Sometimes a puppy shows behavior problems that are dangerous to its family. Children are being nipped at, skin is being broken. What can you do? Some months ago, I received an email from someone dealing with exactly this problem.
(I normally discourage people writing to me for help, because in the past I’ve heard the most heartrending tales, have offered some ideas, and then never heard from the people again. Some of those tales still haunt me at times. But in this case, as you can see from the email, Karen showed how responsible she was. I trusted that I would hear back from her, and I did.)
Here is what Karen wrote in that email. It’s reprinted here with her permission.
I have a 4 month old male Yellow Labrador puppy called Marley. On the whole he is a lovely chap. But I have a problem that I do not seem to be able to resolve.
Every day, for no apparent reason and at no particular place or time, he suddenly starts to bark, jump up and bite. The biting has NOT been so severe that hospitalisation has been needed. But it has broken skin. The episodes don’t appear to have any connection to an outside influence, (I say “don’t appear” because it is possible that I am so close to the situation that I am missing something important).
I have two children aged 5 and 7 who have been victims to this behaviour and as a result are becoming frightened of the puppy. He has “attacked” both of them, again for no apparent reason.
For instance last week my daughter was sitting on the sofa watching her favorite programme on TV. Marley was in his crate, in another room, sleeping. Then he just suddenly got up, ran into the sitting room, grabbed my daughter by the leg and tried to drag her off the sofa. He bit down so hard that she had three small wounds on her leg that had broken through the skin.
On another occasion my son and I were walking Marley through the field, having a lovely walk when he started jumping up as if possessed and biting on my son’s arms. When I attempted to stop him he turned on me barking and biting at my back. Luckily my son had a thick coat on so he only suffered from grazes. Marley eventually calmed down and started to eat a lot of grass ( I mention this only because the following morning when I let him out of his crate he had been sick in he night which consisted of several handfuls of grass) and I was able to get him back onto the lead.
I have since kept him on the lead at all times while out walking. This, however doesn’t resolve the issue as he still behaves this way while on the lead. It just means that I have more control of the situation.
I have read book after book on dominance aggression (which I am told this is). I have put into practise all the suggested exercises EVERY day since I got him, all to no avail. I have taken him to training classes and put into practise ALL the advice I have been given but this just appears to make matters worse.
I waited two years to get Marley as I wanted his particular breed line. I planned everything out beforehand, where he would sleep, did a lot of research on foods. He was house trained and completely clean within a week and has never chewed anything except his chew toys and pigs ears (which is exceptional for a Lab).
I was looking forward so much to getting him but now I feel like I am constantly fighting a losing battle.
I am at my wits end, if you have ANY advise I would be very grateful.
Well, as you can imagine, my heart went out to Karen, but it was also quite a challenge to know what to say. Here are some parts of my reply:
 If it were my situation, I would immediately stop all free access from Marley to your children. This sounds drastic but dog bites are serious business, as you clearly know. By free access, I mean that when they are home, Marley would be closed in his crate, outside if you have an enclosed area, or on a leash attached to your waist or a chair near you or some such. You’re already doing this outside with his walks but I would also do it indoors. Another approach would be to let him be free in your home but wearing a muzzle.
BTW, I just read recently that it’s easy to get a dog to love a muzzle… Just introduce it by having some really delicious treats in your hand which he can only access through the muzzle. Doing this quite a lot over just a few days should get Marley to the point where he accepts wearing it when you feel it’s a good idea, certainly not all day, of course.
Doing this would buy you some time. I think all of you would breathe more easily.
 Another thing I would do immediately is have a thorough veterinary examination. Could he be reacting to the pain of teething, for example? Since you are obviously knowledgeable about the breed, are there any neurological issues that he could be manifesting? Talking to the breeder could be pertinent. You don’t mention exactly how long this has been going on, though clearly for a while.
I’ve got to say that I don’t personally find the “dominance aggression” theory to be at the center of things here. If you have spent much time on my site, you’d know that I simply don’t find it as helpful a mental construct as the more science-based positive reinforcement theories that clicker training draws upon.
When he jumps up like that for no apparent reason, there really IS a reason. Your task is to figure it out. My best guess (and it is only that) is that he experiences something in his body at those times that drives him crazy…
I mentioned an ebook I had consulted before answering her, on when dogs bite, and continued:
Here is a snippet from that ebook that reinforces my pain idea: “Depending on the degree of pain, a dog will bite a beloved owner, member of the family or neighbors when suffering from physical problems like chemical imbalances in the brain, external infections like otitis, tumor, hip dysphasia among others.” But keep in mind I am not attached to this idea, it’s just a guess, with teething as the main question… teething is mentioned at the start of the ebook.
Another thing I would do ASAP may not suit your way of thinking but it could be extremely helpful. My husband and I once produced a program on telepathic communication with animals and there are a whole lot of people now who do this professionally and by phone or email. See the list at www.animaltalk.net.
So I sent that off and waited to hear from her. I’ll leave you dangling here too, briefly, but I will tell you this story eventually had a happy ending and there is a reason that it is in the dog food category of this blog! Part Two will follow tomorrow.