ignore/shun him for 1-2+ days whenever he gets aggressive, and she made me in charge of his food, toys, water, etc. – anything he values. He bit me a few more times in the weeks after our initial appointment with the behavior vet, but then he started to relax and had been very, very good for the past three months. He had always preferred my husband and was wary of me (I think because my husband is lax with him, while I try to be in charge), but he started seeking my attention and being very cuddly with me. He also started behaving better in many other areas, as well. He showed no signs of aggression during the past three months.

Then yesterday he bit my husband, and it was bad. I was at the store. We’ve been practicing boundary training with our driveway, and my husband took the dog out with him when he went to take out the trash. Instead of staying in the driveway, the dog took off down the street and ignored my husband when he called him. The dog stopped at the end of the block and dropped his ball (which my husband had let him bring outside with him). My husband picked up his ball, took him by the collar, and began leading him back to the house. The dog resisted and started to wheeze, so my husband loosened his grip on the collar. Before he could do anything else, the dog jumped up, twisting in the air, and bit my husband’s hands. He also scratched his arms. My husband told him no, took his collar and led him most of the way to our house before the dog went ballistic again. After biting my husband again, the dog rolled on his back and bared his teeth at him. He then got up and ran up the steps to our house; my husband let him in, and the dog spent the next few hours in his crate. All told, both of my husband’s arms are scratched in several places and were bleeding. Both of his hands have teeth scrapes on them. His left hand has two puncture wounds, which were bleeding pretty good, and his right hand has one puncture wound that was not as deep. He’s going to the doctor today to get the bites looked at.

We’re both really upset about this. He never was aggressive towards my husband before; my husband could basically do whatever he liked to the dog, and the dog would let him. He was only aggressive with me, and we thought he was getting better over the past several months. Now we don’t know what to do. We can’t trust him with anyone. It’s bad that he bites us, but we especially don’t want him to bite someone else. We can’t re-home him because we’d just be passing the problem along to someone else, and we don’t want him to hurt anyone. We also don’t want to see him get put to sleep. He’s a sweet dog 99% of the time, but the biting is too big a problem to ignore. Obviously, what we’ve been doing isn’t working.

I guess my question is, is this correctable? If so, how? We’re desperate for advice. Please help!”


Adam Replies:  

Hi, Kelly:

Yes– I feel it is mostly correctable.

I disagree with your vet about ignoring him for two days after he’s aggressive. That demonstrates she has no real understanding of how the dog’s mind works. When the dog corrects you, it’s not personal. It’s done with, a few minutes after he does it.

Please read my “Secrets” book. 

You’re making a lot of mistakes, primarily by not consistently putting him in situations where HE CAN WIN and YOU WILL LOSE. He has not earned that level of freedom. He should not be off leash. He should never be with you, without a training collar. Please read the book to learn the proper use of the training collar.

In fact, I’d like you to read the book FIRST and then start a new thread with any LINGERING QUESTIONS.

I agree with your vet about keeping him on the Clomicalm for the rest of his life. Whether it’s genetic or learned, your dog is (all due respect) a basket case. The clomicalm will help, but more importantly: I can almost bet that when push comes to shove, your dog does not see you or your husband as the “pack leader.”

Get a muzzle. Put the dog in situations that you KNOW will trigger the aggression. Make him work through it again and again. He will learn that it is not the end of the world, and that you’re just asking him to behave and do simple commands (even around things that freak him out). He will learn that his life is much easier to just listen to you, rather than fight and be made to do it, anyway.

You will have good days with him and bad days. You will have days when you feel that you are making progress and then other days when you feel that you are not.

The road to salvation is through obedience exercises that you MAKE HIM DO around things and places that he does not want to do them. Start slowly, farther away from the stressor and gradually over time, move closer and closer. Every time you make him do something that he does not want to do, your stock goes up. Every time he gets away with not doing something, your leadership stock goes down.

The good news is that: You know your dog and can set all of this up so that you almost always win. Winning builds your leadership (in your dog’s eyes). As your leadership grows, you will be able to say, “No!” if he starts to show aggression, and he will stop. Being a leader means that he will stop challenging you, altogether.

His aggression at times may be out of dominance, it may be from defensiveness (he doesn’t understand what you want so he reverts to getting defensive) or it may be that he’s just crazy.

Regardless, it is an unacceptable behavior that you DO NOT HAVE TO LIVE WITH.

But that road starts with educating yourself. Which starts with reading the book you’ve already purchased, in our download library.