When I answered the phone, it was immediately clear that this was one very worried dog owner. Her voice was cautious, tentative, as if she were about to reveal a long-hidden secret that she had no wish to speak of. There was deep sadness, tinged with helplessness, writes dog trainer and author of ‘All Six Legs’, Denise McLeod.
“Hello, I need your help with our dog. Our neighbour recommended you.” There was a long pause before she continued, so I waited. She continued warily. “Our dog has started being aggressive to my daughter and it is breaking my daughter’s heart and frightening me. It’s making us both ill with worry.” She sounded so desperate, almost haunted.
“Oh dear, I am so sorry to hear this,” I replied. “Tell me, when did this begin, and what do you mean by aggression?”.
“A few weeks back. They are, or were, the best of friends and Sally is a lovely dog in every way, but there seems no reason for this sudden aggression and I can’t have her being aggressive to my daughter. She just started growling one day and she now growls every time she sees Jane. I am afraid that she will bite her and Jane is so upset, and she keeps crying, and…” She trailed off as she took a deep breath “…and we just can’t go on like this. Please can you help us?”
The pain in her voice cut right through me, it was palpable, invasive and it seems, contagious. I felt it in my own heart. Little Karma, who had been sat at my side having a cuddle, got up and crept off the sofa. Maybe she could feel it too?
Denise with her dogs / Photo Credit: Linda Shearman
Personally I don’t consider growling to be aggression, more an attempt to avoid aggression. It is a signal that what a person is doing or about to do is making a dog uncomfortable. Sometimes a growl is justified; sometimes it is not. But this was not the time to share my viewpoint, but to listen to the worried lady and find more details of the case.
Dogs that growl at children can do so for a variety of reasons, but because of the potentially serious consequences of such an action, it is important that I see the dog and the child before jumping to any conclusions. As the lady continued I got nothing more in way of clues other than how desperate they were to understand and resolve the situation.
So I arranged to go to their home to meet Sally and Jane for myself. As I set out that day I felt unsettled and worried. I had found out little from the phone conversation other than Sally the dog, growled at Jane and that prior to this new behaviour Sally and Jane had been the best of friends. As I drove toward their home I felt as gloomy as the weather that surrounded me. I very much hoped that I could get to the bottom of this case and help this lady and what sounded like a very troubled daughter and otherwise lovely dog, to find peace with one another again.
When I arrived at their door I was greeted by a lot of barking and once the door was opened a very friendly, lively little dog who was jumping up in a very excited but friendly fashion. She wagged her tail madly and looked like a very sweet little thing, and not at all like the snarling dog that I had imagined. The lady who met me at the door looked as worried and anxious as she had sounded on the phone, as well as looking very tired indeed.
She beckoned for me to come in and as I did my best to fend off the over-exuberance of this friendly little dog, a spaniel-cross, I observed that I felt no threat at all from. I found it hard to imagine such a friendly dog growing at anyone – she certainly wasn’t growling at me.
I was ushered into a living room and once I had sat down the lady went off to make a cup of tea and I was left alone with Sally. She continued to wag her tail and tried to jump up on my knee for some more close attention. It seemed she was used to being on someone’s knee. Gently I tried to push her back onto the floor.
I glanced around the living room in search of clues while I waited and I observed on the mantelpiece above the fire a number of trophies and red rosettes. The lady owner returned with a cup of tea and as she did, Sally left my side and went to sit with her owner. The lady reached out and without thinking began to stroke Sally gently around her neck and ears. Sally pushed in toward the contact with her eyes half-closed, seemingly enjoying the lady’s touch. What a delightful dog she seemed. This was a dog used to affection and an owner used to giving it.
We began to discuss the facts of the case. Sally had been bought by the lady for her daughter some eight years previously when the young girl’s father had been tragically killed in a car crash whilst driving home from work one day. The child had sunk into a deep sadness when her father had been taken so unexpectedly and so the lady had decided to buy her a puppy, the puppy she had always longed for, to try to bring some happiness and focus back into her sad daughter’s life.
The dog’s arrival had had a transformative effect on the then five-year-old daughter who had thrown all her energy into playing with and training the little pup. She had taught Sally many tricks and played hide and seek with her.
Later she had taken up agility and had gone to classes and then competitions with her every week. The woman pointed at the glass trophies and red rosettes proudly displayed centre stage on the mantelpiece. All signs of an agility career of significant success! Her mother smiled for the first time as she beamed with pride at just how much Jane had achieved with Sally.
But then a year or so ago, Sally had started to slow down and knock poles off jumps. The vet had concluded that she had some arthritis and Jane had decided that it was not fair to take Sally to agility anymore.
She told me that Jane had been the dog’s sole caregiver and had walked her every day no matter what the weather. She told me how proud she was of her daughter and that getting Sally had been the happiest day that they had had since her husband had died. Sally had slept on Jane’s bed since day one. Her mother described them as inseparable from the moment they met, through all those years.
“It was a match made in heaven,” she told me, until just a few weeks ago, when out of the blue, Sally had growled at Jane for the very first time. Since then she had growled at her every time she had seen her. Her face clouded over and the smile of a moment ago vanished without a trace. She concluded the explanation of their relationship with some haunting words and a wistful look: “Sally has been such a blessing to us both; I just don’t know what Jane would have done without Sally.”
She was sad as she continued, “I don’t know what I would have done without Sally, after my…. well, after…” Her voice trailed off before finishing the sentence and I watched her face as she relived the memory of losing her husband and Jane’s father so suddenly. My heart felt very heavy in sympathy with her sadness.
What could possibly have happened to change such a strong bond into a growling distance, I wondered? I asked her when the growling had started and what had been happening at the time.
“Jane came home from school and Sally met her at the door as she always did. I was in the hall and I saw the greeting and everything seemed normal: Sally was overjoyed to see Jane, as always”. I noticed that as she continued to relive the memory, the lady ceased the stroking and withdrew her hand from Sally’s head and placed it on her own lap, out of reach of the little dog, as she relived the memory. It’s odd how a person can tell you what they are feeling by the unconscious acts of their body.
“As Jane bent down to hug her, Sally just suddenly pulled back and growled at her. Jane thought she had hurt her and went toward her again to hold her, to see what was wrong, but Sally backed off and showed her teeth. It was so sudden and horrid. Jane tried again to reach out to Sally, but Sally backed away even further and snarled and snarled at Jane. Ever since that moment, Sally has growled at Jane whenever she goes near her.”
I watched as Sally stretched her neck long and nuzzled at the lady’s hand, wanting the stroking to recommence. The mother’s attention was bought back from the bad memory and into the moment by Sally’s nudges and her hand returned to the little dog’s head and the stroking recommenced, to Sally’s seeming satisfaction.
Pain. It had to be, surely? I had already heard that Sally had been diagnosed with arthritis and she had stopped doing agility. Perhaps she was having an arthritic flare-up? And Jane’s hug had hurt her?
“Have you taken Sally back to the vet?” I enquired. “Sometimes this behaviour can be a sign of pain or worsening pain. Oftentimes dogs can carry huge amounts of pain before showing it. In fact, sometimes sudden onsets of aggressive symptoms can be the only indication of pain in a dog. Is she currently on any pain medication?”
I was told that she had taken Sally to the vet and he had run all sorts of tests and done X-rays. But apart from the already diagnosed arthritis, there was nothing to suggest that Sally was in increased pain. The vet, very sensibly, had prescribed a week’s worth of additional painkillers to see if it might improve the situation, but there had been no improvement at all. In fact, the behaviour had worsened. Now Sally wouldn’t even sit in a room with Jane and had not slept on her bed, or even in her room, since the original growling incident.
Hmm. Not pain then, it seemed.
My questions continued but nothing stood out as a likely cause. Somewhat cautiously I asked if Jane was in and if she would be willing to speak with me herself.
The mother’s face fell into despair and she looked at the floor for a few moments. Jane had been so upset by it all, she said, that she had hoped that I might be able to ‘fix’ Sally without having to involve Jane at all. Every time Jane and Sally were in the same room it all seemed to get even worse, she said. And she was not sure that Jane could take much more upset.
Since the first day of growling, Jane had taken to spending more and more time in her bedroom, alone. She was getting depressed again. The mother had heard her crying often. She had gone to the daughter when she heard her tears, but it seemed Jane’s sadness could not be alleviated by her mother’s love, only by her dog. The dog who did not want to be near her.
She had cried and cried for days, she told me and now at night Jane was having cold sweats and nightmares too and at times had cried out in her sleep, calling Sally’s name.
She looked directly at me as she continued, “I am going to have to take her to the doctor soon to see what can be done. She has been so upset and now she won’t even talk to me about it. Her whole world has fallen apart without Sally…” She paused for a moment, as she remembered: “And it reminds me of when…”
Her face crumpled slightly, her bottom lip quivered with emotion. Her voice trailed off and tears filled her eyes. She was, I suspected, once again remembering the tragic death of her husband.
It was a heart-wrenching tale and my own heart screamed out in pain for each of them. How awful. I felt the burden of responsibility bearing down on me – I needed to resolve this situation and I needed to resolve it fast. But how?
“Oh my goodness, I am so very sorry.” I reached out a hand to her. She smiled weakly at me, acknowledged my act, but brushed it aside and instead reached for a tissue to wipe her eyes and nose.
I looked at Sally to see if she could provide any insight, she flipped her tail at me but continued to seek affection from her owner. She just didn’t look like the growling sort.
I had no wish to upset the lady’s daughter further but I needed to see Sally’s reaction to her for myself, and I needed to speak with Jane to see if she could offer any more clues because at that moment I really didn’t know where to go with this case and I so wanted to help. But I had no idea at this stage what could transform what sounded like a very strong bond between a dog and its loving owner into tatters.
After some thought the lady agreed she would go upstairs and ask Jane if she might come downstairs and speak with me. She left the room and headed towards Jane’s room. As she began to ascend the stairs I heard her footfall, heavy and slow. I noted that as I heard it, Sally started to become agitated. The little dog got up from where she was and came over to me and once again she tried to climb onto my lap. This time, she was quite forceful and I had to push hard to keep her off. I wanted to see how she coped when Jane arrived, without being supported by me. Sally looked wary and worried.
A few minutes passed during which I heard muffled talking from the upstairs room. Then I heard the bedroom door open, followed by a set of footsteps on the creaky stairs, soon to be followed by a second set of footsteps, those of Jane I presumed.
On hearing this, Sally left my side and moved further away to the far side of the room. She knew, it seemed, that Jane was coming and she wanted to get as far away as possible from the door that Jane would come through. She began to pant and lick her lips and look around for a way out.
The door opened and the mother walked in, soon followed by the sad, tired, tear-stained daughter. She was wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown – she had been in bed on this afternoon it seemed. They entered the room quietly. Sally grew more agitated. She glanced at Jane warily from the far side of the room and I heard a low deep growl.
Jane sat next to her mother on the sofa, at the furthest point from Sally. Sally began to pace up and down by the radiator like a caged animal, looking for a way to escape. She kept glancing at Jane, freezing for a moment, uttering a growl and then pacing again. Her hackles had started to rise in arousal and her panting intensified as she licked saliva from her lips.
Jane sat immobile, just staring at the floor as I observed her. Her mother placed a protective arm around the sad girl to comfort her. This was so hard for all three of them. Momentarily, I saw Jane glance briefly at Sally. As Jane witnessed Sally’s discomfort under her stare, she looked back at the floor as her eyes filled with tears.
Jane knew that she was the source of her much-loved dog’s fear. Her mother saw her tears, passed her a tissue, and tried to pull her closer, but Jane resisted and sat immobile, and stiff, as if frozen. She took the tissue but just clutched it, as though it had no purpose.
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I had never sensed such deep sadness in any person and as I looked at them both I realised that this case above any other I had ever seen, was one entrenched in despair and deep-rooted pain.
It was time for me to speak, so I did. “Thank you for coming to see me, Jane. I’m so sorry that you are having such an upsetting time with Sally. She seems such a sweet girl and it must be so horrid for you to see her this way.”
I stumbled for more words. I hadn’t planned what I was going to say and suddenly I felt wordless by the apparent hopelessness of the situation.
The mother looked at me, willing me to say something more, pain and pleading etched upon her face. She wanted me to provide some hope, to give them an answer, a solution. But I was simply dumbstruck for a moment with the sadness that enveloped us all.
Looking at the distress in Sally and Jane and her mother I decided to call a halt to the suffering, at least for the little dog.
“Thank you Jane, for coming down to see me, I can see how sad you are and I will help all that I can.” Then I made a promise I was not sure that I could keep, but I needed to give them both hope. “I promise I will keep working with you until we resolve this. Feel free to go back upstairs if you wish.” I just hoped that in a moment something would just come to me, as it sometimes did.
As she stood up slowly, Jane again glanced once more at Sally, who was now pinned in the corner, panting heavily.
She tried and failed to stem another sob as she saw the fear in her much-loved dog’s eyes. Her mother stood with her and as Jane turned to leave, an arm was once again placed around her daughter and gently, she escorted the sobbing girl from the room and away from the worried dog, back upstairs. “Come on”, she said, “let’s get you tucked up in bed.” And Jane was gone. I was alone once more with my confused thoughts and Sally, the cause of all the confusion.
Could a wise old voice provide the answer?
As the door closed behind them, Sally seemed to heave a sigh of relief and her attitude and behaviour began to calm. She came to me and sat at my side once more, seeking comfort.
What on earth could have caused this terrible, heartbreaking situation? I just stared at and stroked Sally, needing comfort myself. I felt like all the life and energy had been drained from me. I had no idea what was wrong; no idea what to do. I just sat there feeling useless and drained.
I reached once more for my mug of tea, hoping there might still be a swallow of fluid left and within it, perhaps some inspiration. As I lifted the cup I saw just a stain at the bottom where the much-cherished drink had been, but a memory suddenly flashed through my mind.
“Do you want a cup of tea?", I heard again the words that he had spoken, as the memory stampeded through my mind. A memory of an old, wise shepherd who I had met once many years ago at a sheepdog trial. He had taken pity on me as I was so frozen with cold and he offered me some tea from his flask, which I gratefully received.
His hair was almost white with age and his skin told the tale of many decades of weather.
We had got to chatting about his life living in the mountains with no one but dogs as companions, the ‘magic’ of sheepdogs and how wonderful dogs are in general. There are few things that I enjoy more than listening to wise dog folk, so I was a sponge for his every word, as he regaled me with many wonderful tales as we sat together for several hours.
Later in the day, he told me a story that I found utterly fascinating, if rather hard to believe. That one of his dogs, his favourite one at the time, had once saved his life, by ‘telling’ him that he was ill.
For weeks his dog had persistently behaved oddly toward him and had pestered him, pushing his nose into the man’s stomach. An act that the wise ‘dog-man’ had not understood.
The dog’s persistence had bothered the shepherd. He had never seen a dog behave this way and ‘something’ told him that the dog was trying to tell him something important. Increasingly perplexed by the dog’s continuous harassment, the man had eventually gone to see a doctor, he needed to tell someone of his concerns about his dog’s behaviour and the fact that it bugged him so much.
He had thought perhaps that the doctor might conclude that he was going mad, receiving ‘messages from dogs’. The old country-wise doctor had listened and then checked the man over. Later tests revealed that the dog had in fact been ‘indicating’ on a tumour that was beginning to develop inside the shepherd.
The old man believed that without the dog’s ‘early warning’ system he would have died; the doctor had confirmed this. He had buried his favourite dog in the flowerbed of bluebells after the dog had lived out his retirement lying by the fire.
Every day after he went to that spot in the garden and thanked the dog for giving him back his life. “Always be grateful for what you have and live every day as if it might be your last,” he had advised me, and then he concluded with the important words: “And always trust your favourite dog.”
Those wise words had stayed with me.
Could it be that Sally had detected something wrong with Jane? Was the dog reacting so badly, not to Jane as such, but to something within Jane? I didn’t know why, I still don’t, but it just felt to me as if it might be the case. Why else would this memory have come to me right at this time? Sometimes no matter where you search or what questions you ask, only intuition can tell you the true story. Was the memory of the shepherd trying to speak to me as his dog had spoken to him? If it wasn’t this, then I didn’t know what else it could be.
The door opened and the mother returned and sat down. She looked older than she had even a few minutes ago. The strain of her daughter’s sadness was eating away at her energy. “So what do you think is wrong with Sally?” She looked up at me expectantly.
I thought for several more seconds before replying, as I was still so uncertain and didn’t know how I could get her to take me seriously. I tried to deliver the news carefully, knowing I could still be wrong. I hoped I was wrong – I didn’t want for Jane to be ill. But if it was not this, then what was it?
In times of uncertainty when dealing with owners and their dogs, I have a rule that I follow.
Delivering bad news is not easy, especially if you don’t know if the bad news is actually true or not. Whenever I find it hard to explain, I follow a simple rule that means that I have done the best I can: be kind and be honest.
Be kind and be honest
“I realise that this is probably a weird thing to hear, but I am beginning to wonder if Sally has seen some illness in Jane that is making her behave this way. Some animals seem to know these things. I am wondering if there is something wrong with Jane, and Sally is trying to tell us? Something Sally can smell or sense somehow?”
The uncertainty in my voice must have been evident to the mother as her face started to contort into one of disbelief. So I tried to back up my statement. “I have heard before of dogs doing such things”. As I spoke, her previously open enquiring face showed doubt and anger. She realised that I was talking of something I had no direct personal experience of, only something I had heard of. I expect the pressure of the previous few weeks had made her short-tempered.
She looked at me utterly aghast. “Are you suggesting that the dog is a doctor? Have you been in this job very long? Perhaps you need a change of career!” She sounded angry and sarcastic. “Don’t be so absurd!” she said, as she waved her hand at me in a dismissive fashion before continuing, “Is that really all you can come up with?” She sighed heavily and turned her head away from me in disgust for a few moments, as she apparently studied the wall opposite.
Seemingly having made up her mind, she turned back to face me and as she did she stood up. All the sadness had left her face and had been replaced by pure anger. She pointed to me and then to the door. “I’d like you to leave now, please!”
Oh no! What had I done! I had come here to help, but now I had made everything worse. I opened my mouth to try to explain some more but she just wanted me gone.
Her voice had risen now. “GET OUT!”
I had failed them. I left the house with my head bowed and my heart aching.
For the next two years or so I pondered the case but spoke to no one of it. I felt I had completely failed them and loused the whole thing up. I didn’t want to publicise my failure so I kept the case in my own heart where I went over and over it, berating myself, doubting myself and telling myself how hopeless I was. I felt foolish and ashamed.
I didn’t know for sure if Sally had detected something in Jane or not, but I did know that if that was not the case, then I had failed to diagnose the real problem, or come up with any solution to help them. I hoped with all my heart that they had managed to find someone else who could understand Sally’s behaviour. Someone better than me.
Maybe I wasn’t so good at this job after all.
A happy ending
Around two years after the visit, I was standing with my shopping trolley in a long queue at the supermarket. I first felt and then saw someone looking at me from the next serving point. She too was standing in a long queue. I thought I recognised her face but couldn’t quite place it. She looked as if she recognised me and spoke cautiously. “Denise McLeod?” she inquired.
“Yes”, I answered, still trying to place her.
She came closer to me. “Do you remember Sally, the dog who growled at my daughter?”
Bang! The memory hit me like a gunshot and I flushed with the embarrassment of the failure of that day and the shame I had felt ever since.
“You were right about Sally! Jane was diagnosed with cancer soon after we saw you. She had treatment right away and has recently been given the all clear!” She beamed a smile I had never seen before. But her face changed again as she continued, “I am so sorry for what I said to you and how I treated you. That I doubted you as I did. I should have rung you to tell you afterwards, but I felt so embarrassed at my own behaviour.” She paused and looked at the floor. “I just wasn’t thinking straight at the time with so much upset going on, and your suggestion just sounded so, well, ridiculous.”
Whoosh! Two years worth of guilt and shame washed right off me and away into the ether. Just like that, it was gone.
She continued, “What you said seemed so silly, but I couldn’t shake it off and no one else I saw could suggest anything else that could be wrong with Sally. So I did take Jane to the doctor. He didn’t believe me when I told him what you had said, but he ran some tests anyway. Then he was able to diagnose cancer, and treatment commenced. The doctor said that had it not been for Sally’s early warning, the outcome might have been very different.” Emotion caught her before she concluded: “Thank you, so much – you may well have saved my daughter’s life!”
I was overjoyed at this news. I looked upwards to where the sky would have been had we not been in a shop, and silently I thanked that shepherd from all those years ago, and his dog that he had buried under the bluebells. I had no idea if the old man might still be alive, but it felt right to look skyward as I thanked them both, for saving Jane. I was busting with happiness but then I remembered little Sally, pinned against the radiator in fear, and asked how things were now.
Sally was fine. “She and Jane are best friends again now and everything has gone back to normal.” She told me that Sally’s arthritic legs were getting worse but Jane had started to take her to hydrotherapy and had decided that she wanted to be a vet, to help dogs like Sally, just as Sally had helped her.
She beamed at me again “Aren’t dogs magical!”. They certainly are.
The magic of dogs
The relationship between dog and humans goes back many thousands of years. Some suggestions say 40,000; some say more, some say less. But what is for sure is that for a very long time dogs have been observing, watching over, and caring for humans in the same way that humans have been watching over and caring for dogs.
It is perhaps no surprise then that animals as closely linked with humans as dogs are, have developed these abilities to detect abnormalities and take action to bring them to our attention.
Since Sally’s case, I have met or talked with a number of people who have reported that their pet dog has ‘alerted’ them to potential health problems, from seizures and fits, to low blood sugar levels in diabetics, through to those that detect cancer. It is really quite common. However, it is not common, from what I now understand, for a dog to react in the same way as Sally did, with growling or aggressive signals.
I suspect that Sally was growling not at Jane but at what was in Jane, that she did not like. Far more common is a dog that barks, nudges or paws at an owner, or the caregiver of a sick child. Or even licks or nuzzles the affected area like the old shepherd’s dog did.
So if your dog behaves oddly at around the same time that you or one of your relatives are sick (or feel like you're about to be sick), or you can trace a change of behaviour back to a time when a relative might have developed cancer or another medical problem, then consider that the dog may not be being disruptive or naughty (though he might be), but instead that he might be fulfilling a very valuable and potentially life-saving assistance process.
Apparently, many dogs learn this skill just by spending time in the presence of their family and observing what happens when a medical situation does arise. But now there are charities and companies that actually train dogs to detect cancer cells or alert to seizures or other things, both at home and in laboratory conditions, where a person’s samples are sent for analysis ‘by a dog’.
Whilst it is thought that most of these dogs are detecting bodily changes using their extraordinary sense of smell, which is millions of times more effective than a human’s, I have also heard of more than one dog who can ‘alert’ that an issue is arising when they are not even near the human in question, ruling out the possibility of the dog using just its nose to detect a problem.
One of my friend’s dogs, the lovely Ace, taught himself to alert in advance of her daughter’s seizure events. One day, the dog began to alert even though the child was over five miles away staying with a grandparent. Now just HOW did he do that? What's more, that same dog, as he aged, began to teach her younger dog how to do the same, meaning that when so sadly Ace died of old age recently, her other dog Buddy took over the role of an alert dog. How amazing is that!
In the UK the charity Medical Detection Dogs trains dogs to sniff samples of urine, faecal, or breath samples, or skin swabs. The dogs work on samples in the bio-detection room at the training centre and are not trained to detect the odour on a person.
But there are other charities, businesses and organisations that train dogs to detect seizures, diabetic episodes or other medical issues in the owner’s home, and still more that offer training to pet owners who wish for their dogs to alert to a family member.
So if you or a family member has medical concerns, then why not check out if your dog can be trained to help alert to the onset of an episode of illness?
Or if your own dog behaves oddly at times, then please consider that he might be trying to tell you something important. He might be fully aware that a seizure is about to occur, or your blood sugar levels may be failing, or something sinister may be growing inside you. Remember, always trust your favourite dog.
So much time has passed since the case of Sally that she must now have crossed the rainbow bridge, so to Sally, I thank you for teaching me and for saving Jane and for giving rise to this knowledge that I now have.
And to gorgeous Ace, thank you for helping as you did and for being an inspiration to so many with your special talents. You were a gorgeous, lovely, kind boy who performed real animal magic in your self-adopted role as an alert dog. Run free handsome boy.
The extract above is an extract taken from Denise McLeod’s newest book ‘All Six Legs’. Find out more and buy a copy of the book here.