The Agressive Lhasa

The following is a conversation between Ron, a pet owner with a problem dog, and three Lhasa owners: Nancy and Leslie, both breeders and exhibitors with a long experience of Lhasas, and Ingrid, a long time pet owner.

Hello, I am desperately in need of some  advice. First, two months ago my wife and I adopted (rescued) a two year old male Llasa Apso. He had 3 homes in the last year and was now awaiting another. I suspect he had been abused. Fearing this, we used firm voice commands and lots of love to try and show  this guy we were not going to hurt him and that he could trust us. Well, last night, as he was lying in the new bed we had bought him, my wife  was fluffing his blanket around him, when he suddenly lunged at her, teeth snapping and totally aggressive. My wife's reaction was to grab a newspaper beside her and fend him off. When he saw that, he cowered in the corner, and she was as was I, startled at this behavior. Now I'm fearing that two months of patience and love have been wasted and that this dog figures we  will beat him as well. She never did hit him, but did have a serious talk about this aggression. He of course looked up with his big eyes as she scolded him.

Now, I need to know, is this a character trait of these dogs (having no previous experience) or what. I know that if he bites anyone in my house, my wife, kids or me, I am going to lose it and give him a whack. I don't  want to do that. How do I discipline him without resorting to a rolled up newspaper. I don't  want him to fear me / us.

This is not a "breed" characteristic, this is a "dog" characteristic.  The only difference is that if your Lhasa were a Saint Bernard, he would be much more dangerous and one of the three previous owners would have put him down rather than give him another chance.

Right up front you need to know that rescue dogs exhibiting this sort of behavior can not always be rehabilitated, even by experienced dog people.  I recommend that you read about canine aggression in books by Dr. Nicholas Dodman -- Dogs Behaving Badly and/or Steven Joubert -- Final Hope, Gaining Control of Your Aggressive Dog.

Two months has given this dog just enough time to start feeling comfortable in his new environment and now he's looking for ways to control it.  What you described is a situation where the dog "won" the battle.   My guess is that this didn't really come out of the blue...the dog has already growled from time to time and you and/or other family members have backed off when he's growled.  The anti-social behavior will continue to escalate without active intervention on your part NOW.

You have probably shown too much patience towards this dog and not enough leadership.  Personally, I would take away his bed and take away his blanket and make him sleep in a crate on the floor.  All privileges, pets, food, treats, need to be EARNED...see Dodman's book for his "No Free Lunch" Program.  See also the RRRR Program posted on and utilize  it in conjunction with Dodman's prescription for aggressive behavior at the back of his book.   Basic obedience training for dogs like this is a NECESSITY.

Do consult with your vet to see if there is a board certified veterinary behavior specialist near you.   I have heard that the Promise Halter has been used with good success on some aggressive dogs but you need to have an experienced person tell you if it would be appropriate for your situation and then show you how to use it.

At Purdue University, the behavior specialist there gives owners of aggressive dogs a 60% chance of turning things around.  That percentage is low NOT because the dogs can't change but because many owners do not follow the instructions or the program is "too hard" and they give up too soon.

If you give it your best shot and the dog is still making bad choices, then know that you are not to blame.  Whatever this dog went through in his last three homes was just too major for you to overcome.  If you get to that point, do the responsible thing...please don't pass this dog off on someone else. I feel for this family as they have a tough road ahead with this dog.

My personal opinion is that this dog has not been mistreated by anyone, he was born with this problem.  No it is not "typical" of the breed, but  unprovoked attacks like this are NOT at all unheard of and have plagued the  breed for at least as long as I have been involved.  Males over the age of 2 are the culprits in most cases, though I have known at least one female that exhibited this behavior. They can be either neutered or intact, it makes no difference.

The problem usually seen with Lhasas is an unwillingness to take orders from someone else, like biting when they are groomed, etc.  Unprovoked attacks are something else altogether!  This behavior has been characterized by some as a sort of seizure disorder where the dog even seems disoriented after the attack and does seem to feel remorse for their actions, though they are unable to control the attack itself.  Some others would call it rage syndrome or canine schizophrenia.  Whatever you call it, training is difficult or impossible as there is no way to predict what will trigger the episodes.

The dog should be checked thoroughly by a vet and a dog behavorist consulted, but these people will have to be totally committed to this.  I wish them luck.

I agree that dominance aggression is an issue in Lhasas but it is by no means unique to our breed.

I think most of the "unprovoked attacks" that we hear about actually do have a triggering mechanism; it may just be something that the owner doesn't recognize as an issue or a problem.  That is why a veterinary behavior specialist can be so helpful...part of their expertise is in discerning the human behavior that the dog is perceiving as provocative.  The specialist can also differentiate between dominance aggression, behavioral seizures, and the extremely rare condition called "rage syndrome."  Dodman warns that a dog can have both dominance aggression and seizures, thus muddying the diagnostic waters.

In this particular case, the woman was holding and moving the blanket and the dog was reacting with aggression to her interference with his object, i.e. his aggression was a form of communication: Don't touch MY blanket. That is why it would be a good thing if the blanket, bed and other objects that the dog is becoming possessive of were all to disappear for a while. You do not conquer dominance aggression through confrontation but rather by asserting leadership over the dog in other ways (going through doors first, teaching the dog to sit, down, stay on command, no demand feeding, no rewards for poor behavior, etc., etc.)  Dodman states "dominant dogs resist discipline and usually become more aggressive when admonished."  Here's what Joubert says, "In better than ninety percent of all the clients I've ever worked with, aggressive or not, there was a major failing in the owner's role as alpha.  In most cases the training is centered on fixing that relationship.  Once we give the dog a different perspective, it is amazing how many problems that are seemingly unrelated can just melt away."

The "remorse" that some dogs seem to exhibit after an aggressive incident may actually be learned behavior in order to avoid retaliation.  The snapping moves the person away from an object and then assuming an attitude of cowering prevents a counter attack.  The dog learns that he wins the object by the threat of force and if he shows remorse then he doesn't have to fight to keep it.

The behavior I am referring to is NOT dominance aggression.  I have seen a number of these dogs over the years and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the attacks.  They go from sweet and affectionate one minute to raging aggression the next.  One thing I noticed with a couple of the dogs was that it occurred as the person was drawing away from the dog, so perhaps with some it is a twisted predator/prey mechanism?  Who knows.  But it is not a really a dominance issue as there is not usually a challenge to the dog, as seen in cases of dominance aggression.  As you said though, some dogs can actually have more than one problem at a time which makes it more difficult to diagnose and deal with. Dominace agression is common enough that it could easily overlap this other thing, whatever it is.  There was an article in the Gazette a few years ago that discussed the problem, with documentation that it truly is a brain diorder (Lissencephaly?).

Jenny  had a dog like this years ago and wrote a series of articles about the experience.  They worked with the dog and achieved some sort of balance with him through medication and behavior modification.  It is not a route I would take if I had to deal with it...there are too many dogs with good temperaments out there needing homes.  Dogs with this problem are ill with something that is not all that treatable, at least not to the degree that they are ever safe to live with or expose the general public to.

A few discussion points based on Nick Dodman's book:

Dodman discusses veterinary causes for inappropriate aggressive behavior. He suggests it could be a partial or behavioral seizure:  "A few basic rules apply to the diagnosis of behavioral seizures, though none is absolute. First, it is important to be on the lookout for so-called pre-ictal (preseizural) mood changes that herald the seizures.  These can vary from slight "spaciness" and staring at walls or spots on the floor to growling  and seclusion.  Next, the behavior that erupts during this state of altered mood is often excessive, inappropriate, and out of context and may be accompanied by signs of "autonomic" arousal, such as dilation of the pupils and salivation.  Finally, following a seizural bout, whatever form that takes, some dogs show postictal signs such as tiredness, detachedness, and lack of response to behavioral cues...The main features that lead to a clinician to diagnose these behaviors is their weirdness and impropriety. Confirmation of the clinical diagnosis is by EEG (although) EEG is not always definitive."

Dodman states he has seen dogs with classic signs of rage syndrome plus EEG signs of seizure activity...he sees this extreme (and rare) condition as a  coupling of behavioral seizures with a sort of compulsive aggression.

Other neurological conditions that can produce inappropriate aggression include head trauma, infectious diseases (rabies, distemper, toxoplasmosis), and brain tumors.

Congenital problems that he mentions include hydrocephalus and lissencephaly.  Lissencephaly "is a really strange developmental problem that occurs mainly in Lhasa apsos.  In this condition, which manifests itself as mental retardation and incontinence, the normal corrugations of the cerebral cortex are practically absent...Trying to train a dog with this problem is pointless."

Metabolic problems that Dodman mentions as causes for behavior changes that  may or may not include aggression include kidney disease and liver problems with "liver disorders the most notable in this respect."

Finally, Dodman describes behavior changes that can occur with hypothyroidism:  "The other new finding is that suboptimal thyroid hormone levels do not necessarily produce sluggishness and lethargy, like the classical hypothyroidism, but may produce a paradoxical response of increasing a dog's anxiety level.  This may lead to a multitude of behavioral sequelae, including increased aggression, inexplicable fearfulness, and even some complusive behaviors."

You mentioned that in a couple of the dogs the behavior occurred as the person was drawing away from the dog, so perhaps with some it is a twisted predator/prey mechanism, and that it is not a really a dominance issue as there is not usually a challenge to the dog, as seen in cases of dominance aggression.

Actually, I disagree with you on this.  I think this behavior IS dominance (protecting one's territory or space) aggression.  It is a sort of sneaky "passive aggressive" variation but still a form of dominance since it is all about the dog getting it's own way.  The dog initially tolerates the person (like they do puppies) but once the person draws away, the dog uses aggression to reassert it's space, usually a circle of about 12 to 18 inches around the dog.  One of the ways to diagnose dominance aggression is that the episodes are short and to the point and then the dog reverts to it's former self with or without showing remorse.

Here's how Dodman describes it:  "Dominance aggression is sudden and, to owners, often seems unprovoked.  The enigmatic nature of this form of aggression and the sheer speed of the dog's reaction make for an intimidating response.  The dog delivers its assault at whatever level it considers appropriate (growl, snap, or bite) and the whole affair is over almost as soon as it begins.  Following an attack, dominant dogs are often contrite, remorseful, or seemingly unaware of what has occurred.  But they'll do it again later if incited the same way."

Just one observation on this comment...  I believe Ron was originally saying that his wife was fluffing his new bed.  To me, his aggressive "chasing her away" in a sense is no different than what I would expect him to do if another dog tried to move into his bed area, which he had already claimed.

Dogs do NOT understand buying them nice things and fluffing their beds, even though their bodies may be comfortably cuddled in such a bed.  If you watch a pack of wolves or dogs, they have their dominance hierarchy, and this becomes immediately obvious when watching for a few minutes.  I see this particular event as no different than a dog's behavior in a pack.  He has claimed his resting area and another moves in and makes a lot of hand and body movements in his sleeping area.  He chases that other away with snapping and goes back to his comfortable position, not understanding a single thing about the intentions or the fluffing.

I think one of the keys to being a great dog owner is thinking like a dog.   We can't anthropomorphize and we can't make assumptions based on human feelings.  I myself had two very alpha males in my life and they respected me.  One of them would growl and make horrible noises whenever I moved him from his sleeping spot; his quirks were totally limited to his "sleeping spot" du jour.

Sleeping areas and food/treats are major areas of danger with a dog going in this direction.  I don't know what age Ron's children are, but it is imperative to not fool around with the dog (hands/faces near his) when he has a treat or is eating in general.  One reason of course is the obvious one, but the other is that even if he doesn't bite or snap, I think any kind of agitation during such a time has a cumulative effect and can eventually lead a dog to becoming more protective of his food.

The key for Ron and his family is to become strong leaders of this dog. Lhasas are comfortable with strong leadership, and if there is none, they will take the position.  You have to feel it from within, that you are in charge, or he will know...  Physical punishment of any type is counterproductive with Lhasas; they respond much better to lots of praise and rewards for correct behavior.

From my limited "pet" ownership experience, it seems that different Lhasas have a characteristic way of showing their displeasure that stays somewhat consistent throughout the life of the dog.  For example, Ron's dog may be one to get acutely agitated and snap numerous times, while another one may warn with a loud growl and then slowly escalate. Some back down very quickly, while other persist with aggression.

Do others find such consistent patterns in a particular dog?  Part of a consistent personality...

I used to have a Lhasa who was very aggressive to strangers, hated children, etc.  However, he was incredibly loyal and bonded to me, and he would allow me to do anything to him, including once pulling a foxtail out from under his eyelid (imagine any dog holding still for that!).  As much as he would attempt to "eat" any child alive, when we had our first infant, he could be completely trusted to sleep with his body against the baby's in a short time.

Lhasas are such characters, and so different from one another.  They let you know what they want and what they don't like, and that is exactly the way I like it.  I just wouldn't want a dog that was nondiscerning.

I firmly believe that it takes many months for a Lhasa to first bond with and become accustomed to a new home.  Good relationships aren't built overnight, not with humans and not with dogs either.

Yes Ingrid, I have more dominant dogs and less dominant dogs and their personalities remain constant.  But this isn't something unique to Lhasas, this is true for all breeds.   Watching my pack interact with each other, I know which ones are the undisputed leaders, which ones are number two and trying harder, and which ones are happy at the bottom of the heap.   All of my dogs have communicated with each other at one time or another via behaviors that we humans term aggressive:  growling, snapping, biting.

Aggression is a way for canines to communicate but it should not be permissible behavior in front of a human pack leader.  The way I have asserted my leadership over my dogs is that I do not allow ANY growling for ANY reason.   By discouraging growling, I prevent most fights.   In fact, if I see two dogs "eyeing" each other, they receive a command to "Leave It."

Today, however, I had a fight break out between the No. 1 male, Radar, and the No. 2 female, Mabel.   I'm not sure what precipitated it because they were both under my chair and I was talking to my cleaning lady when it started.  I pulled them apart and verbally chastised them while holding them apart.  When I felt them relax and look away from each other and from me, I let them go.  If they had persisted, they would have been sent to bed. Mabel is a pushy girl but she hates being separated from the group.  As the No. 1 dog, Radar doesn't like to be embarrassed by being disciplined by me.

If I didn't know anything about dogs, I would have found this episode quite alarming.  It looked and sounded like they were trying to kill each other and from my vantage point it seemed to start for no reason.  However, I know these dogs well enough to know that something I didn't see or didn't understand set them off.  It could have been as subtle as my moving my feet in a way that Mabel interpreted to mean that it was okay to go after Radar...or vice versa.   It could be that I've been away from home a fair amount the past couple weeks so they "forgot" what the rules were.  It could be that my No. 3 female, Princess Pujah, is coming into season and Mabel thinks Radar has been paying too much attention to her.  (Radar is neutered but doesn't know it.)  Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the cause is because I'm the boss and my growling, no fighting...must be obeyed, period.

The richness and complexity of pack interaction has been one of the joys of owning multiple Lhasas.  They probably are more primitive than many other breeds but their behavior is not outside of normal.  Hounds, for instance, have been selected for centuries to be able to get along together in large groups.  While Mabel would probably not make it as a Beagle, her behavior in a wolf pack would not be unusual.

I guess one has to experience these attacks firsthand to understand how very vicious and unprovoked they are.  Thank goodness these instances are fairly rare!  After nearly 30 years of working with dogs I believe I can read them as well as anyone can, and with these dogs there is NO warning or provocation.  Pet owners quite frequently can miss the typical warning signs of an impending bite, but that is not the case with me.  I have been bitten twice in my career, both times by dogs suffering from this illness" ....

Tasha was one who managed to get me (in the early days), and the other dog was one that was brought to me for training/evaluation because he had been biting his family.  I put this dog through an hour of basic obedience, using firm corrections to see how the dog would react.  The dog did everything perfectly and very good naturedly, I could not provoke him during that whole lesson no matter how hard I pushed.  It was only afterward, while I was standing there talking with the owner, that the dog lunged for and latched onto my hand and just hung there biting me.  As soon as I dislodged him from my hand and he got his feet on the ground he immediately lunged for my throat and face!

I recommended euthanizing the dog and they could not bring themselves to do it at first...they only had him put down after he attacked their young son, who required stitches in his buttocks and thighs.  This boy was WALKING across the room AWAY FROM THE DOG (it was early morning and he was leaving to meet the school bus), and the dog ran to attack him from the rear.  He had had no physical contact with the dog, he was not in his "space", there was no eye contact, there was absolutely nothing that could be construed as "provocation".

Can't find the gazette article right now but will look for it when I can...