The work with young Chocolate Labrador Chester is a little different to most others I work with. Although he sleeps in the house at night, the rest of his life is in and around a farm, with a large working barn and an office the far end. His lady owner works in the office. This gives ‘home visit’ a slightly different dimension.
Chester is now ten months old and his charging and aggressive-sounding barking at people entering the barn door is causing concern. They have another, very elderly dog, who has always barked at people though in a less threatening manner and it’s very likely Chester is now following suit.
The inside of the building is huge and stocked with produce. From the back where the office is, the door people enter by is quite a distance from where Chester is likely to be – with the lady in the office. All will be quite peaceful until suddenly the far door opens and someone appears. It could be a worker, a customer or family. Chester will then rush at the person, barking, only stopping if it’s someone he knows and is comfortable with.
It’s understandable how in a farm environment dogs run freely and guard the place, but it’s hard to teach them to be selective especially when we are dealing with fear.
‘Sudden’ is one of the problems. In a mainly quiet environment there is no warning that someone is about to open that door. If people were constantly coming in and out I’m sure Chester would be cool with it.
When I arrived, although Chester charged at me, barking and with hackles raised, he immediately took food from my hand – he is a Labrador after all – and apart from one more spooked bark when I gave him eye contact a little too soon, he was a real softy.
In every other respect Chester really is perfect and amazingly calm and well-behaved for an adolescent. He has reliable basic obedience. All the work needs to revolve around changing his fear of people.
To start with it would be helpful if Chester was given some warning when a person was about to enter, so I suggest a bell. That alone won’t be enough – it repeatedly needs to be paired with food so that, with a special training ritual, Chester is conditioned such that he hears the bell and runs away from the door and to the lady in the office – for food. She can then train him to stay on his bed, or she can make the decision to keep him beside her and release him to greet the person when and if she (not Chester) so chooses.
Callers will be instructed to throw a tennis ball from a box outside as they walk into his view. Chester adores balls and the lady is fairly convinced that once he’s holding a ball he will relax. When they leave he has to give up the ball so he only gets it in the presence of a caller, the idea being that he eventually will welcome callers when he realises they are his only access to the special balls. If that doesn’t work they can use food.
Callers will be instructed to avoid eye contact and not to put hands out to touch him unless, later, he decides he’s comfortable enough to make friends. If they are people who are just passing through or if they are not keen on dogs, Chester can stay behind the gate in the office, on his bed and out of harm’s way.
The new dog laws now are such that in an environment like theirs, if a dog is even deemed to be a threat though never having bitten, the owner can be prosecuted. Apart from that, a dog that scares customers isn’t good for business.
Chester has problems, too, with people he sees out on walks. In a rural area and mostly on their own farmland, if they see someone it’s very noticeable. Both dogs and humans can understandably feel more exposed when isolated and it’s understandable why he feels unsafe and runs and barks at people. He could feel very different if ‘merging into the crowd’,
Instead of throwing Chester’s ball for him throughout the walk, they can reserve it for if they see a person. Not only will the ball get his attention, it will help to pair the sight of a person with something he really loves and also, if thrown in the opposite direction, it introduces a behaviour the very opposite of running towards them.
They have found that in a busy environment Chester is only reactive to people who come right up to him and try to touch him. They will deal with that appropriately now whilst exposing him to the busier outside world more regularly – but only at a level he can handle.
I am sure that with help, patience and work Chester’s confidence will now grow.