Butt biters and cheese masks

Fearful dogs are often called “butt biters” in the dog training world. This is because they use aggressive behavior to chase away Scary Things, but they are rarely brave enough for true confrontation. So they bite from behind. A classic episode is the dog that seems OK with a guest entering the house and then racing across the room to bite the person in the butt when s/he gets up to go to the restroom or to leave.

Because of his erratic behavior, Spencer is considered at high risk of biting (and this is justified based on reactions we’ve seen), so he always wears a muzzle when out in public. We call it the Cheese Mask because of the way that you train the dog to want to wear a muzzle. When his first muzzle arrived, we used it to dispense pieces of cheese. Soon he was eagerly stuffing his nose in the muzzle to get more cheese. You then gradually hold the muzzle against the dog’s face for a longer and longer period of time and then fasten the straps and keep them on for longer and longer. Even now, we give a treat every time we put the muzzle on, so he always eagerly puts it on (except when he has boils on his nose, but that’s another story).

Anyway, accepting to muzzle your dog is hard at first — people look at you like you have Hannibal Lechter for a dog, but you get used to it. We eventually got to the point where we wished we’d done it sooner. Knowing that your dog can potentially cause significant injury to someone tens to make you a little tense. The dog picks up on that tension and is tense in turn, which increase the chance of a negative reaction.

So yesterday I was very grateful that Spencer is muzzled. We were walking in the park and he got really excited about a dog he saw. He pulled hard on the leash. I was prepared for this, except that the leash is a multi-position leash, and the loop around the hand is made with a clip. Someone he pulled on the leash at just exactly the right angle that the pressure against my hand opened the clip and the leash slipped right through my hand.

Spencer made a beeline for the other dog, who was overwhelmed by a giant muzzled dog rushing up to him (many dogs seem to be scared by the muzzle and such a direct approach is considered very threatening in the canine world). So Spencer starts jabbing the other dog with his muzzle as he tries to sniff it. The other dog understandably freaks out and starts snarling at Spencer, who is too overexcited and oblivious to back off. I keep trying to grab the leash, but it keeps slipping away before I can get a good grip.

The other owner seemed to yell at his dog for snarling at Spencer unprovoked (which is untrue in canine terms — it was totally justified). He then tries to grab his dog, which is exactly the wrong thing to do, because Spencer suddenly notices him and realizes he’s next to a Scary Stranger. So Spencer barks and tries to bite the man’s buttocks. The only good thing about this is he is at least immobile enough that I can grab his harness and pull him away (and thank goodness for the muzzle!).

The good news is that a gentle tug was all it took for him to follow me a few steps away, and he immediately calmed down. I’m sure the man and many other people think I was remiss for not yelling at my dog, but the key is to get him refocused on what I want him to do, not to focus on what I don’t. I’m sure the man thought I was odd anyhow, because he remarked that Spencer was “méchant” (mean), I replied that he was just fearful. (I don’t know why I even bother trying to explain that at such times, but there you go.)

In the past, Spencer would have continued to react to any passer by within about 25 yards/meters after such an episode, but he immediately regained his sang-froid. I fixed the leash, made sure Spencer was focused on me and then walked him to a large lawn where I could put him on his long lead to run, romp and work off the adrenaline.

He finally threw himself on his back and wriggled around to unwind, and then we had a cuddle. He lost massive amounts of fur, which is a sign of how agitated he’d been. Highly aroused dogs shed fur like porcupines.

We then got up and went home with no further episodes.

Anyway, I apologize to this man and everyone else Spencer has decided is scary. I wish we were further along the rehabilitation curve. I really do.

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