Why does a dog that has been loved, kindly trained and taken out and about as soon as he has had his injections, behave in the way Toby does around people he doesn’t know – reactive to everyone, in fact, apart from close family members?
It’s possible he didn’t meet a sufficient number of new people in the first three or four months of his life. Possibly he was born nervous. Possibly he takes his guard duty very seriously.
I sat in a chair at a distance from the door, waiting for the eighteen-month-old English Shepherd to be brought into the room.
In he came, trailing his lead behind him, followed by the man. He walked to the other family members just inside the door then turned around. Suddenly he saw me. He flew at me, barking.
Scared? Angry? Both?
He had never actually bitten anyone so I wasn’t unduly worried. I know how to behave and what body language to use so he was unlikely to pick me as his first victim. I asked the man to pick up the lead and move him away, speaking loudly (but calmly) so I could be heard above the din.
Toby continued to bark and choke on the lead, in effect yelling at me to go away. He could be associating the undoubted discomfort to his neck with me so I asked the man to take him out of the room and put his harness on instead.
After several trips in and out of the room Toby, whilst still highly aroused, had settled sufficiently to take the tiny biscuits I carry in my pocket that I rolled on the floor to him. Ideally I would like to have achieved a distance from the dog where he could see me but feel safe, but as that was impossible within the confines of a room it was the dog that had to be removed.
Eventually he was sniffing me and he settled down. Every now and then I rolled biscuits to him. With better forward planning and knowing more what to expect, I should have had a larger quantity of much higher-value food to hand so I could deliver it faster. We gave him a toy to chew and focussing on that helped him to de-stress a little.
All was well until, near the end of my time, I had a bout of coughing which started him off barking again. Perhaps he thought I was barking at him! He was put in the kitchen.
Because dogs like Toby are so antisocial, they meet few of those people who do come to the house, so they never have opportunities to be desensitised. Whether fear or anger is the root cause, the aim is the same – for Toby to begin to see people as ‘good news’. I suggested they make good use of any willing friends.
To be on the safe side and because people will understandably be nervous of a dog that barks at people and who sounds and acts as scary as Toby, the man must hang onto that lead. He can repeat our ‘in and out of the room’ procedure where when Toby barks he is walked out of the room and when he stops barking he is brought back in again – the man dropping tiny bits of high value food ahead of him on the floor as he walks in. Then, after the dog has settled for a while, he taken out and can be given a break in the kitchen. In a while the process can be repeated. Each time should get easier.
Desensitising a dog that barks at people needs lots and lots of repetition, keeping him within his comfort threshold and using as many different people as possible.
On walks Toby’s family can look for people instead of avoiding them (he’s okay if they keep walking but not if they stop). They can find places to sit and feed him as people pass by. They can drop food on the ground so he can forage whilst being aware of nearby people. They can give him a favourite ball or toy to hold.
Given time and hard work, he should start to think that people are great – they mean food and a favourite ball!
Because Toby is a beautiful dog he attracts people who want to touch him. Sometimes we need to appear rude in order to protect our dog and firmly step in, moving between him and the well-meaning person.
A Yellow Dog Company ‘I Need Space’ vest could be of help.
NB. The exact protocols to best and most safely use with your own dog may be different to the approach I have planned for Toby, which is why I don’t go into exact detail here of the strategies we will be using. Finding instructions on the internet that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good, and could even be dangerous in cases like this. One size does not fit all. With this kind of issue, it is important that you find an experienced professional. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help (see my Get Help page).