Odd behaviour. Another puzzle.

The four-year-old Jack Russell had been in rescue kennels for months. Then he had been adopted for just four days before the odd behaviour landed him back in the kennels. My clients have endured it for three months now.

Normally when a dog does something regularly we can get some clue as to why from what happens (in his mind) as a result of the behaviour. It does something for him.

The odd behaviour – what is ‘in it’ for Max?

In this case, the obvious consequence, losing the person, can’t surely be what’s ‘in it’ for Max. He’s not happy to be left all alone.

The odd behaviour happens when someone is walking out of the room. He barks frantically and leaps at the the door. It slams shut. Usually the person is therefore shut out of the room.

As the door always closes after the person is gone, so his aim is unlikely to be to keep the person in.

He suddenly becomes extremely anxious when someone approaches the door. It makes no difference if someone else is still in the room with him, so it’s unlikely to be fear of being left all alone.

He did the same thing when I left the room too, so it’s unlikely to be about the fear of losing someone he cares about.

What if Max went through the door with them? We tried the lady going through the door whilst inviting him to go with her. He wouldn’t go. He just barked and leapt at the door, slamming it. We tried the same thing with the man.

He slams the door, shutting the person out.

The door was beside a chair and Max leapt onto the arm in order to fly at the door.

If the door is held open so he can’t slam it shut, he will jump down and bark at the open doorway as the person disappears around the corner. If the door is too far away from a chair for him to jump at and close, he will get behind the door to slam it shut after the person.

Odd behaviour

Lady leaving the room

He acts like there is an invisible barrier in the doorway and that there may be danger beyond that could be triggered by someone going out of the room.

He only does this on downstairs doors, never upstairs.

It’s never good to use guesswork – we should stick to the facts we actually can see. I do however wonder whether in his past life someone has used an electric shock barrier on him. Electric shock punishment that can come out of the blue to the dog can result in unexplained, odd behaviour.

With most behaviours it is easy to see what the dog gets out of it – what drives the behaviour. Not so in this case.

How can we make Max feel better about people walking out through doors? One way to get him to feel better is to associate it with something especially nice.

I devised a game (I might also use clicker, but not appropriate in this case).

‘Rules’ of the game:

  • Do this every time you go through a door – morning or evening – whether or not he’s likely to bark.
  • Use food (chicken) or a ball (squeaky perhaps), something you never use any other time. It must be special.
  • Starve him of ball play altogether for a while. This makes the ball more desirable.
  • Both people wear a bum bag all the time containing chicken and special ball.
  • No talking, no commands, no shouting if he barks!

How you play:

You want to go out of the room? Stand up and drop chicken or throw him the ball. Take a couple of steps towards the door. Drop more chicken or throw the ball. Get to the door. Sprinkle some bits of food or throw him the ball. As you walk through the door, drop food or throw the ball.

Antecedents and consequences.

If things aren’t showing significant improvement in a couple of weeks we will try a different tack.

The consequence of the odd behaviour is always a person walking out of the room. Maybe they can do the opposite and walk back in again instead? The trigger for the odd behaviour is someone walking directly towards the door. They will already have tried changing this be throwing food or the ball on the way to the door. They can try walking away from the door and around the room before approaching it – maybe even walk backwards!

There must be a way of cracking this odd behaviour.

Six weeks later: “Very happy at way things are going. We are now sticking stick to things always. Even lets me pick up his bowl when he deserts it. Going out of doors I makes a game of it, takes food, sit, paw, food once through the door. The behaviour has stopped but we know we must carry on doing it.”

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 Max and the because neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same.  Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly, particularly where fear or aggression is concerned. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)