Another puzzle insofar as it’s impossible to work out just why miniature English Bull Terrier Vinnie’s behaviour changed so drastically three years ago. A couple of things may have contributed to it. They moved house to somewhere a bit more busy, and Vinnie, now four, was reaching sexual maturity. He’s not been castrated. I do find that some dogs who had previously been relaxed with other dogs and with people may change in adolescence or upon reaching maturity.
Vinnie barks and growls aggressively at people he doesn’t know coming into the house. When I walked in he sounded quite scary. He has not yet bitten anyone and his owners didn’t describe the noise as fierce and warning, but as barking ‘in an excited, naughty way’. It didn’t sound like that to me. He also barks at people and some dogs when walking near home on their usual walking routes, but another part of his mystery is that at the lady’s mother’s house he doesn’t bark at people at all. Nor does he on holiday. Neither does he bark or stress when in the car and people and dogs pass by.
When he goes out for walks Vinnie drags his heels. He ‘will only walk one particular route’. He is reluctant to move – worse for the young lady although at home he follows her about. The gentleman puts pressure on him if he dawdles. Then, at a certain distance from the house Vinnie perks up and starts to take an interest in the walk, only to revert to his noisy barking and growling behaviour at people when on the way back and in sight of home.
More and more puzzling. If either the lady or gentleman takes him out alone, he doesn’t bark much although he still shows reluctance. When they walk him together he growls and barks at people he sees.
My best guess is that it’s to do with being protective and territorial. He shows none of the usual body language signs associated with fear or anxiety, and is very easily distracted with food. Really scared dogs or really angry dogs are unlikely to eat.
Whatever the reasons, our plan is based around the principal that reinforcement drives behaviour, and that dogs don’t do something for no reason at all. We can try to look at what is actually happening rather putting interpretations on it. Just the specifics. We look at what result, in his mind, he gets out of the behaviours. That is what needs to be changed, and alternative incompatible behaviours put in their place.
People often don’t realise that they are unintentionally giving their dogs most attention for doing unwanted behaviours in the form of commands and scolding, rather than encouragement and reward for desired behaviours.
PS. I spoke to colleague, behaviour trainer, author and close friend of mine Lisa Tenzin-Dolma about this puzzling case and she feels that it’s the house itself needing to be examined. They could look into its history. Could it perhaps have been built on landfill? Would the radon levels be worth checking? The couple are going to do some research. One must bear in mind that a dog’s senses are many times more acute than our own. One other strange thing came to light. A previous owner some years ago had been stabbed to death across the road. Believing in the psychic may be a step too far for some, but who knows.