Tara is onto her fourth home now. Looking at her history she had little or no socialising for the first year of her life. Her new owners didn’t realise she was going to be so reactive to people – and to other dogs. Nobody had told them.
Like so often happens unfortunately, new owners don’t get what they had bargained for. In this case the rehoming organisation had taken the previous people’s word for it and passed her over on the same day. They had done no assessment of Tara themselves. The couple had specifically requested a dog that gets on with people and other dogs so they could make her part of their lives for the next ten years perhaps. Instead, when their first visitor called, Tara horrified and shocked them by suddenly morphing into a wild dervish, barking and lunging. She is just the same with people she meets out on walks.
Then they called in a trainer and OH DEAR! The dog, already highly aroused by the man’s presence, was treated to metal discs being crashed on the floor in front of her in an effort to intimidate her and make her submit, and then the horrific sound of a compressed air from a can, something sometimes used to break up fights. It sent poor Tara into even more of frenzy and I would say it’s very fortunate the man wasn’t badly bitten.
Fortunately the couple weren’t having any more of this with the dog they were growing to love. They have had her for several weeks now and have made great progress at home – so long as it is just themselves, but are now at their wits’ end and wondering what to do.
I don’t usually go into as much detail as I have here. The reason is that the strategies are fashioned around a particular dog’s problems and their causes. This method won’t apply to every dog that barks at people. If you have a dog like this, it is very important to get professional help so the strategies are appropriate to your specific dog’s needs and problems.
When I arrived Tara was barking and lunging, straining on her lead, tightly held by the gentleman. The lead was attached to a collar which would have added pain to the situation (dogs necks aren’t much different to our own). I could see that the restraint was making her worse, and with no known history of actual biting I suggested he dropped the lead wherupon, as I expected, she charged at me. I stood still, sideways to her, explaining to the couple the calming signals I was using – slow blinking, looking away, relaxed posture, breathing slowly – and we carried on talking over the noise for a while. I pointed out that their own posture should be relaxed also (not easy!).
I then asked them what they would usually do. They had developed a strategy for when people did visit of training an incompatible behaviour by getting her to lie down and put her chin to the floor, which was good but only lasted a couple of seconds before she was up and barking again. Lying down did nothing to change her inner emotions and fears.
We experimented. We worked on removing her from what she was finding a scary situation immediately the barking started, whilst at the same time associating my presence with good stuff, using a clicker.
They put a harness on her to avoid any unpleasant association with pain in the neck and myself. I sat down at the table to make things as easy as possible for her and asked the man to take her just out of sight until she stopped barking. Then he’s to bring her back, being ready turn around again the very moment she began to bark. This wasn’t so that her barking was being reinforced by getting rid of me because I was going nowhere. The man was helping her out by removing her from the situation.
Now, as soon as she was quiet he brought her back so she could see me. Timing is extremely important. As soon as she looked to me without barking, he clicked and fed her chicken. This went on for a while until I could walk around the room and she was relaxed – click/chicken. Next we experimented with my going to the front door area and appearing again – upping the anti. Next I opened the front door and shut it again before coming into her presence.
This method needs to be used when they are out also, being careful to keep within her threshold and work on the ‘advance/retreat’ and clicker whenever she’s quietly watching someone, doing their best not to go any nearer to people than she can cope with. They have a big job to build up her trust in them and undo past history.
They need to practise it with each other, going out, knocking on the door, coming in etc. and then with anyone they can get to visit – starting with people Tara has met before. It can be done with the neighbour whose presence looking over the fence sends her into a panic. It can be done with the chickens in the garden. As they turn, they can add ‘Let’s Go’ in preparation for encountering unexpected people or dogs outside. It’s just as much teaching the owners as teaching the dog. Good timing is essential.
Many dogs hate the sound of people banging on the front door which is understandable. I suggested a cheap wireless doorbell. Before putting it up outside the door they could repeatedly ring it indoors and for several days associate the sound of it with food or games. When the bell is put up outside the door, they should continue to ring it for no reason at all. In this way when people come Bella won’t be fired up so early in the process.
One other point is that their sort of walks are probably not helping her to keep calm. They are overstimulating in terms of play and scary encounters. It’s a big ask to get people to avoid close encounters for as long as it takes, but there is no other choice and where there’s a will – there’s a way.
You can’t exhaust a dog out of being fearful.