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What to do with a canine “sleep-biter”? (on “reflex” aggression in dogs)

Posted May 13 2009 10:35pm 1 Comment

Have you ever known a somnambulist? You know, a “sleepwalker”? If so, you’ll know this disorder, though usually benign, can sometimes lead them into odd situations where they do things like raid the fridge, drive the car or climb on the roof. 

How about this one: Have you ever been sufficiently startled (out of a deep sleep or otherwise) that you reflexively defended yourself? 

Something like a combination of these two scenarios is what we’re postulating as the problem afflicting one of the sweetest patients on my roster of unsolved cases. 

This 3 year-old Doberman has now bitten his owner twice––in the face. One time he was sleeping deeply and she bent over to give him a kiss. The second time he had just woken up from a “running” dream (if you have dogs, you know the ones I mean) and the owner was lying next to him in bed. Other times, he seems groggy as he walks across the room after waking. 

In both instances of aggression, the owner’s alarm––or the surprise of his own behavior––sent the dog running off to hide in a corner. “He was mortified,” she explained. Or was he simply freaked out at the situation? More than likely the latter.

Either way, after the second snap, she came to the conclusion that she needed to place him. But the list of homes for a dog like this––beautiful, young, well-bred dog though he is––is as long as my Frenchie’s muzzle. That is to say, “Good luck with that.”

After all, any responsible owner seeking to adopt out a dog like this has to make sure the adopting household has no children or elderly humans that may not act 100% reliably. And the home should be that of someone who understands that the dog may well bite them one day––for no good reason. 

This unfortunate conundrum is why I’ve convinced this owner to take her to see the veterinary behaviorist in a neighboring county. Sure, it’s a long haul, but he’s worth it. And if there’s any possibility of eliminating this behavior and/or learning to live with it safely then Dr. Lisa Radosta can help. (This owner had already sought extensive one-on-one "training" with a non-veterinary behaviorist after the first bite.)

By now, you’re probably thinking along the same lines I am. Well, why not just crate the dog, as most all trainers and behaviorists now recommend, thereby ensuring that all those nighttime deep sleep moments are spent in a proper enclosure––not in the owner’s bed. Taking the dog for a walk or feeding him before close-face interactions would also help ward off the plastic surgeon.

No, it won’t prevent TV-watching, book-reading sleep interactions that arise from a simple startle reflex, nor will it alter true “sleepwalking”-related aggression, but it’ll certainly limit some of the more obvious trigger moments. 

Ultimately, however, problem dogs like this are eventually euthanized unless an owner can find a comfort zone built around a new lifestyle for the dog. Sleeping at her feet during daily life, for example (not up on the bed and sofa where he currently spends all his free time). 

But finding him a new home? Not so easy for a dog like this. That’s why I’m hoping a specific disorder might be diagnosed, one for which behavior modification and/or drugs would reduce the unwanted snaps. It might sound like a deeply flawed plan to you, but can you blame me for my wishful thinking? 


Comments (1)
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Some aggressive dogs inherited their agressive behaviors to their parents. Although agressiveness can be inherited and there are dogs that are naturally born agressive, but still this can be managed, as long as dogs will be trained properly to excuted good behaviors earlier in their lives.

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