Canine Behavior/Barking, barking, barking...
QUESTION: Hi Jody- We have a 10 month old shepherd cross that we adopted from our local humane society in Nov.2012. This is my first pup; my previous rescues had been older dogs, so some puppy behaviour (and ways to deal with it) is new to me.
Homer is a pretty well behaved for a pup; he just graduated from Level 1 obedience, and we are working on the things that we learned while out on our walks. He didn't really bark for the first couple of months, but now he is getting comfortable with us, and I suspect he is entering his "teen years", so he is getting more vocal. The first example is when people come to the door. He didn't bark at all before, but now...well, he won't stop! A lady came by today to do a survey, I put him on his leash and asked him to sit beside me, which he did, but he still wouldn't stop barking. I finally put him in the back yard. I didn't want to do this because it's like a reward for him, but I didn't know what else to do. Also, when we meet people on our walks, I make him sit for reward until they pass, as he had a bad habit of lunging at them. This works, but if they speak to me, especially if they are men, he will start to bark, sometimes preceded with a growl. He is not aggressive, but I believe he is doing it out of fear. He's a fairly large pup, and I don't want people to be scared of him. Can you offer some advice on how to deal with this? Thanks so much for offering this service!!
ANSWER: Thank you for your question. I'm thrilled to hear you've already completed a basic obedience class and are committed to working with him to be the best dog he can be.
I expect you're correct that his behavior on walks is fear based - many dogs are more reactive when they are on leash. Perhaps because they feel trapped and can't increase distance, creating more personal space, perhaps because they're just not feeling social and are forced to be on our narrow sidewalks.
Your continuing to ask for a Sit and reward until people pass is a great start. But we want to help your pup get the functional reward (the real world reinforcer) that he achieves, or is hoping to achieve, by the less pleasant behaviors. So, if he's barking or growling at a stranger approaching you, we can feel pretty confident that he's saying "Back off." Why he's saying that - fear, anger, aggression - is actually rather irrelevant. He's telling the other individual he needs more space. So we want to help him learn that he can achieve more space/distance and feel less threatened by that stranger when he chooses more pleasant appearing cut-off signals. Such cut-off signals include licking his lips, turning his head away, turning his whole body away, sniffing the ground, even yawning. These are all signals that tell other dogs that this dog wants no further interaction.
So we can practice at a great enough distance that he notices the stranger (especially strange men), but doesn't yet feel compelled to react in a more explosive behavior display. At that distance, we wait for him to give any of these other cut-off signals, which he's likely to do after taking a moment to register the stranger. When he gives any other cut-off signal, we turn and walk away, telling him what a good boy he is. Once you've increased the distance by 10-20 steps, you can further reinforce with a food reward if you like. But the increased distance is what he needed at that moment, and we helped him get that.
When he has practiced several times at a distance where he never reacts (e.g. 100 feet or 20 feet, depending on the dog) and as successfully given a less explosive cut-off signal and you've followed that immediately by increasing his distance so he feels safer, you can start doing set-ups a little closer (if he's starting at 100 feet, you might try 90 feet; if you're starting at 20 feet, you might try 18 feet).
You'll need helpers to practice this. Some set-ups will involve you and your dog moving away from the stranger, other set-ups will involve the stranger moving away when your dog gives these more relaxed cut-off signals. As you practice, you may inadvertently push him over threshold (the point where he can't help but react explosively). If that happens, just help him escape. Ideally we're not dragging him with tension on the leash, but we can verbally encourage him, lure with food, and if necessary, gently insist that he move with us further away - go as far as necessary for him to calm down and is able to give softer cut-off signals again. If you've been working at 50 feet and you tried 45 and he exploded, you may need to go as far as 55 or 60 feet or even further for him to properly relax now that he's been triggered. Give him a minute or two or ten to calm down, then do the set-up again only you'll stop further away. We want to set him up for success.
I should explain, the set-up will be one of two things. Either the "stranger" will be pre-set in place (you'll know ahead of time exactly where they are) and you and your dog will approach, stopping at a predetermined distance that is far enough away that he is able to make a more desirable choice (softer cut-off signal). If you need to measure out distance and put visual markers for yourself, so you know how far you are from the "stranger".
The other version of a set-up is that you and your dog are in place (or moving around in a small area) and the "stranger" appears at the predetermined distance. You should practice both ways.
As you and your dog get good at this, you'll increase the social pressure by going for walks and while you're moving, you'll have the "stranger" appear at a safe-to-your-dog's sense distance.
As he practices and gets comfortable you'll be able to close the gap over time and eventually be able to walk right past strangers. You'll also need to specifically practice talking with "strangers" - first at a distance and then closing the gap until you can stand and chat and shake hands or hug the person before walking away.
There's a great book that will walk you through step-by-step the whole premise of this process and the actual set-ups to work it. This process is called Behavior Adjustment Training
Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Fear, Frustration and Aggression
, by Grisha Stewart
As for the issue in your home, you can do this work there as well. In both cases, you'll need multiple helpers over the course of the training because the "stranger" will only be "strange" to your dog through one or two sessions until you've worked up close and he's met them and gotten comfortable with them. In order to generalize the behavior, you'll need to work with many "strangers".
You can also help him feel better about visitors by setting him up with a quiet place to hang out while the worker is there. Putting him in the back yard during that is not "reward" it's either a bit of punishment because he actually wanted to remain present with you and this person (depends on the motivation for his barking), or it's relief that he doesn't have to be with that person. Either way, it eases the social pressure for him and gives him a chance to mentally relax and feel better about the whole thing.
To prepare for visitors, you should have a stash of Bully Sticks (stored at room temperature) and Kongs that are stuffed with goodies and stored in the freezer. You can practice "Go to your Spot" which should be a mat or a clearly defined location in the house where he can still see the front door. First just practice going to his place, then practice Stay in that spot while you open the door. Practice having someone knock or ring the doorbell and then put him in his place and Stay while you open the door and either interact (e.g. pizza delivery) or invite the person in. Again, practice when he's calm and relaxed and not already overly aroused. This gives you the foundation.
Ian Dunbar (founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and pioneer of positive reinforcement training) encourages clients to have a pizza party or movie night at their house (once the dog has a bit of foundation for the go to your place/stay exercise. Invite 6-10 people. Tell them ahead of time that they're coming to help train the dog for polite greetings at the door and they will be "arriving" 3 times, and each arrival may take several minutes to get inside.
Here's what it looks like (Ian's description):
1. Guest arrives and knocks/rings. Dog barks and runs to door, you tell him "go to your place" (or whatever command you're using). Tell him Sit and Stay (shout to the guest, "just a second..." or "Coming..."), open the door. If Puppy pops up, slam the door in guest's face and re-set your dog. Do this as long as it takes and as many times as it takes until the guest can enter the house and the dog stays put. Have the polite greeting with the guest.
2. Thank guest for arriving. Tell him, "Oh, the beer is in the mailbox out front" and escort the guest out the back door where they will then go back to the front yard and retrieve their beer.
3. Guest arrives for the 2nd time. Go through the whole thing again until guest can come in and Puppy stays in place until invited to get up after greeting.
4. Thank guest for arriving again. Tell him, "Oh, the bottle opening is taped under the mailbox" and escort him out the back door again.
5. Guest opens their beer and returns to the door to arrive for the 3rd time. This time the dog is more settled, "oh, it's you again."
With 6 - 10 guests arriving, that's a whole lot of arrivals and by the end, the dog has the exercise down pat. Now, the whole "beer in mailbox" thing is just his description. You can do that because it's funny, or you can just ask your guests to please go out the back, come around, count to 10 and 'arrive' again. Or you can sneak them back out the front door if the dog is in another room or distracted by something else.
You can do this party once or twice per month until the dog is perfect at arrivals.
The other aspect of this - and the point of the Bully Sticks and stuffed Kongs is this: Once the guests arrive, the dog may feel a bit overwhelmed with the number of people (or the activity if it's a worker). Giving them something to do can help relieve their stress and anxiety quite a bit. Chewing is a naturally soothing behavior for dogs, so the Bully Stick is a great way to give them 10-30 minutes of chewing. The stuffed Kong can take as long as an hour to clean out and it's self reinforcing because food is coming out of it. You can give these to the dog in the room where the action is if he's comfortable with that, or you can set him up in a separate room for some quiet relaxation time. He may need a break at the start of the party so he can get used to the fact that there are all these people here. Or he may need a break part way through the party, just to settle a bit. Or he may need both (Bully stick one time, Kong the other time)...
My dogs will get one or the other and will spend some time in my bedroom at some point during a party, though I try to have them with us most of the time because the more practice they can have being social like that, the better at it they'll be.
One last thing, you may want to try a Thunder Shirt. This is an anxiety wrap that can help dogs feel less anxious in the face of stress or scary situations. It's about 85% effective. It's not designed to be worn 24/7. The effect only lasts about 30-90 minutes per wearing. It can be left on for several hours, but the effect has worn off by that 90-minute mark. Taking it off for a few hours and then putting it back on can re-establish the effect for a while. Put it on about 2-10 minutes before going on walks, and leave it on for a few minutes after getting home. Put it on 5-30 minutes before you expect guests/workers to arrive and leave it on until he's calm or a few minutes after they've left. You can use the Thunder Shirt during the BAT training sessions to help him feel more secure and more able to give those softer cut-off signals.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thank you so much for your detailed answer - and so quickly! I have another example for you, if you will. This evening we went out for a walk, and I saw a friend coming out of a neighbourhood store. She was standing in the (small) parking lot, and I was on the far side of the sidewalk. As soon as we started talking, Homer started to bark - but not at her; he was looking at me and appeared to be barking for attention. I asked for a sit and down, and rewarded; as soon as released, he started barking again. He did the same thing at obedience: as long as he was doing the exercises he was quiet, but when we stopped to listen to the instructor, he would bark...at me! Possibly not related, but when we are at home and I am sitting down, he brings his chew toys and lays ON my feet - if I move, he maneuvers himself to get on my feet again. I know the "alpha dog" theory has been discredited, but do I have a pushy dog? Thank you for your time!!
I'll start with his choice of contact with you when he's chewing on his toys... You're correct that the 'alpha' dog theory and "dogs try to dominate us" theory has been discredited. If we stop and think about what he's doing - Homer is bringing his highly valued chew items closer to you. If he were trying to be 'alpha' or 'dominant' he certainly wouldn't bring his prized chews near you. He'd keep them on the other side of the room from you and guard them - aggressively. By bringing them near you it demonstrates that he's come to learn that the best place to enjoy his chews are when he's near his person (you). He is seeking contact with you (down at your feet - again nothing like an effort to control or physically dominate), which is a social bonding behavior.
When my puppies are little, I spend a lot of time holding them in my lap and holding their chew toys at one end while they chew on the other. I do this partly to contain them (no sneaking off to potty behind the couch) and also because I want them to associate the joy of chewing on these things with being near me. As they get older and are free to move around with less supervision, they will frequently go pick a chew toy and bring it over to lay down near me. If they hop on the ottoman, they will often brace the antler or Nylabone against my foot or calf. Some of that is likely just physics - my body part happens to be in a good place to help prop up the chew without it falling over, and part of that is a social bonding behavior because my dogs have learned that these items are more enjoyable when they're close to me. So I wouldn't worry about that behavior. If it's physically uncomfortable, you can shift your body position so he can't lay on you, but then just rest a hand on his lower back or gently stroke his lower back. I'll bet he's just as content with that physical contact while he enjoys his chew as he is laying on your feet.
Now, back to the barking and directing it at you. Sometimes it seems that dogs see our speaking very much like their own speaking. So if you're speaking to someone across the street (raised volume) he may be joining the conversation from his perspective. Or it may be attention seeking. If your not in the middle of training with him and you're talking to someone else, then your attention isn't on him and he may be asking for it. I wonder what would happen if you put him in a Sit/Stay before you begin the conversation, and just stroked his head while you talked to someone else. Now he's busy doing a specific action that you instructed and you're physically touching him (paying attention to him) even though you're speaking to someone else.
Or if you're not specifically asking him to do something like a Sit/Stay or you're not touching him, I wonder if we could increase his quiet simply by dropping (or handing him) the occasional treat while he's quiet during your conversations (or listening to the instructor in class). So if you're able to say "hi! how are you?" before he starts barking, then just hand him a treat (or drop it to the ground for him) as you initiate the conversation. Then, at first it may be every few seconds, but quickly build up to longer and longer silences between treats. So it may be the first few times this happens, you drop a treat every 2 seconds. But the next conversation you have it's every 3-5 seconds, then 8-10 seconds, 15, 20 seconds, every 30 seconds, once every minute, once every 2 minutes... if these are mostly just greetings on the street, that would turn into just a single treat at as you walk away from each of these encounters.
Another thing to consider (since I'm not there to see the behavior nor the context) is that dogs do things that work for them. So if he's barking at you every time you engage with someone else, I'm curious to know how you respond. If he barks and your response is to then give him a treat, or touch him or interrupt your conversation to engage with him (even if it's just to tell him Sit and Stay), then you're reinforcing his barking and you're likely seeing the issue get more intense or annoying. So, we want to be sure that we're NOT reinforcing the barking by giving him attention for it. And we also want to be sure that we're anticipating the barking and preempting it by treating/praising/engaging with him for being quiet before
he can start to speak, and then continue to reinforce continued quiet (or renewed quiet if he began barking and then stopped again).
I hope I've made sense here. Sometimes it's difficult to explain clearly when there's so much nuance to a situation and I'm not there to see it and comment on what I'm actually observing. A lot of this is guessing due to the lack of actual observation.
Los Angeles Behaviorist