The case was a referral from a dog walker who thought these owners might be able to solve a long standing problem. And it was very definitely long-standing – the dog, an Airedale – was nine years old and had been aggressive off and on for years. Sally and Joe were wonderful people – thoughtful and caring – but the fact that they had a 2 and a half year old baby was causing them even more worry.
Mostly Tex bit people who approached and held out their hand for investigation. Tex would lunge, snap and occasionally bruise the person’s hand, and had once drawn some blood. The bites never went further than that – he would always retreat after the snap. He was often suspicious of his regular walker until she jollied him up a bit, and he was always walked on a muzzle….just in case. One time, Tex lunged at Sally, when he was lying under Joe’s chair. He didn’t connect, but after that, Tex was kept separate from the rest of the family unless he could be carefully monitored.
I didn’t actually meet Tex until about 45 minutes into the consult, which is very unusual. Most people think I’m some sort of magician (not really), or they think I’ll start my training at the door (doesn’t happen). But Tex’s owners were pretty sure he wouldn’t be good, so he was in his ‘area’ downstairs from the main living room.
We talked about his problems, and then I started delving into his past. When he was a young adolescent, he was attacked and bitten by another youngster during class. The bite was in his neck and pretty deep, but seemed to have no lasting effect. Then, when he was a bit older, he had a pretty serious seizure. He never had another one, and the owners theorized that the seizure had been brought on by some chemicals they’d been using to clean the carpets. They mentioned that he seemed to tilt his head sideways, which they thought was unusual.
They’d spoken to several trainers, who all indicated he was a dog who just needed more exercise, and then he’d be fine. As far as I knew, no one tried to address the actual incidents, which would be difficult to do in any event, since they took everyone by surprise.
Eventually, we walked downstairs to Tex’s room. It was comfortable, with a carpet, a few beds, a crate and an exercise machine used by Joe daily. As I entered the room, Tex got up, growled and moved towards me and I was struck by two things – first, he never directly looked at me. He looked toward me, but there was no eye contact whatsoever. The second was that he did have a head tilt – a very noticeable one. He was also pretty stiff, not unusual in a nine year old dog.
It looked very much to me like he had a neurological issue of some sort, which caused the head tilt and likely skewed his vision of the world. It would be impossible to say for sure without getting into his brain, but Tex might have seen hands coming towards him as blurry, scary objects to be avoided or moved. I think he lived in a confusing, frightening world. And I also thought his wonderful owners were candidates for sainthood. It would have been very easy for them to blame him for his aggression, to punish him or to get rid of him in some way. But they didn’t. They were told by professionals that he just needed more exercise to get better; they gave him more exercise, and he didn’t get better. So, they continued to manage him, exercise him, pay attention to him, and love him.
All our dogs should be so lucky.