Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Shepherds

I recently had two appointments with German Shepherds in one afternoon. They could hardly have been more different experiences.

The first dog had an eye irritation which turned out to be a mild conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the delicate tissue lining the eyelid. He cowered behind his owner and strained at the leash as soon as he entered the building then quivered and trembled and fretted for the entire conversation involving his history. Once on the exam table, he repeatedly jerked away at the slightest attempt at a closer look. His body language was screaming, "fear-biter," which is a term veterinarians and others in the dog world use to describe those dogs so afraid of something new that they tend to bite first and ask questions later. Dogs like this aren't necessarily aggressive but they can be extremely dangerous to handle because they panic.

(Courtesy of

The classic fear-biting dog has a cowering stance, tucked tail, ears back and a growl or snarl on his face. He's most dangerous when cornered or confined and may bark uncontrollably if approached. Owners frequently offer various explanations:
"He was abused..." (Never by them but in some unknown past.)
"He doesn't like men/women/short people/lab coats..." (Air?)
"He's never done this before." (Unless you count every time someone new visits or he goes out in public.)

The second Shepherd that afternoon was an entirely different story. He trotted in on a leash, looked around with interest, came forward to greet me with a tail wag and waited fairly calmly for his exam, routine vaccinations, deworming and a discussion of his next visit.

The first fearful, bundle-of-nerves dog was an 80 pound 2-year-old adult. The second was a fifteen pound 10-week-old pup off to a good start. These individuals illustrate the importance of early socialization in helping our canine companions along the road to good citizenship. Early, gentle but no-nonsense handling and consistent obedience training are crucial to safe canine-human interactions.

Puppies enter a particularly critical stage at about 12 weeks of age when it's especially important to expose them to good experiences with the many different nouns, (people, places, and things), they are likely to encounter as adults. Older dogs with fearful tendencies aren't lost causes. A consistent routine and basic obedience training will often give them the confidence to count on their owners for guidance.

Many times the fear-biter is anxious because he doesn't know what to expect or how to behave in a given situation. I often recommend  an owner start the fearful dog rehab process by perfecting  a good sit, down, stay command in a non-stressful home setting. It also helps to avoid inadvertently reinforcing fearful behavior by reassuring an overly anxious pet in a nice voice, "It's o.k.," which essentially tells him his over-the-top behavior is appropriate. Rather than comforting, giving a calm, "No. Sit." followed by a pat and "Good," once he's sitting is often enough to quell the anxiety and allow the pet to relax and have a good experience in a new place. It can take some time and patience, but your veterinarian and visitors will thank you. (And if your pet ever needs hospitalization and treatment it will actually be possible to help him...)

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