Andrew is a nice guy who has been training with Dogs in the Park for the past couple of months. Andrew has a wife(P) and a daughter (B) and a dog (Henry) and of course he has a Mom. Andrew’s mom is terrific. Really she is! She comes over and helps P to clean the house once a week. She babysits so that Andrew and P can have an evening out (and B can have ice cream for dinner and they can blow bubbles in the livingroom). She brings homemade cookies, and takes the family on outings they couldn’t necessarily do without the help of a grandma to co-ordinate the logistics, and she is sensitive to not overstaying her welcome.
There is just one small problem. Andrew’s mom doesn’t actually understand dogs. And Henry struggles with anxiety. I guess that actually makes two problems, neither of which would be nearly as large a problem as the two issues coming together is. When you have someone in your life who just doesn’t understand dogs and you have an anxious dog, things can go haywire pretty fast. In fact, almost every family with a dog has someone who plays the role of “Andrew’s mom”.
Andrew’s mom is the person in your dog’s life who behaves in such a way that your dog just cannot succeed. Often the person who plays the role of Andrew’s mom really, deeply and passionately cares about dogs in general, and often about your dog in specific. In the case of Andrew’s mom, she really loves to love on Henry. Henry does not love being loved on quite THAT much. He appears to feel confined when Andrew’s mom tries to hug him, and that can cause him to tremble in fear. The harder he trembles, the more that Andrew’s mom will try and get him into her lap, to hug him, to hold him, to stroke him and even to kiss his muzzle. Andrew’s mom is in fact the reason that Andrew brought Henry to our school. One afternoon, Andrew’s mom came over and cornered Henry in the livingroom. B. was down for her nap, and Andrew’s mom was in need of some cuddling, so Henry was it. Henry had been resting and made the error of looking Andrew’s mom in the eye when he woke up. She came over, loomed over his dog bed, crouched down, and then gathered him up in her arms for a big “grandma hug”. Henry, being sort of sleepy, and not really happy about hugs to begin with, had finally had enough. He squirmed to get out of the hug and when that didn’t work, air snapped four or five times just to the left of Andrew’s mom’s ear. Needless to say, pandemonium ensued. Andrew’s mom screeched, Henry bolted for the back room where he liked to hide during thunderstorms and P yelled at Henry. B woke up and began to cry, and Henry lost control of his bladder.
When the dust settled, P called Andrew and Andrew called me and I got the family (minus Andrew’s mom and B) in for an appointment. When Andrew and P relayed what happened, I could see where everything fell apart for Henry, and the bite was not unexpected. Did I say “bite”? Yes. In the business we consider this to be a bite, albeit a very inhibited bite. A number of factors stacked up to create a circumstance where a bite was very likely. Henry was resting and relaxed. Then he saw Andrew’s mom. Andrew’s mom was the first stressful thing, or trigger that he noticed. Then Andrew’s mom came closer to Henry than he was comfortable with; that was the second trigger. I would lay good money that if I had a video of Henry in that moment, I would have seen some warning signs that would have told me that Henry was uncomfortable, but even if she noticed the signs, Andrew’s mom did not listen to his cues to tell her that he was uncomfortable. Not being heard could be another trigger for Henry. When Andrew’s mom loomed over Henry on his bed, that is a third trigger. When she reached for him and hugged him, that was a fourth trigger. When Henry tried to wiggle away but could not get loose, that would be a fifth trigger. Five or possibly six triggers was more than enough to elicit a bite! The video below gives you more details about trigger stacking.
In fact, Henry pulled his punches and did not do any damage to Andrew’s mom. Henry could have landed a serious bite causing her significant harm, but instead he air snapped near her face and then retreated. When he was hiding in his safe place, he was so distressed that he lost control over his bladder. Andrew’s mom felt really bad, and her response a day later was telling; she interpreted his losing control over his bladder as him being submissive and regretful of his bites, and so she ramped up her attention on Henry. In fact losing control over his bladder most likely happened because of his extreme fear.
Almost every dog with behaviour problems that I work with has an “Andrew’s mom” in his or her life. These people are usually kind, thoughtful and caring people, who just don’t understand the whole situation. I have seen many extreme forms of “Andrew’s mom”, from an uncle who allowed a very aggressive dog out of her kennel and into a holiday party of thirty guests, where she mauled someone, to the toddler who follows the dog everywhere all day long and never lets the dog rest. As a behaviour consultant Andrew’s mom is so frustrating! What we need are strategies to address the people in our lives who intentionally or otherwise subvert our efforts at helping our anxious, aggressive, reactive or fearful dogs.
One of the easiest strategies I have for guests is to hand them a cup of tea on a saucer with a cookie on it before bringing the dog into the room. I don’t have to tell the guest to ignore the dog because they cannot interact with the dog while holding a full cup of tea on a saucer. As soon as you say “don’t pay attention to the dog” your guest will inevitably look at the dog and often that sets Andrew’s mom up to interact in ways that are not productive.
Another strategy I have had great success with when working with dogs and kids is to have a structured activity such as hide and seek to play. The game goes like this. The dog starts out in his crate and the kids get to hide something that would be of value to the dog. You have to teach the dog the game first, but if you have a dog who will search for things, then it is easy to implement the game. The kids get a set amount of time to hide the item, and then they have to sit at a table or stay in a room that the dog cannot get to while the dog does the search. When the dog brings back the item, he waits in his crate while the kids hide the items again. The kids don’t end up being Andrew’s mom because they have to wait their turn while the dog is loose, and the dog is confined while they hide the item. This can work very well for kids up to about the age of 7.
While walking dogs on leash, almost everyone you encounter has the potential to be Andrew’s mom. Almost all of us have heard variations on “dogs like me” or “I don’t mind if he misbehaves” and it can be very difficult to fend off these well-meaning strangers. One of the easiest ways I have to keep people’s hands to themselves is to muzzle your dog. Often a muzzled dog gets to walk through the streets undisturbed where an unmuzzled dog seems to be a target for every person passing by.
Alternatively, I have simply said to people “I am in a terrible rush, sorry, I cannot stop to talk” and walked right on by. Some people just won’t take no for an answer though, but breaking into a run and hurrying on by can actually help. I have also sometimes been successful with telling people that my dog is ill and we have to rush home and get his medication. Keeping the conversation flowing is not the goal though; you have to say your piece and then move on.
I have even had trouble with professionals being Andrew’s mom. At the vet’s office, I have often had to advocate for my dog when the vet or the tech want to proceed more quickly than my dog was ready for. Things are improving for sure, however, we still have times when the vet may not realize or recognize that my dog needs a little more time. When this happens, you sometimes have to be really clear with your vet that you need to travel at the speed of dog, and slow things down a little. Use common sense when negotiating this with your vet however; don’t do this if you are in the middle of a medical emergency.
I think it is important to recognize that Andrew’s mom is well meaning, but still set clear boundaries about what is happening with your dog. A good behaviour modification plan includes making sure that your dog has the time and space to process what is going on, and we cannot expect our dogs to become more tolerant if they keep getting triggered. Knowing what your dog’s triggers are and setting things up so that the people around your dog don’t set those triggers in motion are essential to the process of successfully training your dog.