‘Wary’ is the word I would use to best describe little two-year-old working Cocker Spaniel, Nico. He has lived with the couple in his new home for three months now.
It is a very good bet that his problems stem from having not been adequately socialised from a puppy onwards. There is also a strong possibility that some of his wariness is genetic. He must have been well-loved because a lot of time has been put into training him and he knows a lot of ‘tricks’. Whatever caused the family to have to rehome him must have been very upsetting for them.
When I sat down he stopped barking, encouraged by my giving him bits of food which he dared take from my hand whilst in a ‘ready to run’ position. Throughout the evening he continued to show many signs of stress and uneasiness – including yawning, licking his nose and looking away. At one stage, quite frantically, he chewed up a large rawhide bone that he had had for quite a while and had barely touched. Chewing, of course, is a valuable mechanism to help a dog calm himself down.
Next Nico collected the various chewable objects that he could find, and hoarded them. As you can see from the sequence of pictures, it was quite clear that they were ‘his’, but although he looked like he might growl if someone walked past he didn’t do so. I wondered (just guessing really) whether this might be some sort of displacement activity, giving him something ‘safe’ onto which to focus his attention that he had control over.
When he is alone with the young couple and is his normal self he likes to run off with things, therefore I suggested they remove all items he may regard as resources so that he no longer rehearses any guarding behaviour which could potentially escalate, and to allow him one item at a time, offering it in such a way that he is taught to take and let go again and that nothing is ever taken off him without either being returned or exchanged for something better.
On walks he is scared of other dogs, particularly when he’s on lead, and he barks at people approaching too directly. His wariness has resulted in a couple of occasions when, already very stressed, he has bitten the hand of someone grabbing his collar (something that’s not a good idea with any dog – a harness is a lot better).
A strange thing is that despite having made good progress with Nico’s lead walking – it seemed like he had never been on a lead before – and despite all their loving efforts, he is actually becoming more nervous in general. I do wonder whether this is due to too much stress or arousal in his very different new life. After a half-hour morning walk with intense ball play with the lady (he has become quite obsessed with the ball), the man then takes him to work. He barks at people coming in and out of the office and this is getting worse.
As Nico seems to be quite happy when left alone at home with the cat, I suggest he spends half the day chilled at home and the other half at the office where the man can make use of the people at work in a desensitisation programme, leaving a pot of food outside the door and asking them chuck some to Nico whenever they open it – maybe also stopping to throw him food even when they are just passing.
At the moment the dog could be feeling he has to guard the doorway. His open crate containing his bed is currently by the office door. It would be better beside or behind the desk where the man can ‘protect’ him and he, too, can work hard at desensitising the dog when people come into the room.
The young lady and gentleman are gentle and kind with their new little dog, and I know they will have the patience to help him grow in confidence and get used to life in their world.
A fortnight later and still very early days: ‘Nico seems a lot more confident and I think that is because we are clearer about how we should be acting with him. He doesn’t bark as much at loud noises and he is getting much better while out walking. The neighbour who I meet has even noticed a difference.’
NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Nico, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. 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).