There seem to be many things that worry Gibson, a beautiful three-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog. He was, apparently, an anxious puppy. If the couple hadn’t already done so many things for and with him, he could be a lot worse.
On high alert? Not just now!
He reacts to sounds at home, mostly sounds associated with people, like car doors slamming, voices outside or the neighbour shutting a door.
He then barks.
Gibson is nervous on walks, mainly of people and occasionally dogs also. More recently he has also become jumpy at sounds when out, particularly when it’s windy.
They have been managing the situation well – apart from a couple of incidents when a person suddenly appeared and they were unprepared. The most recent involved him jumping at someone and he may have caught her hand. This is serious, not least because of the recent changes in the dog law. Someone now need only to feel threatened by our dog, with no damage done, for us to be in trouble.
On high alert on walks
Walks are miserable for a huge proportion of dog walkers who, along with their dogs, are on high alert all the time, looking out for people or, more commonly, other dogs.
For the lady in particular, walks are simply not enjoyable and have become something of a duty. They mostly cover exactly the same route and it’s taking longer and longer to get round. When not on alert, Gibson has taken to ignoring her and engaging in excessive sniffing and foraging for anything edible.
He may refuse to move. He’s a big dog.
She will now inject a lot more enthusiasm and interaction into their walking. She will engage more with Gibson – because this is part of the solution where feeling less threatened by an approaching person is concerned. They will make walks and themselves more relevant and unpredictable. Keep him on his toes and focussing more on them.
A person coming to the house.
When someone calls to the house he is noisy to begin with. Then there is excitement in which I see a big element of anxiety. He barks at the person as they try to walk through the door into the room. He is a big dog and he’s in the way. I found what worked best was for the man to call Gibson back and out of the way, hold onto his collar and feed him (in Gibson’s case, cheese). The dog then was quiet. I then went through and sat down. He came and sniffed me, much more relaxed.
Sometimes it works best when the visitor drops the food. In this case I feel it gives Gibson comfort and support when the owner takes control of the situation and administers the food. He should, eventually, not need the restraint.
You might say, why food? Apart from motivating Gibson to leave the person and go to the owner, it helps to give him positive emotions about the person.
Gibson is a very good eater, so food is the answer to a lot of things!
Whenever Gibson is uneasy about something, they can counterbalance it with something he likes. I think of it like a see-saw. For instance, when he sees something new and looks worried, they can immediately feed him – associating it with food. If a door slams, they can drop food before he even has time to start barking.
Feeling better about people he sees on walks is done the same way and always from a distance at which Gibson feels safe. Currently they use food to keep his attention away from the person, to distract him, which is working well on the whole. Now, from the safe distance, they will want him to be fully aware of the person. The special ‘food bar’ opens. They may even point out the person – ‘Look, a PERSON!’ and then do some rapid feeding.
When the person goes out of sight, the special food bar closes.
In order to make progress they now need to have Gibson not merely being under control, but feeling differently about people he encounters.
Looking so gorgeous and cuddly, people of course want to pet him. Especially those people who ‘have dogs and love dogs’! Here is a way to increase distance without seeming rude.
They have come so far already, With a little change in direction I’m sure they will make another leap of progress and will no longer have to be on high alert for people all the time they are out.
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 with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approaches I have worked out for Gibson. 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. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where fear or any form of aggression is concerned. Everything depends upon context. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dog (see my Help page).