Terrorises the cats and barks at people coming to the house

Barks at catsHarley is a two-year-old German Shepherd who lives with an adult family and four cats.

People coming to the house – and their cats

Before I came I knew that they wanted Harley to be better with people coming to the house and not to go mental when she saw their cats. They find they can’t ask people round.

I was expecting the  young German Shepherd, as often happens, to bark at me so much that we couldn’t talk! What a nice surprise to find her shy rather than territorial or aggressive. Continue reading…

Aggressive Barking at People. Fear or Anger?

Two-year-old Belgian Malinois Jake’s home is now with people who have considerable experience and knowledge as dog owners. I’m sure if Jake had gone to them as a puppy they would have nurtured him into a reliable and friendly adult dog.

Physical neglect and domestic abuse

Poor Jake spent the first year of his life suffering severe physical neglect and domestic abuse.

This is a far cry from the life he should have had – one where he was loved, given kind training and most of all, socialised with people.

In all respects Jake received the opposite.

My clients have made considerable headway with him, particularly with respect to training. There is nothing they won’t do in order to help him.

Their main problem is Jake’s antipathy to people, demonstrated by his aggressive barking at them.

When out, his lunging and barking has a fear component too. From the moment he leaves the house he is on high alert for people. He is necessarily muzzled and, for control, they use a head halter underneath it.

This is Catch 22. He must be under control to keep people safe, but he’s going to feel trapped and uncomfortable. They can’t do anything about the muzzle, but they can use better handling equipment where they have just as much control should they need it and with Jake feeling comfortable.

Aggressive barking and two attacks

He has attacked a couple of people and only didn’t cause injury because he was wearing the muzzle at the time. On both occasions, to his humans, it seemed without warning.

Jake is constantly ‘living on the brink’ due to his invisible internal arousal levels. On both these occasions there will have been a build-up. One was at the end of a walk with all it’s challenges and the other he was in a situation that was far too much for him. It only takes one small extra frustration to send a dog like this over the edge (see ‘trigger-stacking‘).

When anyone calls to the house, Jake is always shut away. It makes having friends or family visiting very difficult. Catch 22 again. Without encountering people how will he ever change?

Due to the lady’s work, many people do actually come and go. He will bark from behind the kitchen door; he will bark at people and other dogs through the long windows.

This daily and frequent aggressive barking at people in or outside his house, people he can’t get to, will be very frustrating for him. It is also constant rehearsal of the aggressive barking which, he will undoubtedly believe, drives people away in the end.

When I visited yesterday we set things up carefully. I needed to see for myself whether fear was involved or if it was simply rage that another person was in his house. 

It looked like rage.

To Jake, his job was to get rid of me.

They had him muzzled up ready in the kitchen when I arrived, with a training lead hooked to both front and back of a harness and the man for company. I had announced my arrival on my mobile so as not to ring the doorbell. We wanted his arousal levels to be as low as possible.

I sat at a table as far from the door as possible. I could see through the open door and down the short passage from the kitchen.

The lady had instructions not to talk to Jake but just to walk him towards the room. As soon as he barked she was to turn around and walk him out of sight just round the corner.

As soon as Jake caught sight of me he exploded. He barked ferociously, lunging on the lead. The lady had to use her strength to remove him but because of the harness it would cause him no discomfort (discomfort would be yet another reason for him to hate me).

I asked her now to say ‘Jake – come’ each time she turned around and as he got a hang of the process he became less resistant.

Soon Jake was looking at me without barking.

After several attempts there was a distance outside the door where he could see me without any aggressive barking. He was quiet. The lady had worked previously on eye contact and he was looking at her all the time which she rewarded. I now suggested she waited until he looked at me, said ‘Yes’ and then fed him.

We worked on the lady approaching a step at a time, continually reinforcing Jake each time he looked at me. It didn’t take long before she could sit on a chair already placed some way away from me near the door beside the man, and Jake very soon lay down quietly.

After a while I tested this. I moved my legs. I stood up. Nothing. I got up and moved about a little and he was still relaxed.

aggressive barking at people

Jake for the short time his muzzle was off

I suggested the lady, hanging on to the lead, took his muzzle off.

He was fine and I even manged to take this photo (whilst looking the other way). I also chucked him food from time to time. This doesn’t look like a frightened dog, does it.

All went very well until something small happened.

I think the man got up to do something. This little bit of extra arousal suddenly sent Jake over the edge again and he lunged at me with aggressive barking as before. I was doing nothing.

It was almost like he realised he had forgotten himself and his job to get rid of me!

The lady took him straight back out.

We rehearsed the procedure again and then left him in the kitchen. We rehearsed it one more time before I left. Both times we finished at a point where it was going well.

They will now need frequent callers to work on.

Reducing Jake’s stress levels underpins everything.

Unless they can do lots of things to reduce Jake’s stress levels so that he is calmer in general, nothing will change. In this state he’s unable to exercise self-control. They then will be able to introduce activities to a calmer Jake that are incompatible with aggressive barking and lunging, maybe a ritual of some sort.

I did what I call a complete ‘behaviour health check’, looking for all areas where they could reduce excitement, arousal, fear, frustration levels. Accumulating stress levels can make his ‘explosions’ unpredictable – and inevitable.

In those most important very early months of his life, Jake had missed out on socialisation – encountering different people. When he should have been treated kindly and trained using force-free methods for the first year of his life, he received the very opposite.

They are now picking up the pieces. If anyone can do this, they can.

 

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 Jake. 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 aggression or fear issues of any kind are 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 (click here to see my Help page)

Guard Dog. Protective German Shepherd

I am sometimes contacted by people wanting to make their dog be a guard dog. These people aren’t happy because their friendly or fearful dog is useless at protecting them or their property.

Training dogs to behave with aggression isn’t my bag at all.

Taking the ‘guard’ out of the guard dog.

guard dogI do however often go to dogs with guard dog in their genes and that are excelling at the job, but whose owners don’t want this behaviour. We’re trying to take the ‘guard’ out of the guard dog, if you like. These are often, but by no means always, a Shepherd breed.

I have just met a beautiful year-old German Shepherd called Dexter who morphs from an affectionate pet into a fearsome guard dog if a person comes near the house. Particularly if they enter.

The couple took him in at nine months old and despite diligent hard work this behaviour has escalated over the past three months.

A confident dog bred to guard.

I see Dexter as a confident dog doing what he’s been bred to do – to guard. Understandably, this guarding behaviour has become stronger both as he has settled into his new home and as he’s matured.

The work on socialising him with lots of different people and other dogs should have begun at a few weeks old and been ongoing. If this had been the case, the couple, his second owners, would probably not be having problems now.

Dexter was even more highly aroused than usual when I met him. In order to get him as calm as possible when I came, they had taken him out for some vigorous exercise earlier which probably had the reverse effect. My arrival and the first attempts to find the best way of working with him will have caused him extra frustration and stress, so much so that he redirected onto poor Max. Max is their very easy-going young Labrador.

Keeping his stress levels as low as possible will help Dexter to exercise more restraint, be less reactive. Training alone hasn’t worked – they’ve worked with an excellent trainer. It’s the emotions driving the aggressive behaviour that need addressing.

If Dexter were scared of people, then because fear was driving the behavior we would be working on his becoming less scared of them.

Dexter isn’t scared. He seems supremely confident, at home anyway. He simply doesn’t want other people near him, particularly not in his house. He will try to do whatever it takes to send them away.

It took me a while to see clearly how best to approach this, then I had a light-bulb moment. Instead of our aim being for him to just tolerate people coming to his house, we need to get Dexter to positively welcome them.

What might Pavlov do?

Pavlov used a bell. Whenever he gave food to the dog, he also rang a bell. After a large number of repetitions of this procedure, he tried the bell on its own. As you might expect, the bell on its own now caused the dog to salivate.

So the dog had learned an association between the bell and the food and a new behavior had been learnt. His body reacted automatically. (To be all technical, because this response was learned – or conditioned, it’s called a conditioned response. The neutral stimulus, the bell, became a conditioned stimulus).

Why can’t we use a bell too, a wireless doorbell with two buttons? On bell push can be on the front door, the other somewhere in the house. They both trigger the same plug-in bell. Instead of food, Dexter can have fun. He’s much more motivated by play anyway.

They can repeatedly over time pair the sound of the bell with a short game of tug or throw him a ball. They can introduce new toys for extra impact and rotate them.

Happy hormones.

When play is triggered by the bell, Dexter’s brain should flood with ‘happy hormones’ like serotonin.

I quote from the article Canine Emotion by Victoria Stilwell: ‘Serotonin, for example, has a profound affect over emotions and is responsible for regulating mood, enhancing a positive feeling and inhibiting aggressive response. Dopamine helps to focus attention, promoting feelings of satisfaction….’

After a great may repetitions over time, Dexter should feel happy and think of play at the sound of the bell, even when no play follows (although it would be a good idea to keep topping it up). His brain will automatically fill with happy hormones at the sound of the bell.

Eventually, when there is a delivery person at the door, instead of thinking ‘Invader’, guard dog Dexter should think ‘Fun’!

When a friend visits, instead of thinking ‘terrorist’, our guard dog should be thinking ‘Tug Toy’!

To give this the best chance of success, Dexter’s underlying arousal levels need to be as low as possible. Long walks and vigorous exercise such as he’s getting now may surprisingly have the opposite effect to what is required, as beautifully explained by Stacy Greer.

The main areas that need working on are Dexter’s hostility towards people and other dogs when out, and people coming to their house.

Avoiding altogether both people coming to the house and seeing people and dogs on walks as they are doing now will get them nowhere. However, putting the dog over threshold (too close, too soon or too intense) will probably make things even worse.

It’s a delicate balance.

 

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 Dexter. 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 aggression or fear of any kind is involved. 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).

Barking German Shepherd. Three Black German Shepherds

Three black German ShepherdsThese people are heroes! They already had eight year old Jet and then, four months ago, adopted a companion for him – one-year-old Cody.

Just after that they were asked to foster Jake, age 4, and he has just been left with them! Life will be a lot easier when a home is eventually found and they are down to the two dogs again.

Common sense and love

Common sense and love has brought Cody on wonderfully. He was extremely fearful when they first got him, but now all three dogs can be walked together – even to the extent that they go on a group dog walk at weekends with lots of other dogs.

All three dogs are completely unfazed by their little toddler daughter and this really is an achievement with dogs that have come from uncertain pasts.

Barking German Shepherd

The problem is, again, aggressive behaviour towards people coming to the house – from Cody. Another barking German Shepherd. I say ‘aggressive behaviour’ because he’s not an aggressive dog, he’s fearful, and all he knows is to respond aggressively.

Barking German Shepherd

Cody

So many German Shepherds I go to bark, lunge and may bite if given the chance when people come into their homes. Cody is crated but on the occasion that prompted them to contact me a friend was at the door. Cody had managed to break out of his metal crate and he flew at her, biting her arm. Skin wasn’t punctured so his aim wasn’t to destroy her – it was to get rid of her.

A big warning.

If a guest is in the house Cody has to be kept away, because the barking German Shepherd reacts if they so much as move. The other two dogs are just majorly excited.

I sat down – dogs find standing people far more threatening – and all three were brought in, one at a time, on lead – the calmest one first. The lead was dropped and the next dog fetched. Cody who was last barely reacted to me and I ignored him.

Soon I was dropping treats on the floor and he was coming to me to be fed and touched. I stood up. I walked about. It gave the lady great encouragement and hope to see what is possible if people behave the same way as myself with the dogs.

A calm alternative

All three dogs are being taught a calm behaviour incompatible with excited turmoil and using manic play in order to unwind. In a few minutes they were learning how to lie down quietly for the lady without even having to be told (see picture).

So many GSDs I go to are reactive and scared of people (and there are a lot, with another one tomorrow). Wouldn’t it be wonderful in a dream world if people breeding Shepherds accepted that guarding breeds of this sort who are easily spooked in particular need proactive and intense socialising from about 5 weeks onwards. They would only sell pups to sort of people who are committed to continuing this.

By about four months old the best opportunity for bomb-proof socialisation is passing.

I would bet that far more dogs end up being put to sleep for biting someone than would ever die of diseases from exposure to vaccinated dogs. Like human babies, for the first weeks they inherit immunity from their mother and her milk anyway.

Fierce Bull Mastiff is a Big Baby

In a very short time Millie had settled5-year-old Bull Mastiff Millie is always shut away when people come to the house due to her seemingly aggressive reaction to them, so they were worried before I came. This is Catch 22 because without exposure and habituation in a controlled way she will never get used to people. Always shutting her away will get them nowhere.

Anyway, within a very short time I took the photo on the left! It proves what can be done if all the humans send out the right signals. On the right the big baby is on the sofa having a cuddle.

Millie is too scared to go for walks near home. When her lead comes out she may run and hide. She shakes.The big baby is having a cuddle on the sofa

If she is told ‘To the Car’ she will pull frantically to get there, but once in the car she is fine; walking further from home is okay apart from a tendency to rush barking at people and other dogs when she’s off lead. She is regularly walked around town, unfazed, and into shops. She also goes on organised big group dogs walks and behaves perfectly.  It is when they are near her own territory or in her house, when there are only occasional people or dogs, or when they appear suddenly that she reacts defensively by rushing them and barking.

Where lead walks near home are concerned, she first needs desensitising even to her lead bing picked up – and I suggest a special front-D-ring harness rather than a Halti so that she’s more comfortable. This needs working on in tiny steps. First she needs to feel happy in the presence of the lead or trailing it around the house. Next walking around the house on lead. Next the garden. Next in and out of the gate – and so on. Done several times a day a few minutes at a time, using encouragement and rewards, she should soon be walking around outside the house on a loose lead.

Millie has the makings of a really brilliant dog if understood right.

A couple of weeks later Millie is happily going for local walks. Here is a video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DywhbXhJLwE&feature=youtube_gdata_player