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Monte is a mixed breed rescue dog and the vet estimates that he is about a year old. Monte lives on a farm with my sister and another mixed breed rescue dog: Gina a bitch that is 6 years old.

History: My sister obtained Monte when he was about 6 months old and still being treated for sarcoptic mange. After about a month he broke his leg when he fell off a bed while romping with Gina. The vet put in a pin and the leg was put in a cast. While the leg healed Monte was kept in a playpen. After the leg and sarcoptic mange had healed, about 3 months ago, the pin was taken out and he was neutered at the same time. Monte has fully recovered from the mange and broken leg.

Behaviour: For the most part Monte behaves like a normal one year old dog and gets on with Gina. He has has some food issues. He becomes aggressive if you try and take food away from him. The most concerning is the unpredictable aggressiveness. An example: He fell asleep on the couch between my 28 year old daughter and I while we were watching a movie. He was on his side with his head just over the edge of the couch. He had been asleep awhile when my daughter put a hand on his tummy to wake hime as she needed to stand up. Monte was suddenly awake and snarling and barking in her face and she instinctively brought up her hands to her face and he bit her on the wrist. The bite did not break the skin but she did receive an awful fright. The aggression dissipated when he bit on his rope tug which I had picked up and offered to him. My sister has had similar experiences.

The dilemma is that my sister has bonded with Monte and loves him but feels she is unable to trust him especially with young children around. Monte is obviously traumatised. Is the aggression treatable? My sister lives in a remote area so specialist trainers are not easily accessible. My sister is loathe to return him to the rescue society!

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I have personal experience with a very similar dog. My dog Tommi was abandoned at age 6 months and from his behavior we gleamed that he was not trained at all (he didn't even know "sit") and he was beaten by his former owners. As a result his default behavior towards all men was aggression, but he eventually warmed up and trusted all men in my family.

The problem was that he had triggers that would change him like he was posessed. From one second to the next he changed from calm and sweet to kill mode: snarling at you full force, coming right at your face with teeth bared and biting anyone who tried touching him. It took us a long time to realize that one of his triggers was any person bending down to a second person that was lying on a sofa or bed. We assume that his male former owner abused his female former owner and this pose reminded the dog of the fights they had. He was also triggered by children play fighting.

The sad news is that we never managed to stop this kind of aggression, even after hiring a professional dog trainer. I doubt trauma in dogs is truely treatable. We could only cope with it and minimize the damage. The way we did it was:

  • Avoid the trigger. The belly is a very vulnerable part of the body. If you want or need to touch your dog when he's unaware, chose a safer place like the bottom of a paw to get his attention or just speak to him without touching him.
  • Get a crate. This was the most important advice the dog trainer gave us. The crate should become your dogs safe place where he sleeps and can retreat, but at the same time it's your safety net where you can lock your dog until he calms down after being triggered. We locked our dog in the crate every night to sleep and we never gave him any negative experience (like a scolding) while in the crate to give him a sense of "home" around it. But we also locked him in the crate whenever we had visitors, because we couldn't trust him around men. We also trained "go into the crate" with him and every time he was triggered and attacked us, we sent him into the crate without touching him, then locked the crate until he calmed down.
  • Get a muzzle. This could be an alternative to a crate, but in our case it had to be an addition. Our dog also attacked the (male) vet, so we hat to get a special muzzle that protected humans from dog bites. If your dog accepts the muzzle well and is trained to wear it regularily, you could put it on him when there are children around and be sure that he cannot do any physical damage.
  • Never ever cause him any amount of pain when he's triggered. When triggered, the higher brain function are deactivated and the lizard-brain that can only process fight or flight runs in overdrive. Any amount of pain pushes your dog more towards fighting back and directly results in more aggression. Even soft touches can trigger memories of beatings and abuse, so don't even touch him while he's in this state of mind.
  • Accept his own coping mechanism. Your dog knows that biting you is wrong, but in the moment he's triggered, all the adrenalin and fear and energy has to be released in aggression. He redirects his aggression towards a toy he's allowed to bite. Accept this as a kind of medicin. Wherever the dog goes, his medicine (toy) goes with him, just in case.
  • Never forget that he is carrying some trauma, but also never forget that he loves you. This trauma will always be part of him, but that doesn't stop him from being a cuddly, playful and loving dog that trusts you with his life. He is a war veteran that will always carry the war with him, but he will also carry your love with him.

And lastly I feel that I need to describe how exactly we reacted when our dog was triggered.

It all starts with a sudden outburst of unpredictable aggression from our dog. The first instinct is to protect yourself, so we moved at least an arms length away. Then, I always took the time to take some deep breaths because oh my God this is frightening, no matter how often it happened before. I needed to calm down in order to calm my dog down. Then I would say, in as calm a voice as I could manage: "Tommy, go into the crate". Nothing more than that. No scolding, no telling him that everything is allright. Just repeat calmly "go into your crate". It took him at least half a minute actually calm down enough to hear me and process the words and tentatively move towards his crate, but the calmer I was the quicker he managed to calm down as well. When he was in the crate, we would lock the door and ignore him for 10 minutes. This kind of attack is exhausting for the dog, so he needed this time for himself as much as we did. Afterwards we let him out again and he was subdued and apologized for his behavior.

At the very beginning, when we just had him for a short while, we thought that this kind of aggression had to be fought down, that the dog had to "learn who was master" and all that outdated sh*t. But that only resulted in riling him up even more until he was biting wildly and blindly at all sides and it prolonged his outburst even more. The more force we applied to him, the more he fought back. Taking all the force away by calming down yourself also took the incentive to fight away from him.

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    Thank you for this sensitive answer! Jan 4, 2023 at 10:07
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    Thank you so much for your wonderful insight.
    – Anthony
    Jan 4, 2023 at 17:32

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