It’s never good when your dog bites a person. Your feelings range from shock to horror, to rage and shame, all in about two seconds. This happened to me just a few weeks ago.
I was at my neighborhood pet store with my 6-year old Greek shepherd mix, Andromeda, picking out her favorite treats at the bone bar when a fellow customer reached forward to pet her. In a flash, she went Cujo and lunged at him, biting his arm. Everyone freaked out except the man who got bit. He remained surprisingly calm and cool about it.
“Συμβαίνει..” (It happens..) was his response, and fortunately, his jacket was thick enough that she didn’t break his skin.
I went home wondering if it was safe to ever take my dog out in public again. I took her to the vet to make sure nothing was wrong with her physically, and when it was confirmed she’s a nervous but otherwise healthy dog, I decided to hire a trainer.
Elena Tsalikidou was referred to me by my vet, Dr. Jiannis Fragiadakis. She has been training dogs for over 20 years and offers individual training, agility, and dog sports through her kennel Kynon. She raises Shar-Peis, an ancient breed of dog originating in China. She even showed me photos of her new litter of puppies.
It’s been a fascinating series of training sessions with Elena, and I only regret I didn’t do this earlier. Some of the things I learned are obvious in retrospect, but I never thought about them until she explained my dog’s thoughts to me…
The Answer: I’m the Problem
The basic message was that I’m the problem. My laissez-faire pet ownership style, which worked fine with my dog Roxie, was causing huge confusion in the mind of Andromeda. Her instinct told her that she had to be the pack leader, and she’s got a nervous character, so this role stresses her out. Imagine you want to work in the back office as an accounting clerk but you’ve been made the CEO of the company. It’s like that…
It explained a lot of her quirks. Andromeda doesn’t like going on walks and generally prefers to stay in the house. She’s super unpredictable with other dogs, and some people trigger her, though the biting thing was new. She barks when I leave the house, and she has a strange habit of pulling really hard to the left no matter what direction we walk–so hard that I googled to see if she might have some brain condition causing this. There was no neurological disorder, but Elena had explanations for all these quirks and more.
Who’s In Charge?
Elena went on to explain that Andromeda doesn’t like to leave the house because she is afraid. She feels safe at home, but our walks are filled with threats that she feels she must deal with, so she’d prefer to stay home. As long as she thinks she is the pack leader, walks will be a problem.
She pulls to the left because I walk her on the left side, and she wants to be apart from me. Greek shepherds are an extremely independent breed, and this is her doggie way of establishing independence. She’s like a teenager who doesn’t want to be seen with her mother.
She barks when I leave the house because to her, I am a sheep, and she doesn’t like the sheep leaving the home area. She is trying to call me back. wtf…
Elena explained all of this was fixable, and it probably won’t take long – it would just require a massive overhaul of how we live together. The overarching theme is that I need to make it clear to Andromeda that I’m the leader of the pack. And there are lots of little changes I can make that will make this obvious in her canine mind.
1) I Now Feed Her on a Strict Schedule.
I had the idea it would be better for both of us if she never worried about food, and since she doesn’t overeat, I just kept the bowl full every day. Elena said this was the first big mistake. Dogs are pack animals, and at the most basic level, the alpha of the pack controls access to food. The first step in establishing myself as the pack leader was to make Andromeda connect me with her access to food.
Elena has me feed her 200 grams of food twice a day (anytime I want but at least 7 hours apart). If Andromeda doesn’t eat it immediately, her bowl gets taken away only to be offered again at the next feeding at least 7 hours later.
The result: it is stricter than I would normally be, but it is working. She knows the food comes from me.
2) I Walk Her Instead of Her Walking Me.
I had the idea that smelling things was like reading the daily news for her, and she should be able to sniff as much as she wants. I would let her lead, and I would follow along as she filled her nostrils with all the scents in the area. Apparently, this was another mistake.
Elena explained there are two ways to walk: heeling and free walking. When she’s free walking, she can sniff and walk leisurely. But when she’s heeling, she has to stay behind me at my heel and at my pace with her head up. It is important to make her heel every single day, although I can allow free walking too.
The result: The first few “heeling” walks were exhausting for me with all the corrections, but it seems to be working. She pulls less and less on the leash and goes at my pace instead of hers.
3) She Has to Work for Affection.
Before Elena, if Andromeda nudged me while I was working on the computer or if she put her head on my lap, I’d pet her. She’s cute, I like petting her, and this is part of why I have a dog. In the new “I am the alpha” household strategy, she must work for affection. Now if she nudges me, I either ignore her or make her follow a command (sit, down, etc.) to get my attention. She’s adjusting quite well and eagerly sits or lays down for her pets now.
4) Ignore Everyone but Your Trainer
One other thing I’ve learned is that everyone has an opinion about my dog. More people than I would have expected voiced support of her biting someone.
“Probably the man she bit wasn’t a good person. Dogs know these things..”
I thought we covered this in the international #MeToo movement. The victim is not the perpetrator. Ever. That’s not how it works. We have no idea if the man she bit is a good person or not, but it doesn’t matter. She isn’t allowed to bite him.
I’ve also been lectured on how I’m training my dog. A tourist came up to me last week when I was working with Elena and Andromeda and told us to stop.
“Please stop. I have a dog. You are being too harsh. It’s not ok…”
That one shocked me too. As you can imagine, Elena wasn’t being harsh, she was being strict. Andromeda was responding fine. I’m learning to just ignore everyone who isn’t close to the situation. If you are training your dog, you will need to develop a thick skin.
Through the Lens of the Enneagram
I couldn’t help but apply the Enneagram to this situation to see how my Type 7 habit of attention might have influenced this sequence of events. And of course, it does.
Type 7s are famous for avoiding hierarchy. We don’t like anyone to be above us, and we don’t like anyone below us. We tend to be egalitarian and offer those around us lots of freedom. This isn’t a deep philosophical belief system or altruism, this is self-interest. I want personal freedom to pursue whatever might make me happy and having people control me or who I have to manage narrows my options. And now I’ve learned this is exactly the opposite of what my dog needs. She needs a boss, and I need to enforce rules and boundaries.
I also think my Type 7 habit of attention let this situation go on longer than it would have with another person. The biting was new, but she has snapped in the past and has a history of being aggressive with other dogs. In the same way Type 7s are famous for avoiding negative emotions, I didn’t fully face the fact I have a dog with problematic behavior. I feel terrible that she bit someone, but I’m grateful that by crossing the line, her bite made me see the harsh reality that I have a serious issue I must deal with.
It seems in the journey from Cujo to Lassie, Andromeda is providing a personal growth opportunity for both of us.
PS-For those who are wondering, I think Andromeda is a Type 6. But that’s another post…