Original Question: Our female Cockapoo dog, Millie, turned 1 year old on April 19th. She did the usual nipping and chewing as a puppy but around the 6 months of age she began snarling and lashing out to bite us whenever we approached her, when she was sleeping or if we tried to remove burrs from her coat after we had taken her for a walk in the woods. Our groomer, vet and trainer/invisible fence installer all told us she was just going through the teenage stage and to be firm. Today she bit our groomer and has bitten my husband, daughter and myself once. She does not lash out often and is usually a loving affectionate dog but she is unpredictable and we can no longer trust her. Can you give any suggestions on handling this situation or why she is doing this? I try to listen to you radio program most Saturdays and respect your advice. Hope you can help. Thank you! Myrna - Mryna
Thanks for your question. I’m sorry to hear about this.
The first thing I’ll say right off the bat is a warning. I’ve never met your dog so I don’t know its propensity for lashing out. Even though we may trust our dogs completely, you never know what stimulus could trigger a bite. It may not be out of aggression. It could be from anxiety, pain or even simple surprise. So it’s very important that every moment is supervised as closely as possible and monitored for any cues that are concerning.
My first and very strong recommendation is to find an animal behaviourist and work with them. When a pet becomes dangerous, it needs to be addressed. I get extremely concerned about a visitor, a neighbour, someone on the street, or a child approaching your dog and getting injured. So as best as you can, get professional help as soon as possible.
It’s always a good idea to evaluate your pet’s health first. Go to your veterinarian for a consultation and physical examination. I would recommend performing general wellness screening such as blood work and a urinalysis. Behavioural changes like this can be initiated by underlying medical conditions or pain. This step could diagnose and treat a possible cause for this condition.
In your particular case, it sounds as though there may be triggers that are hard to confirm. I would recommend that you monitor and identify any other events that stimulate this aggressive response. Then you can implement a treatment plan called desensitization and counterconditioning. You can look this up on websites and YouTube for examples of how to do this. Desensitization means exposing him to the anxiety-creating stimulus in small doses, such as having someone approach her in ways that triggered her before but in a much more muted way. Slowly increase the intensity of these episodes. The anxiety that these cues cause will become diminished because they don’t necessarily indicate a threat or surprise. At the same time, you need to implement counterconditioning, which means giving her treats and praise while exposing her to the anxiety-creating stimulus so that she is happy in these moments rather than anxious. Ideally, their anxiety-creating effect is diminished.
Reading this, you can see how difficult this could be given the type of scenario you’re dealing with. This is why this is such a challenging way to induce behaviour change.
The other way is giving him an anti-anxiety medication. I use a medication called clomipramine or fluoxetine which helps tremendously in most cases and is very safe. If the anxiety is always present, such as a general nervousness, it works really well. If the anxiety is very acute and intense, like it is in your particular case, it may not be as effective. I try not to recommend drugs for behavioural modification because most people have a natural unease with this plan, but in cases where the anxiety is really impacting your dog’s quality of life in a negative way and putting you or other people at risk, I think it is very important to consider.
There are natural products you could consider as well. These are nutraceuticals that reduce anxiety and some will work really in certain dogs, but not as well in others. It may be a case or trial and error to get it right. Discuss these options with your veterinarian.
I hope this helps. Good luck!