Alfie is a seven-year-old Mastiff Staffie mix who spent the first eleven weeks of his life in a shed with other dogs but no human contact. When they picked him up he was riddled with worms, had mange and colitis. He was a very sick puppy with no socialisation whatsoever. It’s hardly any wonder that, despite supreme efforts on their own part without which he would undoubtedly be a lot worse, he has grown to be a dog wary of people and insecure about being left. They have since adopted a greyhound, Kenny, who gives him a bit more security when the dogs are left alone.
When we arrived and he was let in the room to join us, Alfie was immediately barking at us. I tried gently rolling a piece off food towards him which he broke off barking to eat. That was a little clue. If he was really as upset as he sounded he would not have taken the food. He’s been doing this behaviour for seven years so some of it may well be learned behaviour – a habit. Although he sounds fierce, he has never bitten anyone. We continued to roll food at him until he was eating from our hands and being touched. Fortunately he is a very food-motivated dog.
I suggested they now keep back much of Alfie’s dry food for him to earn – and also that they feed him better food. To quote Pat Miller in The Whole Dog Journal, ‘Poor quality protein can interfere with a dog’s ability to make use of the serotonin that occurs naturally in his system. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood ….. Foods containing high-quality protein can contribute to your dogs’ behavioral health and physical health’.
After a while I stood up and it started Alfie barking again, but he soon relaxed as I dropped food whilst standing. The plan will be for anyone who comes to the house to gradually, using food, go from sitting, to standing and then to walking slowly about whilst dropping his food. Gradually the food can be reduced and ultimately stopped altogether.
It’s not only people coming into their house which can cause Alfie to bark ferociously. He also barks at the young son who is unable to go up and down stairs freely without someone first grabbing Alfie and putting him into the kitchen. The couple themselves are unable to go upstairs together without Alfie creating – unless the man goes first and the lady follows a bit later. The dog is ruling their lives. The son can never have his friends to stay.
I suggested the boy got up and walked out of the door towards the gated stairs, dropping food as he went. No barking. He carried on up the stairs, throwing food over onto the floor. On the way down he did the same thing. I had him doing this over and over. No barking. He can gradually feed less and on the way down he can later wait on the stairs for Alfie to be calm and quiet before throwing one bit of food and continuing down – changing over from desensitising him to rewarding him for being quiet.
Slowly Alfie’s panic at the boy leaving and going upstairs – whatever the reason – should disappear as it is associated with something he likes – food, and at the same time the habits of his lifetime will be broken.
I take a ‘holistic’ approach, so over the next few weeks there are several other things the family should be putting in place so that Alfie becomes a calmer and less insecure dog in general. Normally he is constantly pacing and looking for trouble. It was great to see him lie down and relax several times while we were there, demonstrating by our own behaviour and by ‘conducting’ the behaviour of the other people, that he can do it if the humans around him do things in a different way.
NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have planned for the complicated Alfie, which is why I don’t go into exact detail here of the methods to be used. Finding instructions on the internet that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dogs (see my Get Help page).