CORRALES, N.M. — I'm not sure when Nanuk, my 2-year-old Alaskan Malamute, turned into Cujo, the crazed St. Bernard from the Stephen King horror story. But when he bit a house guest as she lay on the couch watching television, sending us to the emergency room for stitches, I knew we needed help.
There had been signs. He always excited easily around company and had nipped at some hands over food and socks. And shortly after we moved to the Albuquerque area, he bit a friend's daughter's finger when she crowded in close to me. But he was otherwise a big, sweet, cuddly 85-pound lug who doesn't even hurt the cat. I blamed the last bite on stress from the move.
But there seemed to be no trigger the night he bit our house guest. "He's just not right in the head," I said to my husband. And we agreed it was time to get help.
So now the dog I lovingly refer to as my million-dollar puppy (he was born with a hole in his heart, which required several rounds of $500 sonograms) has a cardiologist AND a therapist.
His therapist's name is Jeff Nichols, an Albuquerque veterinarian and animal behavioral specialist recommended by a fellow malamute owner.
We filled out a long questionnaire about Nanuk, then pulled out the credit card for what ended up being a $500, two-and-a-half hour consult and checkup.
We spent the first hour answering questions, in other words, admitting the dog was spoiled rotten. Yes, he gets our attention on demand. Yes, he jumps on the furniture sometime. Yes, yes ...
The next hour, it seemed, was all about what we were doing wrong. Finally, I had to interrupt.
Ok, I said to the vet, I know Nanuk is spoiled. All of our animals are. But I've had dogs all my life, including two other malamutes and a Chow mix. They've all been spoiled but they've never been biters. So is it really all our fault?
No, he said to my great relief, explaining what I suspected. Nanuk indeed is not right in the head. He is genetically pre-wired for anxiety and reactive behavior, Nichols said. All dogs want to bite but they know they are not supposed to. Nanuk, however, gets ramped up fast and then just can't stop himself. He lacks the all-important bite filter, Nichols said.
And "his pushy, controlling behavior," Nichols wrote in a follow up email, "has been worsened by your well-meaning attempts to make it stop."
So what do we do?
First, Prozac, which has proven to be effective in treating anxiety in dogs. We immediately put Nanuk on a daily dose.
But drugs can't do it all, he said, explaining that we needed to dramatically alter our interactions with Nanuk.
Forget all this dog whisperer, leader of the pack stuff. According to Nichols, instead of trying to discipline Nanuk, we should ignore him unless we initiate the interaction. Even when he acts aggressive, Nichols said, any reaction, scolding or otherwise, validates the bad behavior.
"When a dog does anything, your response is a motivator for him to repeat the behavior," Nichols wrote.
When Nanuk starts acting up, when company comes to the door and he gets excited, when he begs for food, when he paws for attention, we had to not just ignore him, but act like we didn't even have a dog. Pick a word, he said, like "pepperoni," that you can use to remind each other to pretend Nanuk does not exist. It's a word that has become quite common in our house these days.
I have to admit, when I come home and Nanuk greets me, I can't help but pet him. But overall, we've become good at ignoring him when he begs or paws for attention. I think of all the times I told my dogs "no" with no result. Who knew the cold shoulder could be so effective?
Of course getting Nanuk to behave with company was not that simple. We are still trying to teach him to refrain from running up to guests and howling (malamutes don't bark) and fussing, using the banishment technique.
"This is a great consequence because dog's minds are pre-wired to understand it," Nichols wrote. "In wild dog packs, high-ranking dogs send badly behaved dogs away from the group for a while. When they return they are motivated to behave better because they don't want to lose interaction with the other pack members."
In order to banish Nanuk without responding to (and validating) his bad behavior, we were told to leave a leash dangling from his neck. When he misbehaves, show no emotion, then drag him to a time-out spot. When a dog is being dragged by a leash, Nichols says, they don't associate it with the person on the other end of the leash, so the effect of ignoring still works.
Implementing the techniques has not always gone smoothly. The humans have bickered; the dog has balked. At one point, my husband even said, "Why can't we just do something simple, like put Gummy Bears on his teeth?"
Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions, as Nichols has told us repeatedly. But we are gradually seeing changes. The Prozac has calmed him down, and the simple act of attaching a leash to his collar when he is in the house seems to put him on notice that a time out could follow, and his behavior immediately improves.
On a follow-up visit, Nichols gave us a second drug, Clonidine, to be given an hour or two before company comes. That drug, he said, would "blunt the ramp up," or stop him from the final chomp. Unfortunately, that did not prevent a holiday party incident in which he bit at a guest who was sneaking him ham under the table as I held his leash. No hospital runs were required, but it certainly underscored Nichols' insistence that we could never get lax with Nanuk, no matter how good he has been or for how long.
Between the drugs, vigilance and back up tools like a muzzle, we hope to prevent future runs to the emergency room and avoid a name change. Nanuk is so much better than Cujo.