Cocker Spaniel Archie’s barking at me was erratic and a little puzzling.
As soon as Archie was let out of the sitting room to where I was in the hallway, he was barking at me loudly, jumping up at me and although I was aware of his mouth he stopped short of nipping.
I initially assumed he may be scared but by both watching him and talking to the lady it soon became obvious that he was mostly protective and possessive of her. I guess that is fear in a way – fearful of losing a resource.
This analysis is backed up by the fact that Archie is looked after by the lady’s parents every morning. He is much less reactive to people coming to their own house.
What did the beautiful two-year-old dog hope to gain with all the barking at me? It’s safe to assume an element of it was telling me to go away. As this didn’t succeed he would surely be getting increasingly anxious, cross and frustrated.
We look to see ‘what’s in it for him’ when deciding on treatment and this is hard. The only function that could be served for him by this behaviour was attention from the lady herself and an outlet from his own emotions.
He soon stopped barking at me and became very friendly, encouraging me to fuss him. Really sweet. A different dog.
Then he would suddenly break out into barking again.
I can only think of a couple of occasions when I was there that he hadn’t placed himself between me and the lady.
My standing up was guaranteed to start him off barking at me again.
I experimented with desensitisation. When he was quiet, I began by standing and feeding as I did so, thinking if I did this over and over he would feel better about it. This didn’t work.
Next, I called him (he came happily) then asked him to sit so as to give him warning and take the sudden element out of it. I then slowly stood up and fed him as I did so. I tried half standing and feeding him. It became apparent that trying to desensitise him this way was doing no good at all – increasing his stress even.
As soon as I moved, he was barking at me.
So, what to try next?
Reinforcing calm and something he can do instead of barking
Until he calms down and gains confidence in the presence of visitors, he will need a comfortable harness and lead on him so he can be held back from people with no discomfort or interaction with lady whatsoever. How she does things is important. It’s vital he doesn’t pick up signals from her that he can interpret as either backing him up or anxiety.
She can walk him out of the room and bring him back in again when he’s quiet – he won’t be left alone because we don’t want to stress him further.
She can show him the benefits of being quiet. This can be done by using clicker and food. Because in between sessions of barking at me he might pick up a toy – likely trying to self-calm himself – offering him something special to chew will help him.
In order to teach him something else he can do instead of barking, the lady will work on a kind of ‘drill’, a silent sequence of behaviours that, when she gives the signal, he can instantly fall into and perform that gives him something to concentrate on that is both fun and reinforcing for him and incompatible with barking at someone.
This is a very interesting case because the lady herself has done a lot of research, is very well informed and has tried many things. It’s hard to see how her own behaviour is influencing Archie’s behaviour as one might expect.
My visit was about seeing things objectively through different eyes and trying to come up with something else.
I looked at the bigger picture – not just the barking – and we have different angles to work on.
Very important is keeping Archie’s general overall stress levels down as much as possible.
The relationship between the lady and Archie needs to change so that he comes to feel more independent of her, thus altering the emotion driving the possessive behaviour. By getting him to use his brain for her and by discouraging him to constantly be at her heels when she’s with him, she can show him that it’s her job to make decisions and to protect him and not the other way around.
Eventually this should give him a sense of release.
We are working on actual tactics and techniques to help Archie cope with encountering people, most particularly when they come into their house but also when out.