My dog hates my mother.
I have a puppy who, despite being superbly annoying in a number of baby dog ways — like wedging his wet nose into people’s crotches, chewing shoes, and using his paw to slide the butter dish off of the counter when I am on Zoom calls — is also spectacularly amazing, cuddly and cute. His paws smell incredible, too.
He is, by most accounts, a pandemic puppy in that I adopted him during the pandemic. He had been taken from an abusive situation at two weeks old — not a lot of time to hang out with his parents and learn the rules of being a well-mannered dog.
And while in the early days I focused on making sure he was socialized properly with other dogs, I didn’t think much about humans. After all, we have met lots of people every day on our walks and at the dog park, almost all of whom are greeted with a tail wag and a dismissive glance as he searches for something more exciting. He loves to chase a ball, falls asleep with his head on my shoulder and follows my kids around like a, well, puppy dog.
So when everyone in my family was finally double-vaxxed, and it felt like it was time to have a few visitors again, we were ready. Zeke, not so much.
My son’s friend was the first one through our door, which had not seen someone other than me and my two kids in more than a year. The raised fur on Zeke’s back was the first clue that he wasn’t feeling the getting-back-to-normal vibe, and when growling escalated to head-shaking, spitty barking and a lunge or two, my stomach sank. My puppy was “one of those dogs.”
“Jerks with fur,” my neighbour called the pack of six dogs that were trailing a dogwalker across the street. One of them, a giant St. Bernard with a red plaid bandana tied around his neck, had just sunk his long teeth enthusiastically into a shiny basketball that had bounced off of a nearby net. He had it in an impressive death shake — the ball getting flatter and flatter with every frantic twist of his head — as the group of teenagers who had lost the ball shrieked in horror.
“Look at him,” my neighbour said through clenched teeth. “He’s smiling.”
This neighbour complains about dogs that bark and the jingling of their tags as they trot by. Basically, he finds any dog-related noise revolting. His garden was one of the first on our street to sport a small sign with a picture of a squatting dog and the words, “Have some respect. Don’t poo.”
As he was critiquing the St. Bernard’s idea of fun, Zeke was creating his own raucous symphony at my front window, his shiny excited nose poking out of a small hole in the screen. By then, his barking had set off a chain of yowls across the neighbourhood — from the elderly dachshund three backyards down, the two prancy schnauzers around the corner, the cockapoodle (cocker spaniel/toy poodle mix) from the street behind us and the grumpy buggle (beagle/bulldog mix) that hangs out on the second floor back porch one street over. And it wasn’t even 7 a.m. yet.
So I suppose I had enough evidence to reasonably expect that Zeke wouldn’t react very favourably to my mother’s first indoor visit since he arrived. Except that, like most things in my life, I was hoping for the best.
The whole thing went something like this.
My mother walked in and stood with her back to Zeke (not sure why), while announcing that she doesn’t think much of dogs (awesome). For his part, Zeke goes nuts. And not in a good way, despite the bum wiggles and tail wagging.
Certainly, I could have played a bigger and way better role in controlling the situation — dog trainers recommend that dogs first meet visitors on neutral territory, like in a park; that visitors come armed with tasty treats so the dog associates them good experiences; and that no eye contact or touching happens until the dog feels comfortable enough to make the first move. We did none of that. Instead, sensing impending doom, I put his leash on as she scooted through the house to the patio. I found it encouraging that he spent the next hour sleeping at my feet as we chatted outside.
Until she had to pee.
It only took a couple of seconds: my mother got up, strolled by Zeke casually, and he soundlessly jumped up and grabbed her pants with his mouth. Shrieks aside, the damage was minimal — a red mark on the side of her thigh. It was a purplish bruise an hour later. “Good thing I was wearing pants,” she said each time she pulled her waistband down to check for new developments.
Thankfully, she wasn’t seriously hurt. But the incident had legs for about a week afterwards — every time she called, she asked how my “little monster” was. And my kids had some fun joking about theories around the supposed abilities of dogs to sniff out aliens, bombs and ghosts which could have explained Zeke’s need to make a scene. (Dogs apparently can also predict natural disasters.)
“That was a warning,” said Michael, the dog trainer who came to meet Zeke the next day. He was there to assess him and let me know how worried I should be. After all, while it’s hard not to feel compelled to reason away the bad behaviour of a pet — he’s a puppy, he was scared, you scared him, and the most lame one “but he’s a really good dog” — the bad behaviour was on me.
When Zeke nonchalantly trotted down the front porch stairs where Michael was standing and started sniffing a nearby plant, Michael smiled.
“This is a good sign,” he said, explaining that the fact that Zeke showed no aggression toward him — or the many passersby — the nip was likely a combination of fear since he wasn’t accustomed to strangers coming to the house, the need to protect his territory and an inability to control his puppy impulses. “All things we can work on.”
He started with showing me how to get Zeke used to staying in one place. He gave me something called a slip lead to replace Zeke’s leash — it is basically a rope that has a loop at one end that tightens if he pulls. Michael had also brought along an elevated dog bed — it looked a little like a little trampoline — and I spent an hour repeatedly getting Zeke to sit and on the bed, and not move until I gave him a command. The idea was that eventually in the house, he would stay on his special bed — a safe place — when guests were over. And by teaching him to wait for my signal to leave the bed, he would also learn to not act so spontaneously.
Michael also talked a lot about mistakes that people often make when meeting dogs. Things like moving quickly, making eye contact and touching them right away is the most common reason for dog aggression, he said. “If you were walking on the street and a stranger came up and hugged you, how would you react?”
Gallant, a website for veterinarians, echoes this opinion, pointing out that when dogs meet each other initially, they are generally chilled out at first, “pretending not to care, looking elsewhere, and often approaching sideways.” But humans tend to do the opposite when meeting a dog, “staring directly at the dog, moving towards it with open arms, typically using some high-pitched voice, baring teeth in a grin and making lots of squeaky noises.” If a dog did the same thing, according to the site, you “would have the bully of the dog park.”
There are other things too that could have been contributing to my puppy gone wild, Michael suggested, like daily trips to a busy dog park which can teach new puppies aggressive play styles. Zeke had also been romping with his brother Beau a few times a day which Michael referred to as “mock fighting” — something else that, in a new puppy that didn’t have the normal teaching cues from its mother, can contribute to a lack of impulse control.
I haven’t unpacked the special bed yet, but I think there are improvements on the horizon. Zeke has figured out that sitting gets a tasty liver treat, while chewing human things, like my son’s foam Toronto Blue Jays finger into hundreds of tiny baby blue specks, gets him nothing but stink-eye and angry arm-flailing. The last time my mom visited, she stressed the importance of wearing “pants for protection,” while Zeke — with just a few half-hearted barks — watched her stealthily from his crate.
I know it’s not cool to wish time away, but according to Michael, dogs settle as they age. We’re all looking forward to the teen years.