Can This Biter Be Saved?

Can This Biter Be Saved?


Enter puppymill boy. He had been fostered and adopted. He had bitten 3 times in his new adoptive home within the first days there. Devastated adoptive mom. I check with the foster mom-no bites while there. I offer to bring him to my home for a behavior evaluation before deciding where to send him for fostering. We do not want to set him or a foster home  up for any trouble. He was fairly close by, and I felt after dealing with my last foster, Jamison – a fear biter, for 15
months, I could at least deal with this boy for a short time so we could see what was going on and where best to place him for fostering. As an Intake Coordinator for CP, when faced with a dog being surrendered due to reported bites we ask a LOT of questions: What happened? Why biting? Why in one home and yet not the other? What preceded the bites (something always does). What body signals, voice signals, facial signals came before the strike? What was the human doing? The Cairn? What events were going on in the surrounding environment? What happened during the bite? What happened after? Are there any health issues that might be involved? What is the home environment like? Resident humans, resident dogs, visitor frequency, activity level, noise level, time family home vs out, etc.

So I had quite a bit of information, but still questions lingered. The primary one: WHY???? I set up an expen, and an extra crate and discussed his management with my family to be sure all were safe- human and canine. I had no intentions at all to integrate him with my dogs-I don’t with B&Bs. They may meet briefly outside after first week to see how he reacts to them-but certainly not in the house. We pick him up on transport. I see his face in the crate looking out. Oh my, he is gorgeous!!! We get home. I let him out of his crate in the yard. Well, I try anyway. He is scared, very scared. He finally comes out. A part of me is nervous-after all-he bit three people in as many days in his adoptive home! he now is labeled a ‘BITER’. That label is a big deal. It’s scary. It tells a lot-but it also tells nothing. In my very humble opinion and limited experience, a huge part of dealing with any dog, but especially a ‘biter’, is management of them and their environment.

So my plan is to keep him on what I call ‘lock down’. Only out when on leash and 100 % observation by ME (no daydreaming, no other tasks going on, no turning my back for just one minute), only out for walks, potty, food, very short scheduled play time. Other than that-crate or expen. This allows me to not set him up for any reason where he feels he needs to react with his mouth. It also gives me a TON of information IF he were to bite or try to bite. From his point of view, it gives him doses of ME in small tiny baby steps. He gets to learn about me-what MY temperament is like, what makes me happy or not. What my rules are and how I need to be handled. We both need to learn. Tiny baby steps, utter patience, slow and calm. Always calm.

When I was in college, we were told repeatedly that most of discipline is prevention and management. I do agree with that, so I keep that in mind. My goal is to set him up for success by going slowly. IF he is a true ‘biter’- even going slow and being calm may illicit a bite attempt. So we start-‘biter’ and me-on our journey to see what he will do in my home.

To say its a huge pressure to take on a labeled biter is an understatement. The second day he was here, my husband was playing and got loud and started moving his arms around. While we all found it funny, this boy got very scared and charged him!!! He barked and growled and charged. But since I was right there and watching him and had his leash, one LOUD ACKKK stopped him in his tracks. He froze. So there it was: FEAR. Big, loud, scary man fear. What a terrified little one. We observed him closely the rest of the day and saw that while he was nothing but a huge marshmallow with me and my 16 year old daughter, he was scared of husband and 19 year old son. I also observed him reacting with fear to new things he had not encountered before. He would flatten or turn and dart away. Typical mill behaviors. It seemed that with ‘new’ things he would get scared and run away. Even if I scared him, he would react by flattening but NOT one sign of growling, charging, baring teeth, or attempt at biting. Presented with LOUD, FAST MOVING, UNPREDICTABLE MEN he would get terrified to where he felt he needed to react with his mouth, maybe the only thing that worked for him in his past. Yet, if the men were slow and calm and patient, he might be nervous, but he would not act out. That part gave me hope.

Now we had a glimpse of his issues. So we got to work. I learned that he needed a few simple things: calm environment especially when men were around, consistency, routine, patience, positive reinforcement, and time. We modified his environment to support what he needed, while working to get him less nervous around our men. Men were only allowed to be calm, soft spoken, slow moving when he was out and about-or they got crated. The men also gave lots of yummy treats. We were very patient, and did our best to let him gain confidence in his environment at HIS pace over time. We also limited his exposure to new things so that he didn’t feel bombarded and constantly on guard that first week. Its a huge transition time for a Cairn in a new home-some do so well, others truly need settling in time.

Week one: As each day passed, he was given more freedom in tiny baby steps. We found that he ADORES my female Cairn. Likes my male Cairn. ADORES completely and totally my daughter. Grooming was a dream-he even let me cut his nails and didn’t react. By the end of about 10 days or so, he would walk up to both son and husband to sniff them and stand fairly close to them. Not one incident at all. No charging, no bite, no attempt at a bite, not even a growl! Sometimes the men would give yummy treats, sometimes let him just sniff fingers, sometimes a short pet, sometimes ignore him. Always respecting this learning time period.

By then end of the first week, it is clear to all of us. This boy is NOT a ‘BITER’. That label for him is not accurate, despite the fact that he did bite. I started to see that the word ‘biter’ would join the word ‘alpha’ in my mind. Two words that while important in discussion-both have far too many facets to be used as a singular label to determine a dog’s fate and future. The horror to using BITER as a label too quickly is that sometimes dogs die because of it. I will use those words very judiciously and with great care to explain exactly what I mean from here forward. 

Week two: I am weakening. I offer to foster him, not move him to another foster home. He has minor issues that need work: gaining confidence, transferring his learning about our men to learning that all men are not to be feared, introducing a replacement behavior around scary men. He fits in here well. He’s probably the easiest foster I have ever had. He actually comes when I call him. He sits for his food. He sits to be leashed without prompting. He doesn’t eat poop. He loves us. Oh- and did I mention he is ADORABLE?

Week three: He gives his belly to both husband and son, not in submission, but in wiggle-waggle-pet- me-please excitement. He will lay up against them both and fall asleep. He will put his paws up on them and wag for attention. IF they make him nervous, he turns and runs! Huge improvement. I am weakening. BUT, he can’t do the stairs going down (and we have a lot) so he has to go. I can not carry him every day. Silly the things I tell myself to trick myself into thinking he is going anywhere!

What a surprise-he figures out how to go down stairs one day. Darn. The next morning I wake up knowing. I look at his face, and know in my head (knew in my heart way earlier) that I can not bear to let him go. Just can not bear it. I always ask myself when fostering, “Are WE the BEST home for our foster?’. In this case, only the second time in 14 fosters, the answer is YES. I check with husband- who replies “whatever makes you happy”. I check with daughter, though I know full well she and pup are in cahoots to get him to stay. I ask her if she would like to co-adopt him with me. We talk terms of co-adoption. She agrees and is thrilled. So I sit down and apply. He’s gotta stay. He is meant to be here with us. We need him here. He needs us.

Every foster teaches at least one lesson. My boy could have had a horrible end, but was given a second chance. He taught me to use caution in describing behavior, because how they behave one place may not always be their true self. How they behave when in transition is almost always NOT the same behavior you will see days, weeks or even months later. He taught me that if nothing else, patience works some magic. He taught me that SLOW is often far faster than fast. Huge smiles all around.