On a recent home visit, I had the chance to meet a wonderful, older Labradoodle named Susie. She was calm and quietly friendly. She had never really been a fan of playing with other dogs, although she wasn't necessarily aggressive either. At nearly 12 years of age, her owners had adopted a puppy to help keep her young. Unfortunately, Susie was not very appreciative of this little gift.
Tito is a deliciously cute, rambunctious, obnoxious, annoying, hyperactive, 12-week-old Border Collie. From the very beginning, he was all over Susie. She growled at him to politely correct him, but her owners had disciplined her! This only made her retreat from the family and become even more aggressive toward little Tito. And that was why Susie's owners had called me. They wanted a marriage made in heaven. That would take some work.
I never quite understood why an owner would adopt a puppy for an elderly dog. I have heard stories from my clients about elderly dogs who get a new lease on life when the family adopts a puppy. However, most of the stories I hear are filled with tales about how the puppy annoyed the heck out of the older dog.
Would you want to live with a toddler if you were 90 years old? Really?
I think that often the real motivation for getting a puppy as a dog ages is to make sure that the house is never completely devoid of four-legged children. While I understand the deep need to have a house filled with animals, during Susie's appointment I found myself wishing that her owners had first thought of what was best for her. She had given them so much. Why didn’t they think of her first?
To add insult to injury, when Susie had tried to set boundaries for Tito the owners had scolded her. This is very commonly done. The reality is that Susie is well within her rights to growl at, lunge at or even snap at Tito if he is out of bounds. Now, some families have serious problems with aggression between the older dog and the puppy. If your dog is biting the puppy, causing injury, or acting inappropriately aggressive toward the puppy, you should seek professional help from a positive reinforcement behavior professional. Sometimes, it's difficult to know whether or not the older dog is behaving appropriately with the puppy.
Consider these 2 scenarios:
Tito approaches Susie and pounces on her back while she's lying down. Susie has arthritis and cannot move very quickly so she growls at him. He backs up a couple of steps, cocks his head and looks quizzically at her. Then, he gathers up all his energy and pounces on her head, biting her ear. She turns, shows him all of her teeth and growls. Tito gets the message, throws himself on his back to show that he is no threat whatsoever to Susie and cries out just for good measure. Susie gets the point, ambles off to a comfy dog bed and settles down to go back to sleep. This was a normal interaction where an obnoxious puppy got appropriately corrected. Susie started with a lowest level of aggression and then escalated when needed. That's the first sign that she was attempting to interact appropriately with the puppy. Next, when the puppy showed that he was deferential or submissive to Susie she backed off. That's another good sign that she's reading his signals and communicating well with him.
In the second scenario, Susie is again lying down and Tito throws himself on top of her. He is corrected as above, however instead of slowly increasing the level of her correction, Susie starts with a strong correction and grabs the puppy causing him to cry out and run away with his tail tucked. That is much too strong of a correction for the crime that was committed. When Tito runs away, Susie pursues him and continues to growl at him. Susie is clearly not recognizing that Tito is no threat to her and using a much higher level of aggression than is necessary to correct him. This type of scenario should worry you and you should seek professional help.
In reality, Susie and Tito’s interaction was the first scenario. But what threw a monkey wrench into the situation was the behavior of the owners. The owners yelled at Susie for giving Tito an appropriate correction. Susie was just being a normal dog and didn't deserve a correction. Being completely confused by what just happened, she began to avoid interactions with Tito and with her family. If this continues to go on, Tito will continue to develop into quite a brat and Susie will stay in the back bedroom by herself.
What we did was very simple. We gave Susie special privileges and special treatment while teaching the puppy some self-control. For example, Susie was allowed on the bed and the couch but Tito was not. Susie was allowed to get her food first, get petted first, and get her treats first. The owners make sure that if Tito tried to steal her toys, get on top of her while she was sleeping, or nudge her out of the way to be petted that they stopped it immediately. The owners were instructed to get Tito into puppy class yesterday and keep him in classes steadily for the next couple of years. When Susie correctly disciplined Tito the owners stayed out of it and within about a week Tito had learned on his own to respect Susie's boundaries when she was sleeping.
I can hear some of you screaming right now that giving Susie special privileges was not fair. I am here to tell you that the dog world is inherently unfair. Dogs generally accept this unfairness very well. It is the owners who have a problem with it. Susie’s owners will continue to treat the dogs in this way until Susie passes away. I hope that she lives many long years and that Tito with his new-found respect for her continues to fit in with the family.
Dr. Lisa Radosta