My dog was in a foster home with his brother and foster brother at around 3 weeks of age. He was nipped by his brother and then bitten by his foster brother in the exact same spot on his neck around 3 months of age, so he has always been sensitive to touching that area, but not aggressive, just became noticeably cautious if you would pet that area of his neck.

3 years later, after having a benign cyst removed from his ear, the vet tech ripped his bandages off in a very quick and seemingly painful way because our dog snapped and growled. The ear was not yet healed, so we had to re-bandage the area, which caused more growling and snapping. Since that day, he now responds with growling if we are near his neck area to check his ears or check him for ticks. If we stay in that area too long, he snaps at us.

Additionally, since the vet tech incident, if he finds himself in a painful or upsetting situation such as recently when he pulled a leg muscle, he snapped and growled at my husband when he felt the pain while stretching near my husband. It was as though he associated his pain with my husband, even though he pulled the muscle while running in the backyard.

My question is: is there training that can help us with this situation? I feel like it’s difficult to fix a situation you can’t anticipate, i.e. I just know that sometimes if we touch his neck the “wrong” way, he growls, and if we have to keep touching the area, like when cleaning the ears he can snap and growl.

As another example of this, he used to have a toy that was a circle shape with a hole in the middle. He flipped the toy over his head, so it ended up around his neck. My husband went to take the toy off of his head, and he snapped at him. So, he spent 15 minutes playing with a toy, then it went over his head, and it turned into a stressful terrible incident for him.

My concern going forward is that the odds of nothing painful ever happening to the dog are slim. I’m wondering if there are training techniques that would help this situation?


2 Answers 2


Since he has a long history of having pain, it's going to take a long time for him to be comfortable with things close to his neck and face.

Essentially, you can use classical conditioning to show him that things near his ear are ok.

But before you start anything, you should make sure with your vet that his ear is not bothering him. If it is, none of this will work since he's still in pain. If you need to give him ear drops or something, just get it over with as fast as possible (potentially with a muzzle) and then give him his dinner. Once he's not in pain, you should notice a big improvement.

You'll want to move very slowly and read his signals, especially since he now feels compelled to use snaps. It's ok (and good) to push him out of his comfort zone, but make sure he knows that he can trust you. Here are a couple of tips/games to play.

Practice bringing things close to that area and then rewarding him for it. In the beginning, you may only be able to get a couple feet away. You can also try simply bringing in the treat from an uncomfortable angle and then getting closer as he gains trust.

Take lots of breaks! This will be very stressful, so break it up with a fun game of tug/fetch/wrestle or whatever he loves. This will not only help build your relationship but also help him ignore those scary things near his ear.

Think about other activities he loves that involve objects close to him, such as putting on a leash.

Respect his growling. This is him telling you he's uncomfortable in an appropriate way and you don't want to teach him that it doesn't work (that leads to snapping as you've observed). Back off and try again farther away, or try and treat him before he starts growling.

If his behavior continues to worsen to not get better, you'll want to get him checked out by the vet again and look into consulting a dog behaviorist which will be able to help come up with a plan specific to him.

  • 4
    This is all good advice. The one caution I would give is to try and avoid letting him practice the growling: give him the treat at the edge of his comfort zone. If he growls, back off a bit, and slowly work your way closer by giving him a treat from a distance still far enough away to avoid the growling. The more he reacts, the more ingrained it becomes.
    – jalynn2
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 17:10

It will take a while for your dog to regain trust. Especially of other dogs. But what I have learned with my dog that had a similar experience is to pet his back and slowly work your way to his neck. Try this a few times a day for a month or two and he should be getting better.

  • What effect does this technique have on the dog? Could you elaborate a bit please?
    – Just Do It
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 14:14

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