Q: What do I do if my dog doesn't like me -- and lets me know?
A: Sometimes, for reasons even vets don't understand, dogs have conflicts with one or both of their owners. And just like humans, when dogs get annoyed or angry with those closest to them, they lash out.
Take Rumpus, a Wheaton terrier I treated last year. When he was first rescued by a handsome couple in their early forties, Rumpus was as well-behaved as the little lamb he resembled. But after a few days he began acting aggressively toward his male owner, whom I'll call Bob -- staring him down, growling at him, and being generally threatening. Even when Bob was outside mowing the lawn, Rumpus would snarl through the window. Soon the couple's home was full of dog crates, kiddie gates, and other paraphernalia to keep Rumpus away from Bob.
Rumpus's behavior confused and saddened the couple. Why, they wondered, did the dog adore them both at first, but then suddenly turn on Bob? I told them that sometimes pets simply prefer one owner over the other. Rumpus was probably becoming jealous of his male owner because he saw him as competition. I suggested various behavior-modification techniques, such as the "No Free Lunch" program in which dogs must obey a command (such as "Sit!") before receiving any food or treats. I also prescribed anti-aggression medications. Nothing worked.
One day when Rumpus was tethered to a post, he lunged at Bob so forcefully that he pulled the post out of the ground. Luckily, Bob's wife was able to haul the dog away in time to save her husband's hide. After this incident, I advised the couple to find Rumpus a new home. I suggested that his behavior wouldn't manifest with all men, so he might get along in another family. But at that point the couple wasn't ready to give up. They kept hoping that with a little more time, Rumpus would mellow. But Rumpus kept taking the law, as he saw it, into his own hands (or teeth).
The final straw came a few months later, when Rumpus broke through one of the safety gates and attacked Bob, badly tearing up his arm. It took a trip to the emergency room to finally convince the couple that it was time for Rumpus to move out.
The cause of our pets' upsetting behavior is not always clear, but the latest thinking suggests that some dogs become aggressive when they're caught between conflicting forces. In Rumpus's case, his profound dislike of his male owner, coupled with being forced to cohabitate with him, was too much to handle. For the most part, we humans can just walk away from a situation we don't like. Dogs don't have this luxury and end up expressing their displeasure the only way they know how.
Nicholas H. Dodman is head of the animal behavior department at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.