Dogs with Issues, Flannery Oconnor, fosterdogs, fostering, hard to adopt, returned dogs, training

A Dog’s Eye View

Flannery is such an interesting dog.

The puppies are cute and Hula Hoop is a sweetheart, but Flannery is complicated and funny and just so not-your-average-dog. I adore her. Even though she is nothing like any dog I’ve ever wanted.

She’s little. Only 30 pounds.

photo: Nancy Slattery

She’s a busy-body – always in the middle of whatever is happening and worming her way onto the couch or dog bed, even if there is clearly no room for her.


She is the first dog up at the slightest noise. And weirdly, if I stare at her while she’s sleeping (or hold a camera up to take a picture), she will wake up and stare back—it’s like she senses me.


Flannery is a clever, clever, clever, but not necessarily an obedient dog, unless it works in her best interest (there’s a treat to be had, a door she wants opened, a dinner served). I admire this in her – she’s scrappy. She can definitely take care of herself.

photo by Nancy Slattery

Flannery is a love. She is always ready with a smile and a wag and makes certain I go nowhere alone in the house, whether that be to the bathroom or the basement (she’s one of only 3 dogs who has ever ventured down into our ‘cellar’ – Frankie and Gracie refuse to go down there – what do they know?).

But Flannery is also complicated, a conundrum. She earned her bite addendum.

photo by Nancy Slattery

It’s not that she would ever attack someone. In fact, lately, I’ve told visitors to not touch her. This works fine; they ignore her friendly greeting (mostly) and she doesn’t bite anyone.

The nipping that I’ve witnessed has happened while she is enthusiastically greeting someone (almost always women) and they’ve reached down to pet her head. She hasn’t truly hurt anyone, so I assume the nipping is a warning. It’s a ‘don’t touch my head’ message. Which is weird because I can scratch her head all day long; I can pull her ears and hold her nose and rub her chin and….nothing. Just a nudge for more.

So, I don’t know what the initial nips are about. When we fostered her previously, I only saw that kind of nipping when she was tired and someone vigorously rubbed her belly. It seemed to be a signal that she’d had enough. It wasn’t mean, but it was clear what she meant.

As I said, the dog is smart. Apparently, she is happy to have you rub her belly, but only for so long and then she tells you to stop in the one way that has worked for her. I’m guessing it’s the same with patting her head. Until she really knows you, she would rather you didn’t pat her head. The training books I’ve read say that dogs don’t really like to have their heads patted. It’s a sign of dominance. They’d much prefer, you pet their sides.

So maybe, it’s not that Flannery is a biter, it’s that she’s just an effective communicator. Like I’ve said to many visitors who worry when they see my alpha mare, Cocoa wave a hoof at another horse—“If she wanted to kick the other horse, she would have. She’s just sending a message.”


If Flannery wanted to really bite anyone whose hand she’s nibbled, she would have. Because this little dog knows how to speak for herself. Most bites are simply that—messages. Of frustration, fear, defense, but I don’t believe actual aggression.

Flannery needs people to respect her boundaries and apparently one of those boundaries is not patting her head if you’ve not been approved. Last week and this week, I’ve participated in the K9&Kds program. It’s a free educational program for kids that OPH volunteers present at libraries, camps, schools, scout troops, or pretty much anywhere there are gatherings of children. We teach kids how to safely interact with dogs, read a story, make a dog toy, and practice petting live dogs.

I’ve learned a lot, being a part of K9&Kds. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t look a dog in the eye and that they are less frightened if you turn your side to them, rather than face them head on. I’ve learned that baseball hats, glasses, and hoodies can be scary to dogs. I’ve been around dogs all my life and hadn’t realized any of that.

Many of the dogs who are turned in to shelters (or returned to rescues) are abandoned because they have bitten someone. Living with Flannery makes me wonder if the bite that earned her a return had more to do with miscommunication than aggression. Dogs are not people, so we don’t naturally know how to communicate with them. We have to learn.

photo by Nancy Slattery

My daughter just returned from a trip to Hong Kong and Myanmar. She had to figure out the customs and unspoken rules of both (very different) cultures. Some of the things she saw were confusing and strange and the people didn’t always act the way she was accustomed to.

For instance, in the crowded streets and airports, pushing and shoving is normal. If she had reacted by punching someone or screaming at the top of her lungs, there would be cause to call the police. And the police would have no idea why she screamed or punched a person.

Consider the same scenario, only Flannery is Addie, thrust into a new culture where she doesn’t speak the language or understand the expectations. So when she is shoved, instead of ignoring it because she knows it doesn’t mean anything threatening, she protects herself, she bites. The police (OPH) are called and she is removed from the home, but no one knows why she bit. They are not dogs, so they can only guess.

Maybe this is more common than not, especially when a dog is introduced to a busy home after a life on the streets or in a shelter. They don’t understand us, so we need to be very careful and deliberate and take the time to learn their language and show them our expectations for their behavior in this new world.

Just a thought.

Like I said, I love my Flannery girl. Like any good dog, she is teaching me a lot!

Photo: Nancy Slattery

Thanks for reading!

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Released August 2018 from Pegasus Books and available now

Another Good Dog cover



11 thoughts on “A Dog’s Eye View”

  1. This is a great post. Dogs DO try to communicate with us and they ARE all different. Flannery is probably writing a dog blog right now on the same subject about you. 😉

    My mom’s family always had border collie kind of dogs and half of them were named “Nipper.” That says a lot about their behavior and job (chasing cows, turkeys and sheep).

    Bear has NO boundaries and many more ways of “talking” to people than any dog I’ve owned (or, in her case, been owned by). If I look her in the eye and curl my lip, she knows she’s in trouble but if SHE curls her lip and shows her teeth, she’s usually being submissive and happy to see you. My husky, Cody, bit me once and I think he spent the rest of his life making up for it. Dusty has never moved to nip or bite anyone, but he sounds like he’s saying, “Don’t make me bite you.” You and Flannery should co-write a dictionary.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My two guys don’t like eye to eye contact straight on either. It makes them nervous and if a stranger were to attempt an eye to eye contact they would definitely get a warning growl and possibly a nip and neither one of my dogs are biters. I have witnessed the fearful look first hand when my daughter, recently home from a college break, met my new dog for the first time. She was being playful but she was in his face and he nipped in the air at her. It got my attention too and it scared me. I told her, “don’t get in his face” he doesn’t know you and its threatening. Unfortunately, I have observed little kids who are only being “little kids” get in dogs faces and talk to them. I believe this may increase a child’s chance of getting bit. I know I am always fearful when a child wants to pet my dog because I have only had him since September. I always have them hold out their hand first to let him sniff. My other dog is terribly afraid of children and although he will let them pet him, he is terrified and I try not to put him in this situation. Again he is also a rescue but he’s now 10 years old and still terrified. It might be beneficial for shelters to go over some dog tips when people adopt a dog, especially this information shared in your blog. It could save a dog from a return to the shelter or foster. We don’t know the trauma of a shelter dog and even a dog who grew up in a secure environment would react the same way if they felt threatened.


    1. It is amazing how just some simple information can make all the difference. We wouldn’t try to pet a Tiger without some serious instructions and the help of a trainer, because we know they are dangerous, but dogs are animals too and deserve the respect of a knowledgable interaction. Many, many times all it takes is a few safe interactions and then a dog will let down its guard and trust you. Instead, we often force ourselves on them.

      And the kids putting their faces in dogs’ faces makes me crazy – it’s why so many kids get bitten in the face. It’s not that the dog jumped up and bit their face, it’s that they invaded the dog’s space by putting their face in his. I know it makes a great picture – but it’s not safe with a dog you don’t know and sometimes even with one you know. Simple rule is to let the dog approach you instead of the other way around.


  3. I have two pups and they are TOTALLY DIFFERENT and communicate in TOTALLY DIFFERENT ways… It’s so crazy but so amazing. Benny is our lover but he is also Mom’s protector! – he’s so sweet though! And Cash is our wild man but he’s turning into sort of a lover as well – but they mesh together so well it’s adorable!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I have a mom’s protector too, in Frankie. He trusts other dogs around me, but not always other people. We’re working on it- I make sure to give anyone who meets him a treat for Frankie. Slowly, he’s figuring out that instead of a threat, people are potential sources of treats!

      I find it fascinating how there are so many personalities and every dog is different. I think until you live with several, you don’t understand that. Benny and Cash are lucky to have you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My foster dog, Carter, is just like Flannery. He has a clear boundary – don’t touch my head until I know you, especially on the side where I don’t have an eye. He doesn’t growl, either. He just becomes super still. I took me a minute to learn his cue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s amazing to me that I could be as old as I am and not have connected all this! I’m hopeful when potential adopters inquire about Flannery, I can explain it well and that will give her the chance she deserves to find her forever home. Thank you for fostering!


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