Atlas is a beautiful, playful, loving and friendly white German Shepherd with the people he knows. He’s 15 months old and lives with a family that includes three children age nine to fifteen.
Atlas is however very timid with people he doesn’t know.
He will bark fearfully at anyone coming into the house.
It starts when he hears the doorbell.
They have a doorbell that also speaks to announce the arrival of someone at the door. One can imagine how this fires Atlas up to the extent that he is already seriously over-aroused and scared before they have even opened the door.
Out on walks and away from home, he can tolerate people so long as they don’t try to touch him, when he will back off.
They tried taking him to a pub where he was fine settled behind them and even went to sleep until someone a bit too suddenly approached the table which woke and startled him into barking.
Coming into his home
Their problem is the difficulty in having friends around. Atlas is so timid with people that come to the house.
It’s a busy road outside their house with lots of foot traffic. Atlas watches passing people, unconcerned.
It’s a different matter though when someone comes up the path to their house. They then ring the bell. A voice announces someone at the door. Atlas goes mental.
If it’s a delivery they may hold him back at the door or take him into another room. If the person is coming in they are unable to have him join them because of the barking.
Great with dogs. Timid with people
Atlas was very well socialised with other dogs during lockdown, but they didn’t have people coming to the house. I believe with German Shepherds in particular, habituation to people needs to start very young indeed, before leaving the litter, and maintained constantly.
Here is one of my Paws for Thoughts on the subject of fearful dogs and visitors
They are now having to play catch-up.
So, for a dog that’s so timid of people coming to the house, where do we start?
Start at the beginning
Everything to do with habituating, desensitising and counter-conditioning must start at the beginning. This is at a stage or distance the dog is comfortable. Step one.
So for Atlas, he’s not fearful of encountering people out on walks so long as they don’t invade his space or try to touch him. So, when they encounter people they must ensure he ‘feels safe’ and protect him from unwelcome interaction. Meanwhile, make good things happen in the presence of people – play or food.
He’s not unduly timid of people walking past the house. Why not stand outside the front door, Atlas on lead, either clicking or saying Yes each time he looks at a person – and then giving him something small and tasty?
Build up some great associations with people at a level that doesn’t cause Atlas discomfort.
People coming to the door. The starting point
Taking this back to the beginning, where is the starting point?
The talking doorbell!
The sound is the beginning of a nightmare for a dog that is timid with people, heralding either the door opening to a delivery person or, even worse, someone’s entry into the house.
The easiest and quickest way to deal with this, for now anyway, is to change the doorbell. They can get a ringing one with to buttons and carry one about. Now constantly ring the bell. Do this hundreds of times over days until the dog gets immune to the doorbell.
Add to that, ringing the bell and sending Atlas into the sitting room to follow some scattered food. Over and over and over again.
Now when someone does ring the bell, Atlas will remain calm and when asked go into the sitting room.
People entering the house
The detail of how this should be handled differs dog to dog and house to house depending upon logistics.
A dog timid of people needs to feel safe. That now should be their main goal.
Take or shut Atlas away from where the person will be going.
Now have the person already in the house and sitting down with instructions not to give Atlas eye contact or attention. It’s always easier on the dog if the person is already settled rather than when they walk directly into his space.
Two basic things now need to happen – just how depends upon the dog.
He should be brought in on a longish lead – preferably on harness not collar, for comfort. If he immediately goes frantic they walking him calmly and kindly back out again. Then, when quiet, try again.
This now can go two ways.
Either Atlas will get worse each time he’s brought back in so introduction sessions should be very short before he’s taken away and not brought back – and they need a willing guinea pig who can work with them. It may be that they can meet outside first.
Or Atlas will stop barking and become curious. Now the family can drop him food – especially when, still on lead, he looks at the visitor (I suggest the friend doesn’t feed him).
They should be ready for Atlas to be suddenly spooked and take him out again – or increase distance. As he gets braver, the lead can be held very loosely. Any inquisitive sniffings of the person should be kept short.
Before the friend makes any movement, they need to warn the person holding Atlas’ leash.
It’s important to do all they can to keep their dog feeling safe. With a dog that is timid of people coming into the home, it can be a long slow job needing constant work.
This may be territorial, protective behaviour – but that is still fear. He will only protect something he fears could come to harm whether it’s his environment, his family or himself.
Working with the puppy from the start, then maintaining the work, saves having to undo behaviours already established before making a start.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ and is always written with permission of the client. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog it can do more harm than good. Click here for help