To welcome people without exploding into barking

Published by Theo Stewart on

A dog that doesn’t welcome people into his home is a problem made much more common by lockdown.

Vinnie’s owners refer to his behaviour as ‘aggressive’ but that is only because they can’t find another, better word.

We know that he’s not an ‘aggressive dog’.

The barking and nipping is aggressive behaviour because he feels he has no other choice. People, even other family members, are not welcome.

If we were trapped somewhere with no escape, we may well feel that attack is the only remaining form of defence. At least our shouting or squaring up to the source of the danger may make them back off or go away. Would that make us aggressive people?

Vinnie’s aggressive behaviour is defensive, not offensive; driven by fear.

The couple simply want to be able to welcome family and friends into their home.

Simple, though, it’s not.

It has tentacles throughout the dog’s day to day life.

His ways of telling approaching people that they are not welcome is all because he feels unsafe.

At home, if he hears or sees someone approaching the house, he barks.

When out, if someone approaches them too directly and attempts to engage with Vinnie, their attention may not be welcome.

As the day wears on, with one ‘threat’ after another as he hears noises, he becomes more reactive. This is because arousal builds up. If we had been scared a few times we would then be more jumpy, wouldn’t we?

Keeping him calm and stable

The more calm and stable they can keep Vinnie, the more he will be able to cope and respond to their new confidence-building strategies.

This is what they do at the moment when he barks: They try to make him sit, give them eye contact and distract him.

This is just containing the situation which is better than scolding, but it’s not changing how he feels. (“The whole world could be about blow up but don’t worry, sit, look at me, ignore it…..!”)

It’s much more logical to help him out by taking responsibility for either ‘danger or invasion’ away from the dog whilst also repeatedly confirming that the threats aren’t threatening at all. This can only be done by de-sensitising and counter-conditioning.

Over time the thing that now scares him should predict something good. This is the way to make people coming to his home more welcome.

If he’s totally aroused when someone is coming into the house, a calm and sensible welcome is impossible for him.

They will build up a routine to help Vinnie cope.

Without plenty of practice though, it won’t happen. It ideally needs frequent rehearsal – frequent callers. Initially one minimally scary person for a very short time – building up from there.

They will work on desensitising to the doorbell to start with – and teaching Vinnie what to do whenever he hears it. This will need many many repetitions.

So then, instead of barging to the door in alarm, barking, jumping and nipping, he has an already-learnt alternative.

Next will be work on someone coming in. Normally he rushes at them barking, nipping legs or catching bits of clothing,. He wants to get rid of them. He no doubt believes that if he barks for long enough they will leave.

We now have a plan for this (the details are a bespoke plan for Vinnie). It involves no nagging and no pressure. Everything will be done to make people trigger good things only. It can be favourite food or even gently rolling away of a ball, neither necessarily offered by the visitor themselves.

Vinnie’s generally fine with people away from his own home and garden. Because of this, they have found that taking him to welcome friends away from the house and walking back in with them works well.

Drop the label ‘aggressive’.

They will drop the word ‘aggressive’ when referring to the welcome he gives friends and family coming to their house. It’s just his reaction to feeling worried, scared and maybe a little territorial.

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

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