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Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Exorcising" a Killer Chihuahua

"Peanut" was in the mood to kill somebody that night, and I was first in line.

He weighed all of two pounds, and most of that weight was sheer attitude. Peanut was a very small mixed-breed dog that looked mostly chihuahua with maybe a little wire-haired something thrown in. When I met him, he was all legs and teeth.

Peanut arrived for his first night of a 4-H class I was doing at the local vet clinic. His handler, an 11-year-old, was frustrated by her dog's behavior but at a complete loss as to what to do. I could tell the little dog had a characteristically large "attitude" at home too, although his family probably never noticed it because it was part of his character. It wasn't until Lea brought him to class on a leash that Peanut really flipped out and became a seething two-pound monster. When I squatted to greet him, he bared his teeth, barked ferociously, and ran to hide behind Lea's legs. When I extended my hand toward him in a welcoming gesture, he lunged forward to snap at me. My subsequent advances and attempts were met by truly vicious barking and gnashing of teeth.

Knowing he would be useless in class in his frenzied mental state I needed to get my hands on him to do the magic "settling down" exercise--the neck massage or body hold that forces the dogs to struggle against our gentle restraint until the "steam has escaped the pot." But I couldn't get my hands on him without being bitten.

A helper found me a pair of gloves to protect my hands, and I reached for Peanut's body, wrapping my left hand around his back and holding his head still with my right hand. His eyes were wild as he tried in vain to reach my fingers to bite, over and over again. He screamed, sputtered and snarled.

I said nothing. I just held him with two hands and explained to the group of new students what was happening. Peanut was having a tantrum, I told them. In the past at home, Peanut had never had to take it this far to get what he wanted. But I was pushing him out of his comfort zone and not giving in to him. "In a moment or two, he'll be calm, and then this will probably never happen again," I explained.

As if on cue, Peanut's body began to relax and soften. He was giving up. Fighting and biting didn't work anymore, and it just wasn't worth it since he wasn't being hurt anyway. His eyes were round but soft. His ears went back in submissive relaxation. I told him he was a good boy, placed him back down on the floor, and gave him a pat.

Peanut has been exceptional in class since that night. He still finds the real world a bit overwhelming, but he's learned to face his fears and control himself. He's paying attention to his handler now, instead of spending his time being defensive. He still occasionally gets a little pushy with the 11-year-old, but when an authority figure moves in to help, he settles right down without any challenges.

Moral of the story: Most "aggression" problems can be worked through in about 15 minutes if your trainer knows what she's doing. The "bad dog" need not be relegated to a life at home. If you have a dog, big or small, who has exhibited some "attitude" toward you or others, first admit it and then find help. I lightheartedly call the process "exorcism" and not every trainer will address problems this way. But it works, and the effects last. So don't live with bad behavior! 99% of the time it's fixable and it will take just minutes. Best of all, no one gets hurt, and the dog turns out calmer at the end of the exercise than he was at the beginning.

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