A few years ago, I left my desk to grab a cup of coffee. When I returned, I had a missed phone call and two texts from an unknown number that I found out belonged to a good friend’s wife. She was frantic because their golden retriever had suddenly bitten one of their young sons and my buddy was getting ready to march the dog outside and shoot it.
It was ugly, all around. While my friend ended up taking the dog in to have it put down, his son was healing from stitches in his face in multiple spots. The best guess was that the dog, a lifelong bird hunter, was sleeping and the boy surprised it or jumped on it. The reaction was primal, and it resulted in a bad situation that could have been worse given the proximity of the teeth marks to the boy’s eye.
Occasionally, good dogs do go bad but there is always a reason. In this case, it might have simply been fear in the moment she was surprised, likely exasperated by her growing deafness as she aged. Fear can certainly prompt a docile dog to aggression, but so can possessiveness, frustration and even illness.
When it comes to duck dogs, the most common reason for their attitude breaking bad is often an injury, the kind that you might not know even exists.
Everything from arthritis to bone fractures can cause a dog pain that you might not immediately recognize. According to Ira McCauley, a veterinarian and waterfowler, it might also be something like a cracked or broken tooth, or periodontal disease. “Labs are chewers, and if they get working on a deer antler or other bone, they can easily break a tooth. Since they are way tougher than we are, they might not show the physical signs of pain nearly as much as we’d expect. But anyone who has had a broken filling or some other tooth issues knows how painful it can be. The same goes for your dog and if he’s suddenly changed his mood, you should be checking his teeth.”
This is good advice for all dog owners, not only to look for broken teeth but also signs of periodontal disease, which can lead to liver, kidney or heart disease, and is very common in some genetic lines.
Tooth issues leading to a mood change or ramping up aggressiveness in an uncommon way is easy enough to look for and address. This goes for some other common maladies, like toenail and pad injuries, and obvious problems that affect mobility. In these cases, you won’t need a professional to diagnose something is wrong, only to fix it (most likely).
Worse to deal with are the internal issues that might not be so obvious but could put your dog’s temper on a hair-trigger setting.
When a dog feels bad enough to show it, you know it’s time to get to the veterinarian. Before that, they might not exhibit any outward symptoms but are still "off." This is where we share a responsibility as owners to pay close attention to behavior. If your retrieve-until-he-tips-over Lab doesn’t show any interest in running after a dummy, take note. Is it a one-off, bad-day type of deal or something that lasts more than one session?
If it’s the latter, something is probably wrong and it’s time to seek some help. If your dog bares its teeth or growls in a situation that you would never expect it, that’s also time to consider professional help. If your Chessie raises his hackles at a strange dog, that can probably be written off as normal canine behavior, but if that same dog does it to your child or you after five years of showing zero aggression, then something is wrong.
Any aggression where it shouldn’t be is a red flag and writing it off as a random occurrence is probably not a good idea. If your dog is testy because of pain or illness, the issue will not likely resolve on its own and the sooner you can get him checked out, the sooner you’ll be able to get him on the right path.