Nips People Who Visit

AchillesIndieBeautiful Indie is another Shepherd-type dog that is reactive to people – particularly people coming to his house. He was abandoned as a puppy of three months old on the streets of Romania and spent the next three months in kennels – crucial months in his development.

The reason he nips people is probably a mix of being territorial, fear of new people – of men in particular, and some instinctive herding of people in order to control them when walking around his house which he had done from the beginning and well before he began to show any aggression.

The young lady has worked so hard with her beautiful dog and is very distressed that he changed so drastically. Before that she could take him to work and he would accompany her everywhere. Now she can’t trust him.

His behaviour changed when he became adolescent. At the same time, just as he had settled into his new home over here, the lady went away for a month and had to leave him behind. There would have been a big break in his new routines and very likely he felt insecure.

Sudden movement seems to trigger immediate barking followed by a nip – on the person’s leg. The only incident outside his house was when, on a walk, some people suddenly appeared out of the woods and the man was brandishing a stick. This really upset Indie, particularly because the man then fended him off with the stick.

He was on edge for several days after that, growling and barking at everyone he saw.

Like lots of dogs who are reactive to people in their own territory and who startle and lunge when someone may suddenly appear, Indie is fine in busy places with lots of people and dogs. Strange isn’t it. Like us, if we are alone in a field and a person suddenly appears we can feel quite exposed. If the field is full of people we feel a lot safer.

Indie used to accompany the young lady to work but because of his unpredictability she has been leaving him at home where, though he has company, the methods used with him are totally different – more along the ‘old-school’ methods rather than positive and reward-based.

So she will start to take him to work with her again and she will manage the situation better. It is fortunate that she works for herself. The times when he’s most upset with stuff going on he can be put in the car where he is happy and relaxed. If she needs to wander about and go anywhere with hands free, she can tie his lead to her waist which will keep him and other people safe.

Every time Indie hears or sees a person, however distant, the ‘food bar’ will open. When nobody is about it will close.

More visitors to the house are needed also – but only when the young lady is at home to make sure things are done in the right way.

Whatever the main root cause – probably a mix of herding, guarding and fear – it boils down to Indie not feeling safe when the person moves about or makes a sudden movement. It’s not every time – which makes him all the more unpredictable. I saw it for myself when, although earlier I had been walking around with no problems, I stood up when he was asleep. He reacted immediately – the lady was ready for it.

It is possible to teach him alternative behaviours incompatible with barking and nipping as the young lady has been doing, like Sit or Down or Bed along with watching her – but this means she has to constantly be on tenterhooks each time the guest is likely to move in order to give Indie the correct cues. One day she may forget or be out of the room.

It’s far better to treat it right at source, I feel, and deal with the emotion which is driving Indie to behave like this, to have him associate people with good stuff, to desensitise him so far as possible to sudden movements and help him to feel more confident around people.

The work can begin with people in situations or at a distance where Indie feels reasonably comfortable. At work, the people don’t actually enter the work area but there is frequent traffic walking past his barrier of people who will ignore him if requested to do so. He can also be taken to busy places with lots of people and dogs because he feels reasonably safe there also.

When out he can wear a yellow high-viz jacket bearing the words ‘Ignore me, I’m in training’. He is fine so long as nobody walks directly up to him. He is such a beautiful looking dog it’s easy to understand why people should want to touch him.

Bit by bit the bar can be raised.

I wrote a short blog in my Paws for Thought series about ‘sudden’ and dogs.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Indie. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good particularly in cases involving potential aggression. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).

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