Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dog Gone Problems,
My mom is now 94 and living with me. Her little dog is 7 years old and she never trained her properly. I am mom’s sole caretaker, and her dog is a 12-pound lap beast who growls, snarls and bites me anytime I get near mom or her chair. The dog also fiercely growls at mom when she is told “get down.”
I also have a young Boxer I am training to be my helper dog, as I am disabled. My Boxer is having a lot of trouble dealing with mom’s dog. I have started making mom's dog get in her crate, which is quite often now, so I can help mom with her daily hygiene, give her pills, food, etc. But today she did not want to go and she bit me when I reached for her collar.
My Boxer freaked, not in a bad way as she doesn't have a mean bone in her body, but I just don't want her to have to deal with this either. I have done all of these things in your article, and also had my mom do what was suggested. I am at my wit’s end. I sure hope you can help.
You may have multiple things going on. It's possible mom’s dog is resource guarding your mother or her lap.
The simplest solution for this is to make your mom’s lap off limits when you are there. Frankly, if the dog was biting one of my clients, I'd make the lap off limits for a minimum of three months. Then, after that, only allow the dog up with an invitation and only for good behavior. One growl or nip and mom would stand up to eliminate the perch. You can purchase your mom an “X-Mat” pet training aid and have her keep this on her lap when you are at her home. This mat has several raised nubs on them that make sitting or laying on it uncomfortable.
Provided this is not a resource guarding issue, there are a few ways you can work on this.
A really simple option would be to give the dog a dog bed and have your mom practice tossing a high-value treat onto it while the dog is in her lap. When the dog licks up the treat, assign a command word. If mom practices this with 10 treats three or more times a day for a day or two, she should be able to say the command word and have the dog jump off onto the dog bed. Once there, you can give a treat and say the word again. At this stage, you will transition from tossing treats to motivate the dog to go there, to paying the dog after she goes there.
Another way to address this problem is to teach the dog that your arrival is a good thing.
To do this, take the dog into another room away from your mom and close the door so she can’t leave. Get some really high-value treats that have a strong smell that the dog really likes. Chicken liver is my go-to treat.
Give the dog one treat and then reach halfway towards her after you put the treat in her mouth. Do this two to five times. Next time, reach halfway towards the dog’s collar and then pull you arm back and give her a treat. Repeat this step a few times and then start reaching closer to the dog each repetition. By reaching closer, I mean an additional one inch or so. If the dog growls, freezes or bares her teeth, you need to back up a step. There can’t be any negative reaction from the dog the entire time you do this.
It may take a few practice sessions, but eventually you should be able to reach all the way to the dog’s collar, grasping it and then releasing it to give a treat. Once you get to this stage, start holding onto the collar for progressively longer periods of time — adding in an additional one second each rep until you can hold the collar for a good 15 seconds before giving a treat with no response from the dog.
You may need to repeat this training program with the dog on a chair (again, away from mom) and then in the chair mom normally sits in (with mom in another room). Finally, try it with mom on her lap.
If at any point the dog growls, bares her teeth, freezes or gets stiff body posture, you need to back up a step and practice at an easier level. If you do it right, the dog should start responding positively when you approach and stop biting. If the dog has a resource guarding issue, this video covers my preferred method to stop it from acting aggressive.
Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.