DEAR DR. FOX: I adopted Murphy at 3 months old from a local rescue group that takes in dogs from a high-kill center in the South. My biracial son worked on a cruise ship that docked in our state, and I took Murphy every other weekend to spend time with my son so they'd be familiar when my son came home for the three months between contracts.
During my son's stay, he and Murphy would play outside, and the dog would try to "herd" him, nipping at his heels and enjoying himself. Once they came inside, the dog acted as if he'd never seen my son before. Every time Murphy came inside and my son emerged from the back room, the dog acted like he was an intruder, barking loudly. He was visibly distressed and would run, trembling, into his crate for comfort. He was never aggressive, and he would comply with my command to "go see" my son; once my son stood up, Murphy would bark again. Nothing we did could change this.
Two years ago, my son returned home for four or five months with his girlfriend. During that time, both Murphy and my 13-year-old mixed-breed dog refused to go outside to relieve themselves until I returned from work. They sat on a daybed looking out the windows and waited for my return. This has continued despite the fact that my son has spent the entire year at home recuperating from surgery. Murphy is more relaxed with white men and women and black women. We're assuming he may have been mistreated by a black male in the past. -- S.S., Toms River, New Jersey
DEAR S.S: You do have a problem!
Several years ago, I was a consultant for the U.S. Postal Service in St. Louis, and we developed a brochure to instruct mail deliverers how to avoid being threatened and attacked by dogs. Many postal service employees were of color, and they were advised never to stare into a dog's eyes because their eyes were more threatening to a dog because the contrast of dark skin color made the whites of their eyes more intense. They were also advised to move slowly and talk to the dogs on their rounds in a calm and friendly voice and offer treats rather than relying solely on a repellent spray.
Your son should ignore your dog insofar as avoiding eye contact, and he should move slowly and deliberately in the room. Sitting down on the floor near the dog, taking him for walks, grooming him and feeding him are all socializing, fear-reducing steps to take. Everyone in the home, including the dog, should wear a bandanna around the neck for a couple of weeks with some drops of essential oil of lavender put on twice daily. This may help calm the dog and facilitate bonding. Above all, your son should not force contact with the dog but ideally spend several nights sleeping next to the dog, who can stay in his open crate.
HALLOWEEN ANIMAL CONCERNS
I wish every community a happy Halloween -- the hallowed eve of Oct. 31 before All Saints' Day, which has become a costume and candy bonanza, with children of all ages going from house to house trick-or-treating, unaware of the pagan roots of this night. Halloween's origin can be found in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain conducted by Druid priests. The Celts celebrated their new year on Nov. 1; the day marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, the end of light and the beginning of darkness. Animals were sacrificed to Celtic deities.
During Halloween, be sure to keep your animals safe -- they may get out when you open the door when children come by and spook at the sight of their costumes and sugar-fired brains. Keep dogs away from harmful and potentially fatal chocolate, raisins and xylitol sweetener-laced candies. Apples, dried fruits and nuts would be preferable for the trick-or-treaters anyway.
(Send all mail to email@example.com or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox's website at DrFoxVet.net.)