Kiki, a Chocolate Labrador mixed with a small bit of something else – Doberman perhaps – has had several homes in her two-and-a-half years. At one she had been tied up most of the time and muzzled – most likely to prevent her from chewing anything including herself.
She is a lovely, gentle dog which is quite surprising in the circumstances and what a very different life she has now! Much of her unruliness has now been resolved due to the efforts of her new owners. They have had her for nine months, and in this time she has been to training classes, become very well socialised with other dogs and is taken for at least one long walk every day.
They have transformed Kiki to a happy dog from a frightened, fretful little thing, overweight by 10kg & with mange where she had tried to scratch the muzzle off.
It is just possible, in my mind, that she’s getting too much stimulation now because at times when you would think she should be tired, she relapses into attention-seeking behaviours where she can control and predict her humans’ reactions. Her favourite is to steal things from the kitchen. She then runs them a merry dance until they corner her and remove the item. This is where many dogs become defensive and a bit scared, leading to growling or biting but fortunately this just isn’t in Kiki’s nature at all.
What the lady is still struggling with the most is Kiki’s behaviour when someone comes to the front door. She gets very excited indeed, barking frantically, obviously fearful and she may pee. Her hackles go up. Her previous foster carers used a shaker bottle and then water spray, but Kiki’s new owners quickly abandoned that unkind approach, knowing that it simply made her more stressed. They have tried feeding her and more recently, unsuccessfully, to get her to sit and stay back from the door when they open it.
When I arrived they held onto her collar because she may also decide to run off down the road. She calmed down very quickly indeed as she became engrossed in sniffing me for the smell of my own dogs and I just stood still until she had relaxed. She was then a dream.
The problem with all the things that they have tried is they don’t take consideration of the emotions inside Kiki that are driving her to behave like this. The behaviour itself isn’t the real problem. If it’s fear, then punishing fear with a shaker bottle can only make it worse. If it’s fear or extreme arousal of any kind, then sitting quietly is an unreasonable ask.
I take a more psychological approach. People arriving at the door, particularly people a dog doesn’t know well, can be very stressful. A dog could be feeling that they should be ‘vetting’ the intruder. A lot of incidents happen in doorways from over-excited dogs jumping up at people to dogs controlling entrances so another dog may not dare walk through, to over-aroused dogs redirecting onto one another and fighting when someone walks through the door, and so on.
Kiki’s humans should, in my mind, to take full responsibility for comings and goings to their house. They are the ‘parents/protectors’ after all. We know that she gets very stressed if shut behind a door where she can’t see people, so I suggest a gate in the kitchen doorway where she can see who is arriving but not get to the front door.
First they can teach her, using family members, that when she hears the doorbell she goes into the kitchen where she’s rewarded and the gate is closed.
To start with there is no doubt that she will intensify her barking from behind the gate when she finds she’s unable to get to the person, but if they are steadfast they will overcome.
Now her fear and anxiety can be worked on properly. She can learn to associate callers with good stuff. Food can be dropped over the gate. She can learn that she’s let out to join them in the hall when she has calmed down. People will be asked not to reach out to her while gets used to them. Once relaxed, she a wonderfully friendly dog.
Kiki is very scared of vehicles stopping outside her house and she used to be especially scared of the sound of the ice cream van. Every time she heard the jingle the family went out and bought her an ice cream. It wasn’t long before she began to LOVE the ice cream van jingle. This is the principal for Kiki’s family to use with people coming to the door – to associate them with good stuff and they have already experienced for themselves just how well this approach works.
If their eventual aim in the future is for Kiki to sit politely and calmly away from the door when someone arrives, that should be possible when she feels differently about it. This could be in several months’ time. It can be taken in very easy stages. First it will be sitting calmly behind the closed gate, then the open gate, then on a mat just in front of the gate and so on.
Whether or not they end up with a calm dog in the kitchen when someone arrives, or a calm dog standing or sitting back away from the front door, is not important in my opinion – what is important is that Kiki is happy and not scared or stressed, which will then be reflected in her behaviour.