Case Study – Taffy
Breed: Cocker Spaniel
Every night, while his Austin owners would watch tv on the couch, Taffy would leap up next to them and snap at their faces. While he never actually bit either of them, it was making them both very nervous… and for good reason! Although this was the worst behavior, he also exhibited other troubling and annoying actions. He would reach out and scratch them with his paw repeatedly, or try to burrow in between their backs and the couch. If they ignored him he would jump to the ground and race around in circles, barking excessively. Needless to say, his owners were overwhelmed.
Taffy was only five months old at this time. He had been purchased at a pet store two months beforehand, which immediately set off a red flag. It is common to see startling behavior problems such as aggression from puppies bought from pet stores. Unlike hobby breeders (who breed in order to produce healthy, temperamentally sound dogs) puppy mills are only interested in money. For this reason, they never screen any of their breeding dogs for health problems or temperament issues. All puppies from pet shops (except for dogs from shelters being adopted out rather than sold) come from puppy mills, and we often see the worst genetic behavior problems from these dogs.
The good news was that Taffy did not show any other aggressive behavior besides the face-snapping. In fact, he seemed to have a very sweet personality otherwise. After taking a thorough history, we set up a mock situation where his owners sat on the couch and watched tv in the same way that they otherwise would. After the novelty of having a new person over at his house wore off, Taffy began to start in on his previous behaviors. The first thing that he did was to race around the room and bark. Afterward, he jumped up on the couch and hit at them with his paw, jumping from one owner to the other. Finally, after only a short time he began to snap at their faces.
It became very apparent that the face-snapping behavior was directly tied in to his frustration of being ignored. Instead of playing with him, his owners were watching television which was bringing on the frustration. Taffy’s behavior was meant to get their attention and it worked – if he snapped then they would grab him, trying to get him to stop. Unknowingly, his owners were actually making the problem worse. They thought that they were scolding him but in Taffy’s mind, snapping at them meant that he was engaging them in “his game”. Just the fact that they were grabbing onto him was enough reinforcement to make him want to continue.
In Taffy’s case, it looked as though this behavior was not so much rooted in aggression as was originally thought, however we knew that allowing the behavior to continue would almost definitely cause even worse problems. It was very possible that, in the future, it could turn into actual aggression as he learned how easy it was to boss his owners around with his mouth.
We decided that signing Taffy up with one of our Austin obedience programs was the best first step, because it would introduce rules and structure. Because he was so desperate for attention, obedience would become an outlet for him to spend quality time with his owners while getting attention in a healthy way. Furthermore, we designed a better exercise schedule for him so that he would be able to expend both mental and physical energy. Finally, we changed the food that he was on from a very low quality food to a much better choice. We find that low quality foods can contribute to all manner of behavior problems. Finally, once he understood what the word “no” meant (through obedience), we began to set up the original situation in the tv room again. This time, we guided his owners how to react when Taffy began to exhibit the behaviors.
All of these strategies combined soon stopped his bad behaviors completely. As an added bonus, Taffy found that he really loved practicing obedience, and he turned out to be a natural at it!