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Therapy Dog-First Time Ever Snapped

Guest Sula

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Hi Guys,


I have a three year old female Grey named Stella. She' a rescue but I got her as a pup. She's had two obedience classes and passed her Canine Good Citizens test. Her main issue really is insecurity on lead--if she perceives a threat she'll teeth face so I work on managing that through distraction techniques and just moving her along if she's on lead. Other than that, she's been fine. She's never bitten any dogs or people.


Anyway, I began doing animal therapy with her about 1.5 years ago. We do Paws4reading with kids. And we visit a lock down psych facility with seriously mentally ill patients.


Re the psych facility, for the most part, Stella's gotten used to the scene there and she does well. It took some time as patients act differently and smell differently. But she seems to have settled in. We had one incident about a year ago; a guy was getting down on his hands and knees and in her face and I saw her lip curl. I moved her away and then later called the head of the therapy group to discuss it. We decided that the best course of action was to work with this patient and train him to give her room and to be gentle. It worked out beautifully. No problems. He's great with her now and she trusts him.


One year later, today, though, a patient came in and there was another incident. He was "forward" with Stella, coming towards her, but many patients are like this and she's fine. He was not on his hands and knees and not super close up in her face. Since she seemed skittish with him I tried to turn her around so he could pet her butt vs. face--less confrontational. The patient though was kind of moving as I was trying to turn her. At some point during this process, Stella, "air snapped." No connection or near one. But a snap. No one thought much of it. But I sure did. She's never, ever snapped at a person before.


I spoke with the program director of the psych facility afterward. She was there and always is during our visits. She said this patient was in a fairly bad place. And that he'd punched some walls, etc. I asked if he, relative to the others, was potentially "worse" and she said yes.


So I am thinking Stella picked up on something that I didn't. But I'm at a loss to recognize her signals. I did not perceive him to be too out there (relative to what we see there) and I did not pick up on anything that unusual with her reaction to him until she snapped.


Any ideas? I will also consult with the head of the therapy group but it's a Friday before the weekend and I won't be able to talk until Monday. I wish I could figure out what I missed so I could feel confident about remedying it.


Thanks so much for listening.

Edited by Sula
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Guest mcsheltie

The only thing that comes to me right away is to get a copy of Calming Signals by by Turid Rugaas. She goes into depth on dog body language and you might be able to pick up on some of her smaller movements.


I think this ought be required reading for anyone planning on getting a dog!

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Guest LindsaySF

Strange body language can upset some dogs, so it's understandable. However, it doesn't seem like she's comfortable in this setting. Personally, I would reconsider continuing to visit this particular facility. A place where the patients are a little more laid-back and not as "forward" might be better for her.


If you do decide to continue there, I agree with the suggestion for the Calming Signals book.





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What Lindsay said.


Also, it is a judgement call whether to turn the dog away from scary things or let them keep face forward. Some dogs, some situations, better to let them stay face forward and just hold their head against your leg (while giving your "Easy" command if you have one). That way they can see what's coming.

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If possible maybe take her to a different facility? I know it can be difficult changing places but all it takes is one more snap and then she won't be able to visit any facilities :( She probably sensed something was wrong. I notice when I take Lexie, she can sense certain people and I just stay a lil further back and keep a short lead. Hope things work out. I am sure others will have some more useful suggestions. It is a wonderful thing u do taking her to a more difficult facility.

Lexie is gone but not forgotten.💜

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I used to take Gracie to a residential facility for the profoundly retarded (their title, not mine). Gracie did great with the children of all ages and the ones who made very physical jerky motions. She did well visiting with the 18-25 age group residents until we were charged at by a resident in his electric wheelchair. The young man slapped my face sending my glasses flying. Fortunately Gracie simply stepped behind me. The employee who always accompanied us apologized for not warning me about the young man's violent tendencies.

We visited a few more times but not in the building with the young man. I felt that Gracie was not comfortable there after that incident and we stopped going there. I miss seeing the young kids. But I think Gracie associated the smell of the facility with the bad event.


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Now my thought may be way out there but it is what I believe. I think he was a danger to you, a threat, and she knew it. I believe dogs can identify "bad" people. They can perceive things we can't. Slim would violently attack "certain" people. There is no doubt in my mind that these were dangerous threatening people and he was trying to take them out to protect me and everybody else. He was all about protecting people=that was his thing. I was blessed with him here in body for 6 years and this happenned about half a dozen times- or once a year. Once or twice I could tell "something" about that person that appeared to validate his selection. I know its a relatiely primitive concept but I think that person is a threat and a danger to you and others and she knew it-and reacted appropriately for somebody that loved you. You couldn't have known. Us humans don't have that capability. Just a thought.

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Guest Greyt_dog_lover

I have a question that is something only you can personally answer, and I am in no way trying to be judgemental, or otherwise insulting...


You seem to know your hound very well, with the two close calls, is she really comfortable being a therapy dog?


I am just posing this question for you to consider, and in no way do I expect an answer, it is simply something to think about.



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"Her main issue really is insecurity on lead--if she perceives a threat she'll teeth face..."

- Does she still does this? If so that is a big red flag.


"Re the psych facility, for the most part..."

- But not entirely? If not & as it reads in the rest of your post it has been quite a while, then she really shouldn't still be there. It's not her thing.


"We had one incident about a year ago; a guy was getting down on his hands and knees and in her face and I saw her lip curl."

- How did you work with her after that to ensure it would not recur? How much time did you wait & what situations did you observe her in before trying therapy work again?


"We decided that the best course of action was to work with this patient and train him to give her room and to be gentle."

- Which is great, honestly, but does not change Stella's feelings or how she responds. Hopefully you did work to help her with her issues as well but it must not have been enough for her.


"One year later, today, though, ..."

- I realize you have probably had lots of great visits in between this but if your dog gave you so many warnings along the way from then to now... well, why is there a now for therapy work with her? I am not trying to be mean & am normally not so staightforward & blatant but this is a matter of human safety & Stella's as well. Also, you clearly care and I am sure it would upset you terribly if the problem escalated. It can and not just at a therapy visit.


"He was "forward" with Stella..."

- And you tried to help the situation, which is really a good thing but...


"Since she seemed skittish with him I tried to turn her around so he could pet her..."

- She was skittish so it was time to leave. Really. She was trying to tell you it was time to leave.


"At some point during this process, Stella, "air snapped." "

- She doesn't want to hurt anyone but she doesn't want to be there. And honestly she shouldn't be doing a reading program with kids either. Especially, not with kids to be even more blunt than I've already been.


"So I am thinking Stella picked up on something that I didn't."

- Absolutely! Will you listen to her now?


"I wish I could figure out what I missed so I could feel confident about remedying it."

- Of course you do & that makes you a good, loving dog owner. You want the best for your dog and others. You are to be commended on that. Have you considered getting a qualified animal behaviorist to help you decide if Stella can be helped to feel comfortable enough to be safe for pet therapy? You clearly want to do this & as someone who wishes her own dog was comfortable enough with people to enjoy pet therapy, I totally understand your feelings. Stella isn't in the right place, emotionally, to be a pet therapy dog at this time. Find someone to help you help Stella feel more comfortable with people first. That alone will improve Stella's quality of life. After that you can decide how to expand that to more stressful situations. Then hopefully someday she will be a good therapy dog.


And please do not be mad at me for speaking the truth. You can see Stella isn't comfortable and that there is danger here. Please listen to her.


"Thanks so much for listening."

- Thank you for wanting to help your dog and other people who could really use the help. I hope you are able to work this situation out so you can later take up pet therapy again with a confident dog who loves the visits as much as you do. The right behaviorist can help you make that decision. And again, I am not trying to be mean. Am just worried about everyone's safety, plus the feelings of both your dog & yourself.

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Thanks everyone for your responses. I really appreciate them. I do think Stella sensed something that I didn't. And I do love and appreciate her for that (Greyhound Psychic Network, yes.) Also, I'm going to grab a copy of Calming Signals.


I am definitely thinking about the psych facility and if it's no longer a good fit. It's tough work and the head of the therapy group did say many dogs (and people) can't handle it. In terms of other types of therapy she's fine with kids. In fact, she was specifically chosen for the kids' program because she's a steady calm dog. Her leash issues involve dogs only, never people. I don't know if I was clear on that or not.


Thanks again. :)

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