The straw that broke the dog’s back

This is the last straw.

This is a saying most of us understand. We might also say, “this is the straw the broke the camel’s back.” They both have their origins in ancient proverbs and were first seen in print in the 17th century as the feather that breaks the back of a horse.

In a theological debate on causality in the mid 1600s Thomas Hobbs wrote, “The last Dictate of the Judgement, concerning the Good or Bad, that may follow on any Action, is not properly the whole Cause, but the last Part of it, and yet may be said to produce the Effect necessarily, in such Manner as the last Feather may be said to break a Horses Back, when there were so many laid on before as there want but that one to do it.”

Thomas Hobbs would definitely understand how the effects of a pandemic such as what the world is experiencing in the first half of 2020 would be that final straw.

In Indianapolis, which is the capital of the state where I live, domestic abuse calls are up significantly and a young policewoman lost her life answering a domestic abuse call. A man in Indianapolis is accused of killing a mail carrier because she refused to deliver mail because the man had an aggressive dog.

Tempers are on edge. People who had financial issues, health issues, family problems, etc. are now dealing with the fallout of a pandemic that has changed how many of us live our daily lives. It can indeed be the final straw.straw

Dog bite cases are also up significantly in a city near me. While all of us understand that final straw and how it might affect our tempers, we rarely think about how stress affects other living creatures. Yet, many of the issues clients call me about are related to that final straw. We often also refer to it as trigger stacking. Meaning that lots of small things that might trigger stress stack up on top of each until that final small thing happens and the dog offers a behavior that the family finds unacceptable or out of character.

Let’s look at one dog. Her name is Lady. She is 7. We know nothing of her history prior to 2016. At that time she was adopted to a couple. She was noted to fence fight with other dogs and she got loose twice during that time and rushed other dogs. No injuries were reported. A few months ago the woman from that original adoption returned the dog. She and her husband had gotten a divorce and she said there had been situations of domestic abuse.

The dog was adopted a few weeks ago to a family who has never owned a dog before. It is in a new home with new people. She is not eating well and is said to be underweight. On a walk she saw another dog in the distance and began lunging and barking at the dog. When the owner tried to pull her away and get her attention she bit the owner. The bite did not require medical attention. The owner is now very concerned about whether to keep this dog and is considering returning it. When a dog bites its owner, it is very difficult for many people to get over that break of what the owner considers a sacred bond.

If we take only the last line: “dog bites owner” we immediately go down a road of how this is a bad dog, this is an aggressive dog, dogs should never bite their owners.

But, let’s look at things more closely. This is an older dog, she is over 60 pounds there could be medical issues causing her to not feel well. She had a fairly recent veterinary exam including a dental that did not find anything remarkable to note. But, it is unknown if that exam included an orthopedic exam to check for arthritis or joint issues.

She isn’t eating. Is she stressed? Is there a medical reason for her not to eat such as a cracked tooth? Does she just not like the food being offered?

The dog has been in its current home one week. It takes much longer than one week to begin to acclimate to a new home with new rules, new smells, etc. Imagine if you were sent to another country where you didn’t speak the language or understand the culture and in that first week you did something that was considered socially unacceptable in that country, but was perfectly normal in your country.

The owners have never owned a dog. Every behavior this dog offers is new to them. They have no context for that is concerning or not concerning and there are children under the age of 10 in the home.

The owners may be facing new challenges themselves due to pandemic. The stress we feel often bleeds out to the creatures around us whether they have two legs or four. Dogs are especially good at picking up on human emotions. A dog that came from a domestic abuse situation may already have negative associations with people who are exhibiting high levels of stress.

This dog already had a history of being reactive to other dogs. This means when she sees other dogs they stress her out. It seems likely this issue was not addressed in the previous home. While the dog was being boarded between owners the issue was worked on and progress was noted. The reactivity issue has its own sets of trigger stacking or straws. A dog might be slightly anxious when it sees a dog at a distance of 50 feet. It signals its anxiety by lip licking, turning its head away or trying to turn around. The owner most likely doesn’t notice these because she hasn’t been taught what to look for. The owner keeps getting closer and closer to the other dog causing this dog, who is on a leash and has zero control over the outcome to become more and more agitated.

In this instance I ask you how you would feel if you were really afraid of snakes. Every day when you went outside you saw snakes. Sometimes the snakes were far enough away to only cause mild anxiety, but sometimes the snakes would be really close. And you NEVER knew what would happen on the walk and you had zero control over it. You would start to be worried about just going out the door. You might want to go on a walk and be all excited, but you would still have that anxiety that there could be that snake. Depending on the level of your anxiety you could start screaming and shouting at the snake to go away. You might throw things at the snake to make it go away. Right as you are starting to feel your life is in danger and you need to fight the snake, someone touches you from behind and startles you. How would you react? You might turn and punch that person without realizing it is a loved one.

When a dog has a behavior issue that involves biting, growling or snapping, the owner wants to “fix” that issue. But, these issues are always the end result of a long line of other things that happened.

I ask you to look at these other smaller pieces of straw that are piling up and see if you can first take some of them away. The fewer triggers that are stacking up, the less likely the dog will be pushed over the edge. We obviously want to address the issue of this dog being so afraid of seeing other dogs on a walk that she is unable to walk in a manner that is acceptable to her owners and our society in general. But we also need to understand the dog has a lot more going on.

When your dog exhibits a behavior that is totally out of character; don’t just focus on that behavior. Become a detective. What has changed in your dog’s life? How is he feeling? Seek help immediately from a force free trainer who understands the science behind dog behavior.

For minor things maybe consider just giving the dog a break and asking yourself if you have been unusually on edge recently. Your dog may be feeding off that. My dogs certainly are. My rock steady dog Skywalker has suddenly begun resource guarding me and pushing the other dogs away from me. He has become so much clingier since I am now working from home.

Take a deep breath. Take your dog on a fun walk. Find minor issues you can solve and see if that doesn’t decrease the more concerning issues you are seeing. But, above all, seek help. Seek help if you are feeling overwhelmed. Seek help if your pet is overwhelming you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 thought on “The straw that broke the dog’s back

  1. Gina K

    Thank you for writing this. It is deeply distressing when our charges are aggressive to us, big dogs and horses, especially as they have potential to inflict serious injury. Not to mention (for me) it hurts my feelings.
    I learned a lot from our Labrador Puppy-Girl, who had the unfortunate circumstance of having traumatic injury to both stifles as a young dog. An orthopedic surgeon rebuilt the joints in a frankenstein-esque manner with pins, screws, and monofilament line. When my son was young he found it amusing that the dog would set off his metal detector.
    She did great with this fix until she entered middle/old age. But farm dogs are a LOT more active than house dogs. And working dogs don’t decide to take a rest because their legs hurt – they just keep going. I remember once during a vet visit where this dog suddenly grabbed the vets entire forearm in her mouth while being palpated. Their eyes met – and there was understanding. I was mortified and embarrassed, but thankfully the vet understood what she was being told. That there was serious pain.
    I also had a body worker work on this dog – sometimes the improvement was nothing short of miraculous. Other times there were more bite attempts. She never broke skin, and never held a grudge. I’m not advocating overlooking or condoning aggressive behavior, but it feels unfair to not try to figure out what a dog is trying to say when they do this. Puppy’s story is here https://ginakeesling.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/remembering-puppy-girl/

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