Not an Easy First Dog
Lucy must have once before been loved.
In the few days since German Shepherd mix Lucy moved in with the young couple she has been through several stages as she begins to settle into a very different new life. She is their first dog so it’s a big adjustment for them also.
For the past six months the young dog has been living in a very ‘basic’ kennel situation. A chaotic and bleak place.
For six months she has had to toilet in the same place where she slept and ate, so it’s not surprising she initially had a couple of accidents in the house. Being their first dog that was something they’d not anticipated.
The young lady contacted me a couple of days after they had picked Lucy up because they were having difficulties on walks with the pulling, with her jumping about and her general excitability. She ‘wouldn’t listen’. She had growled at a friend coming in the front door. She’s their first dog and they weren’t quite prepared for this.
I visited on Lucy’s fifth day. She had already calmed down a bit. All toileting was now outside unless she was scared.
Her fearful reactivity to people coming into the house was increasing however.
When I arrived she barked at me loudly. I didn’t react in any way and, unusually, she didn’t pee with fear. I restrained the young couple from fussing her as this can transfer their own anxiety and I sat down. Lucy stopped barking. I dropped her a piece of food and she took another from my hand.
Then the beautiful dog came and sat on my foot. She rested with her head lovingly beside my knee.
My heart melted.
Over the next few weeks I shall be helping these new dog owners to field anything that Lady may happen to throw at them as they work through the ‘honeymoon period’. We are working on loose lead walking, a suitable diet, leaving her alone happily and other things.
We want to nip the fearful reaction in the bud.
The young lady contacted me this morning (the day after my visit) to tell me Lucy is now barking more at people and even cars that pass. The sitting room has a long picture window looking out over the road. Each day it gets worse.
The more frequently Lucy engages in this barking the more of a habit it will become, so now is the time to act. People’s instinct, particularly if it’s their first dog, is to try to stop the dog barking by letting the dog know she’s ‘doing wrong’.
In my opinion the only truly efficient way to change the barking is to change the emotions in Lucy that are driving her to bark. It is certainly fear in her case. There may be a touch of instinctive guarding or territorial emotion too.
When she barks – or better still if they can pre-empt the barking – they need to reassure her and call her away, rewarding her for doing so. If this doesn’t work, they will need to go over to her, help her and remove her. Any scolding will just make her feel worse about whatever she is barking at.
Why not, however, get to the root of the barking – change how Lucy is feeling about the people and cars going past?
I suggest they take her out the front on lead with a pocket of her food.
Stand. Watch. Listen.
With everything that goes past, feed her. If she’s reluctant to eat she needs tastier food and they may need to stand further back, inside the open front door. They can scatter food on the ground so she associates the scary area where she watches people approaching the house with something good.
Then they can come indoors and do the same thing from the sitting room window – watching and feeding, listening and feeding.
They may need to do this exercise very regularly for weeks and any time in the future when she looks like reverting.
It’s easy to see how Lucy’s fear of people both passing the house and approaching the house is linked to her fear of people entering the house. It may also be linked to her having been trapped in a kennel for the best part of each day for six months, unable to escape when someone walked towards her and entered.
With different management of visitors and Lucy feeling differently about people approaching or passing the house, the fear of callers shouldn’t be too hard to crack. She is wonderfully friendly and affectionate once she’s feeling safe.
She should certainly no longer have access to the view out of that picture window.
Lucy’s reaction to people coming to the house could snowball into a bigger problem if not caught straight away. It’s unlikely that people with their first dog will have sufficient knowledge of systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning without some help.