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Canine Behavior/Roommates' dog is petrified when they're gone


Dear Dr. Connor:

Thank you for  taking the time to read this inquiry.I've been at a loss for months -- and am somewhat at a loss for help.

My roommates have a four-year-old pit/greyhound/lab mix. When they're around, he's one of the most loving, energetic dogs I've ever known. He's extremely athletic, and will come to me to play during those times. He often leaves his mark by licking, too.

However, there are many times when both of my roommates aren't home -- and the dog and I are the only ones in the home. His personality immediately changes.

One of several things happen. Generally, he'll go into one of their bedrooms and go on to a bed and sit there -- sometimes for 8 to 10 hours -- until one or both of my roommates come home.

If the bedroom doors are closed, sometimes, he'll sit on the couch for that long.

On a rare occasion, he'll come into my room and seek attention. But this actually extremely rare.

Often, if I approach him -- ever so innocently -- he'll tighten up, his ears will tuck back -- and from time to time, he'll show me his teeth, and/or growl.

I've noticed he's usually best when all the bedroom doors are closed, but this, still, has had minimal effect.

About the only thing that has ever made him less afraid -- not treats, not positive reinforcement -- is taking him for a walk. He enjoys the walks, but about 5 minutes after them, he'll go back to his fearful state.

It is perplexing. He truly has two distinct personalities -- one when my roommates are home, another when they're gone. And that second personality is often scary.

I understand when he was a pup, he was likely abused by his first owners.

But the bottom line is -- as hard as I've tried, and as much as I've done (when my roommates are home, I'm constantly playing with him, petting him, letting him lick me, giving him treats), he will show an incredibly nice personality when his two humans are home. But when they're not here, he is incredibly fearful, and quite frankly, unenjoyable to be around.

I'd do just about anything to fix this -- but am at a total loss.

I'd be beyond grateful for any assistance you could offer.

Thanks, in advance, for your time. I am extremely grateful.

If there was abuse by any former owner, this is not likely a direct cause of the behavior you describe.  This dog is clearly afraid of you.  I can't see anything from here.  The fact that he "allows" you to leash him (in itself pretty amazing given the description of his behavior) and take him out tells me this has something to do with the immediate situation of being confined with you, alone, and not necessarily ABOUT you.

DO NOT offer treats to this dog or forcibly interact with him when his owners are at home.  First, he may be willing to accept treats when his owners are present and visible to him but what he's THINKING, what he's actually experiencing in that second, we cannot know and you might actually be rewarding a fear he is not immediately demonstrating.  "Forcing" him to accept being petted or played with while the owners are home is also a questionable approach; if he has a persistent fear response to you, any interaction that is not initiated BY THE DOG may be somehow aggravating his fear even if it doesn't appear to be so.  Licking is not "leaving his mark", it is an appeasement (juvenile) behavior that can mean he is attempting to appease you in particular since, for some reason, he experiences you as a threat.  Have your roommates (the owners) noticed anything odd about his behavior toward you?  Are the other humans in the household female or male?  Are they a male/female couple?  Were you a recent addition to the home and under what circumstances?  Too many questions here.

While it's quite sad to see a dog sitting on a bed for hours at a time in a clear state of fright, it's far more alarming that he is forced to remain in the room with you, on the couch, still frozen in fear and now growling and baring teeth.  Are you afraid of this dog?  At this point, I might be if I were you.  If so, the dog *knows* it by your body language and adrenaline.  Are you anxious?  Obviously or you wouldn't have posted this question.  And it shows (to the dog) since body language is their way of communication and they learn about US by observing OUR body language.  I think preventing his retreat to a "safe" place is an error.  This isn't your dog.  Far better that he can remove himself than that he is finally in a fight/flight/freeze situation wherein he has already demonstrated aggression and goes to the next step by biting (you).

Whatever the cause of this dilemma, I can't diagnose it from this distance and I would actually have to observe the dog's body language by watching him quite closely and asking his "owners" to leave the home.  So you have two options:
1.  Find a certified applied animal behaviorist (NOT a dog trainer) who can do just that, as well as evaluate the dog's temperament and question the owners for history of training, experience, etc. - not to mention the dog's reaction to this professional's presence.  (I have no idea if he demonstrates fear or diffidence in the presence of "strangers", i.e., visitors).  To find one see the following sites:

2.  Set aside your expectations about "enjoyability".  This isn't your dog, he doesn't have to be enjoyable.  Ignore him totally, at all times.  If he solicits interaction by coming TO YOU FREELY, ask him for a "sit" (be certain he is trained to do this with positive reinforcement only, not coercion; ask his owners), then scratch his chest briefly and walk away.  Do not walk him (leash him).  Do not approach him directly for any reason.  Do not offer treats.  Simply IGNORE HIM, in a benign way.  Leave doors open so he can remove himself when alone with you.  By ignoring him, you are making a statement of social hierarchy.  He may, slowly, begin to solicit your attention.  Always ask for "sit" and keep your attention short.  You are also relieving your own anxiety and the feeling you have that somehow you have to remedy this situation.  Your stress levels will go down, your body language will become more relaxed, and the dog may (over time) lose whatever conditioned response is prompting this avoidance.  IF you continue to "force" yourself on him (out of Human concern and decency), you may very well find yourself in a situation where the dog progresses in aggression.  Then you both suffer: you need hospital care and the dog loses his life.

Had to add a "PS" here: if I were consulting, I would spend the first 15 minutes ignoring the dog, the next 15 minutes establishing some social hierarchy between us, and then ask the other two people to leave ONE AT A TIME.  I would observe the dog as they did so.  I would then spend approximately 30 minutes NOT interacting with the dog myself but observing HIM with YOU, then I would ask YOU TO LEAVE and just remain as a benign presence and see if the dog responds to ME with such fear.  I would then ask the owners to return and observe the dog's approach to them.  This might be a case of extreme separation anxiety from a dog that has been quite poorly socialized and may, in fact, have been originally quasi "feral" (meaning, little or no interaction with "strangers" from early age).

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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