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When 'Dog Whisperer' can't help

Not even Cesar Millan's 'idiot-simple' method could ease Cotton's biting problem. At wit's end, his family turns to the controversial procedure 'canine disarming.'

July 25, 2009|Diane R. Krieger

"The Kriegers have not been able to successfully implement Cesar's technique."

There it is in black and white for all to see, on page 299 of the Dog Whisperer's "Ultimate Episode Guide." The sad truth. Our episode (titled "Raw Cotton") first aired more than two years ago. To this day, whenever I see a rerun, I cringe at the closing scene: me, boasting about Cesar Millan's method being "idiot simple."

Apparently, not simple enough for this idiot.

Cotton -- our beloved, 6-year-old American Eskimo -- is still a biter. I suppose he will always be a biter. And, as my lawyer husband keeps reminding me, "a lawsuit waiting to happen." Not that his bites are so powerful: I once had a cat who left comparable fang marks. But the cat didn't lunge at visitors.

How had the 35-pound, bouncing ball of fluff that is our family pet become a public menace? It sure wasn't through apathy on my part. I had tried everything. Puppy classes and basic-training at the neighborhood PetSmart. A library of self-help books and videos. Even a pricey dog-aggression expert whose Israeli accent made me want to stand at attention. He ordered counter-conditioning and desensitization drills, supplemented by a low-protein diet and a doggie herbal remedy akin to St. John's Wort.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 28, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Dog disarming: In Saturday's Home section, an article about dogs that bite said Dr. Gail Golab led the American Veterinary Medical Assn. She is director of its animal welfare division.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 01, 2009 Home Edition Home Part E Page 4 Features Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Dog disarming: Dr. Gail Golab was incorrectly identified as the head of the American Veterinary Medical Assn. in an article in last Saturday's Home section about the technique of disarming dogs that bite. She is the director of the association's animal welfare division.

Nothing worked.

I tried clicker training, high-pitched electronic tones, pepper spray, throwing soda cans filled with rocks. I considered an electric shock collar but worried that in the hands of an amateur (that would be me, the aforementioned idiot) it might do more harm than good.

Finally, I appealed to the fabled Dog Whisperer.

Cesar's efforts were a brilliant success -- until he left our house. For one day, Cotton was the dog I'd always dreamed he could be. Calm and submissive, deferring to the pack leader. Unfortunately, the pack leader was Cesar.

Reluctantly, I looked into shipping Cotton to a dog rescue -- but didn't find one that would take a dog with a history of biting. No chance of ever placing him with a new owner, they explained. Unacceptable liability. Months later, I had a follow-up visit with Cesar at his Dog Psychology Center in South L.A. Surrounded by his spectacularly submissive pack, he accepted my lack of leadership skill and suggested I try a full-time muzzle. I had already tried that and concluded the restraint has yet to be invented that Cotton couldn't wriggle out of.

I considered defanging him, but couldn't find a vet in the area who would do it. Turns out the practice is both unsafe and impractical. To extract a dog's mighty canines would likely lead to a fractured jaw. Even if it didn't, with the canines out of the way, the pointy incisors would be primed to fill the gap.

The only other option seemed to be a lethal injection.

Procrastinating about that difficult decision, I told myself I could avoid future incidents through eternal vigilance. Cotton is protective and territorial: He reserves his animosity for strangers (especially men) who venture up our long, steep driveway. Living on an acre in rustic Rolling Hills Estates, fronted by a country road without sidewalks, with Cotton hemmed in by an invisible fence and crated in the garage whenever company is expected, we should have been able to keep trouble at bay. But trouble kept showing up unexpectedly. There was the time the sheriff's deputy drove up to alert us to a nearby brush fire: For his thoughtfulness, he received torn pants and teeth marks in his shin. Or the time a furniture delivery guy arrived early: He escaped Cotton's toothy embrace only by leaping on the hood of his van. Heck, Cotton even slipped his leash and bit the Times photographer who came to take his picture for this article.

But by then, I had a new plan.

One day while channel surfing, I happened upon an Animal Planet special counting down the world's top 10 "extreme biters." The domesticated dog came in at No. 4. (Hippos and Komodo dragons took the No. 3 and No. 2 spots, with the cookie-cutter shark the undisputed champion.) There, to my delight, was Dr. David Nielsen, a veterinary dentist based in Manhattan Beach, talking about a miracle fix: "canine disarming."

Instead of extracting the four canines, Nielsen cuts away 4 millimeters of tooth using a CO2 laser. He acid-etches the live pulp within, fashions a bell-shaped cavity that he packs with two kinds of human-grade composite, and light-cures the top for a smooth, flat finish. He also blunts the extra set of pointy incisors.

Disarming isn't a new idea, but Nielsen's technique is one he pioneered, though he shares credit with his now-departed pet whippet. The small greyhound had "played Frisbee so much and chewed so hard trying to get out of cages" that he'd busted off all four canines right above the 4-millimeter level, Nielsen says. One day the whippet cornered a technician in Nielsen's office and flew at her face. Instead of tearing flesh, he merely pinched her cheek. The blunted canines blocked even the incisors from their shearing action.

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