A few months ago I hosted a teeth cleaning clinic at my daycare and they offered to give Kodi a free cleaning. I spoke to the ladies in advance and I showed them a picture of my dog and told them his breed, his age, and that he has never been groomed or had his teeth cleaned by anyone other than me. I also told them that he has a sore shoulder, is old and cranky, and communicates his displeasure with things very clearly. I explained that he growls, he stares, he snarls, and he has air snapped, but never bitten. YET.
The older he gets, the less tolerant he becomes of handling for unpleasant things like vet exams and nail trimmings. I said "It's ok if you can't get his teeth cleaned. I'll understand if he's too much to handle, I actually don't expect this to be possible with him."
"Has he ever actually bitten?" They asked.
"No." I said, and repeated myself "He has warned, and he has snapped, but just because he has not bitten yet, doesn't mean this won't be the breaking point for him." The breaking point is called the threshold. That's the point at which a dog will bite in response to a stimulus. Thresholds are at different places for different dogs. Kodi starts to warn (growl and bare teeth) long before he reaches his threshold or biting point. You could say he's equipped with an early warning system.
The ladies ensured me that Kodi would be fine. That lots of owners say their dogs won't tolerate it, and out of thousands only two dogs have been "too aggressive" to have their teeth cleaned. Well, you can now make it three. We found Kodi's threshold, and teeth scaling was it. He didn't hurt her, he was muzzled, but he did try and we made the decision to stop the process there before anyone could get hurt.
But get this: she was surprised! How could she be surprised? I told her. I told her more than once that I suspected he wouldn't handle this.
And you know what? She was surprised! How is that possible? I gave her all the information that I gave the teeth cleaner as well as the details of the incident with the teeth cleaner.
Well here's how it's a surprise:
Dog professionals have learned to ignore warnings from dog owners. Why? Because dog owners exaggerate. Much like the boy who cried wolf dog professionals in certain fields (vets, groomers, teeth cleaners, body workers and physical therapists) hear all the time about how anxious, sensitive, and scarred Fido might be, they hear it so much and so often it proves to not be true, that they learn to ignore any owner, even when that owner is a friend and a dog professional them self!
So how can we help? So that dogs like Kodi are not surprises.
Dog Owners: Be Honest and Calm
There are two sides to this problem, and it's not just the owners, but we'll start with them anyway because as a dog owner you have control over how others perceive you and your dog.
1) Be honest.
Has your dog ever bitten or snapped at someone? If so, mention this, don't be ashamed of it, but make sure you give details, even if you think the bite incident was in a completely different context. If you are dropping a dog off for grooming and the time your dog bit was when it was startled by fireworks the groomer still needs to know because what do fireworks and grooming shops have in common? Noise. So always give the information about aggressive behaviour and the context, which will help the groomer out.
Does your dog have clear warning signs? Does he freeze, stare, or lift a lip as a predictor of a more aggressive reaction to come? If your dog is a good communicator with an early warning system, tell the professional. If your dog doesn't have a good early warning system, tell them that too, some dogs escalate to their threshold faster than others and appear to bite unpredictably when really their warning signals just happen so fast they're easy to miss. This is important information for any dog professional to have.
However the same goes for being honest about an absence of aggression in your dog. If your dog has never experienced something similar or has never shown any sign of aggression or reactivity towards anyone or any situation in the past, don't make up potential scenarios. The dog professional already knows the potential scenarios, they see them daily, but they've learned to ignore them because they are predicted too often by anxious owners so that the honest ones get lost in the mix. Instead of guessing that your dog, who has no history of aggression or reactivity -might- bite, simply state the truth.
"My dog has never been in this situation before, and while he has never been aggressive in other situations I cannot be sure how he will react under these new circumstances."
In that one sentence you have given your dog professional the information they need to proceed safely. They might have some followup questions for you, just answer them honestly.
2) Be calm
Don't project your anxiety for the situation on to the dog, because that sets your dog up for failure with your dog professional. Try not to exaggerate because exaggeration is what causes professionals like Kodi's teeth cleaner and his groomer to ignore real warnings about dogs that really do have issues with handling. But don't downplay either, if your dog really has growled or snapped, or even bitten someone, be honest and frank about it. While people often exaggerate with groomers, vets, and other professionals there is an odd reversal of the problem when it comes to speaking with trainers. People tend to try and hide aggression from their trainers, which is strange since that is usually the problem they want fixed. If you hide these honest details from your dog professional you are putting your dog in the position to bite, and your dog professional in a position where their chance of being hurt is increased.
Be clear, concise, and to the point: My dog did y behaviour in x situation.
One of the most common mistakes we make as dog professionals is the assumption that we know dogs as a whole, better than owners know their own dogs. The reason the teeth cleaner and the groomer were surprised that Kodi was true to the behaviour I predicted is because they'd started to ignore dog owners. Sure part of it was because they'd heard it so many times and in so many cases where the owner was the one who was reactive, not the dog, but that doesn't excuse not taking everything a dog owner has to say about the animal they live with into account.
A dog's owner will always know more about their dog than I do. While sometimes they might miscommunicate with their dog or misinterpret their behaviour, which is what dog professionals are here to help with, it is still important to trust that the owner knows their dog. I know that Kodi doesn't like to be touched, I know that Badger doesn't like water or things that sound like vacuum cleaners, and I know that our old dog Tidbit was afraid of strangers.
So if someone tells you their dog might panic or bite or growl or pee themselves even if you have heard it a hundred times before, treat it like this is the first time anyone has ever said it. You won't be sorry.
2) Protect Yourself
One of the mistakes in my early carrier as a trainer was to believe that a dog owner was always going to tell me the truth. Sure I just told you to do that, but let me add something to that. When you are putting yourself in a risky position, handling a dog you just met either in the presence or the absence of their owner, you need to sometimes assume the worst.
Early in my career I was bitten by a large breed dog. The reason I was bitten was because the owner was having trouble admitting that the dog had a problem. No matter how many times I asked about aggressive behaviour the husband of the couple who owned the dog insisted that he was fine, just bull headed and pushy. The dog then bit me on the hand while I was offering him a treat. After this fact, the owner decided to mention that yes, that is how the dog behaved towards his wife. After I was bitten the truth poured out of the situation and I discovered that the dog had bitten not just the wife, but at least two other people. The owner thought that just three bites wasn't something that was all that important to mention. That was until I put it into perspective for him. His dog was less than a year old and had bitten three times (not including me) if he lived to his breed average of 10 years old following that pattern, by the time he was finished his natural life he would have bitten 30 people. Suddenly the problem didn't seem so small to the owner and he dedicated himself to rehabbing this dog. He remains one of my greatest success stories and his owner one of my best students as well as one of my most important teachers. He taught me that I should always behave as if the problem is worse than I have been told, because sometimes it really is, and it only takes one assumption to result in a bite.
In a non-aggressive case I was given a black eye by a doberman. He was an impeccably trained dog with beautiful ring sport responses. I had recalled him to my front and when I asked him to heel he jumped up smashed me in the face with his skull and landed in perfect heel position at my side. Second important lesson learned, keep your head up and your face away.
As a result of these two mistakes I now show more caution around my clients. I pay more attention to the signals of the individual dog for things that the owner has either missed or may be too embarrassed to mention, and I take precautions to protect my face. These are simple things that all professionals can avoid learning the hard way like I did.
Listen to your clients, watch the dog, and keep you head up.
The relationship between dog owners and dog professionals is a two way street that requires cooperation and trust. If you can trust us with you dog, we need to trust you too. You need to tell the truth even if it's embarrassing, and we need to listen, even if we think we know more than you do because at the end of the day, it's your dog!