My friend Carolyn called last week. A true dog lover, like many she has a house full of rescues with sad backstories.
She also has a special place in her heart for Great Danes and couldn't resist when she saw one on Craigslist. The 2-year-old intact male was listed as a house dog being rehomed because his owners worked and didn't have time for him. When she brought him home it looked like the perfect fit. He wasn't quarrelsome with her other dogs and was friendly when her family and friends came to visit, although he did have one strange behavior. If you came up from behind and touched his neck or back, he would startle and let out a low growl.
Carolyn initially thought he had a hearing or other physical problem. But he checked out fine when he was at the vet's to be neutered and didn't respond the same way when approached from the front, so at the time it did not seem like a problem.
After a few months this behavior started to escalate. According to Carolyn, when touched the dog wouldn't always growl; instead, he would move quickly like he was going to grab her hand and then stop short. This also happened when he was laying on the bed and she touched him with her hand or foot. Still, no warning bells were going off and Carolyn, like so many dog owners, simply rationalized the dog's behavior as a quirky character flaw.
Then it happened. Carolyn and the dogs were on the bed and without thinking she lovingly reached out and put her arm over the Dane's neck. In a split second, without a sound, he lunged, grabbing Carolyn's entire head in his mouth, which resulted in her ending up in urgent care.
Devastated and shaken by the incident, she told me the bleeding had been so severe that it required staples in her head. As she gave me a history on the dog and recalled the horror of that incident, she made it a point to emphasize the dog's positive attributes and what she perceived as his remorse after the attack.
After hearing the progression of this behavior and how Carolyn came to acquire this dog, I think his real story goes a bit more like this:
The previous owners were probably quite enamored with their new Great Dane pup, but since Danes grow very fast physically if slow mentally, in no time their cute baby was an obnoxious teenager who, after enduring many hours alone, did what any adolescent dog would do: He dug, chewed and expressed his joy at his owners' return home by jumping on them.
Lacking focus for all his energy, his behavior continued to worsen and the only way his owners knew how to correct him was by grabbing his collar in reprimand. And because this threatening and dominant act is one that is most abhorrent to all dogs, it didn't take long for him to learn that if anyone reached for his neck it was going to be unpleasant.
Time went on and the young dog continued to tolerate this until one day with hormones raging he'd had enough and growled. And in that moment, without a foundation for his behavior based on respect and trust, they froze and he learned he could control their actions with threats. Once they became fearful, they no longer felt comfortable having him around.
When he went to live with Carolyn he received nothing but kindness, but his previous experiences were indelibly imprinted on him so that when he was approached from behind or touched on the neck his automatic reaction was to expect discipline. The growl was only to warn her that this touching made him uncomfortable, but unfortunately Carolyn didn't recognize this as such or see it as a condition requiring desensitization, so the intensity increased to air snapping. When that was ignored, he made physical touch.
Although it's very clear this dog inhibited his bite and his intent was only to provide information, such a large animal could have just as easily crushed Carolyn's skull or hit an artery. This behavior is not acceptable or excusable, but to understand it, you must first look at what might have shaped it.
Sherry Davis is a dog trainer/owner of CSI 4 K9s. Email her at email@example.com. These are her opinions, not necessarily The Californian's.