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Canine Behavior/Barking at strangers


Hello! My dog, Wyatt, is an 8 month old Australian Shepherd. My boyfriend and I got him when he was around 7-8wks old. He was a rescue dog and we assume he was highly neglected from what we saw when we got him. He had fleas, worms, and was very skinny. After we got him all taken care of with a vet he was just your everyday happy and energetic puppy. Since his malnutrition he has always been very food and treat oriented which has been bittersweet because while it helps with training, it can be a problem because he likes to eat a lot of things he finds on the ground like rocks, dirt, paper, etc. We have been really good about watching him and he is kennel trained so he is never allowed to roam without supervision. We did take him to a puppy obedience school which he passed, but he definitely had some focus issues because he is very easily distracted...especially if he thinks he won't get a treat for his behavior. Since he spends his days in a kennel, one of the biggest reasons we took him to an obedience class was to socialize him. We do live in an apartment complex at the moment so he does see other dogs and people, but he seemed not to be interested. In fact, when someone would finally approach him, he would wag his tail, lower to the ground, and sometimes pee a little. If there were a lot of people he would sometimes be a little skittish and try to hide or get away, but once they petted him then he would be fine and appeared to be happy because he was licking them and wagging his tail. In addition, we have been taking him to a daycare every now and then to give him exercise and more opportunity to be around other dogs and he has been interacting well there.

Now, with this background information, I'd like to describe the problem I have been having with Wyatt. It never fails when we go outside to potty or walk or anything, when he sees a dog or person in the distance he will bark and try to run toward them, more so if it's dark outside. He is always on a leash so he never gets far, but he will pull on the leash and bark and growl in the direction of the person or animal. It is really strange because it is only when they are at a distance. Once he is approached by people or is in the immediate surrounding of a person he is happy and wagging his tail. With animals he barks and when they come close he just gets very curious and wants to smell them and investigate, but there appears to be no aggression at this moment either. It is only now becoming a problem because where Wyatt only used to do this every now and then it is becoming more frequent especially now that it is winter and more people are out early in the morning to warm their vehicles and it is dark during his morning potty break, he will continuously try to bark and growl and lunge at them. I am concerned that someone will be afraid of him and report him as a danger. Now, when this happens my initial response is to tighten the leash and walk away while using the command 'Leave It'. On occasion, I will try to tell him to leave it and put him in a sit/stay and sometimes he will do this, but he will usually continue to growl and stare and/or leave this position and lunge/bark/growl again. I just am so surprised by this behavior because he has his moments when he is such a scaredy cat, but then when this happens he sounds sooo mean and aggressive, but he has never bit me, another person, or another dog no matter what and like I said, once they approach he is fine. I just don't know how to fix this because continuing what I am doing seems to just enforce the behavior because I am obviously doing something wrong. Please let me know what I could be doing so Wyatt won't feel the need to bark at everyone outside.

A dog that has suffered in the past (as you describe) from malnourishment or starvation will often "bait" (accept food) even when in full fight/flight response.  This means, inadvertently you may have rewarded the wrong motivation, thought process, or reaction (fight/flight response) so this dog is now heavily confused (gotten mixed signals) on leash when people/dogs are at a "distance" (approaching).  Being a herding breed, his "eye" (moving objects at a distance) is acute; he also has signs of being subdominant or submissive (cowering and peeing) which can resolve into fight/flight response and develop into a real problem.  This breed has a predilection for fear aggression, I've seen it many times.  So I suggest you move to a different training method altogether.

That method is the clicker.  The clicker becomes the "reward" as it signals the dog that what he has JUST DONE is going to be rewarded.  This disconnects the actual food reward from the signal that it is coming (the clicker).  A dog that has been trained with coercion (choker collar) or simple food reward when it chooses the "right" behavior is called a "crossover".  This means the dog must re-learn every cue (command) with the clicker and that requires different words be used for behaviors he might already know very well.  This is important because, while learning the words connected to the behavior and being rewarded (perhaps when he is thinking or reacting in a manner you don't or can't know), a dog can acquire superstitious behaviors: learn something ALONG WITH the intended lesson that is NOT what you had in mind!

The clicker is a sophisticated tool and can be misused, also, so you must learn something about it before starting to use it with the dog.  You will do this by studying it.  The following is a demonstration:

Clickers are readily available at pet supply stores at this point, and the premier expert in clicker training is Karen Pryor whose website is  On that website you will find many articles and videos, including:

Many dogs need the clicker to be muffled, and I think your dog might be one of them, upon introduction.  Simply stick it into a pocket, at first, until the dog understands that this is a GOOD sound.  Before using it on your dog, use it on a person (or persons).  A Human is fully aware of what you are doing and what you are trying to achieve and is the best subject for a simple task ("stand near that table") because s/he can TELL you whether or not s/he "gets it" and help you hone your skills for timing.  And, it's fun.

The basics for clicker training:


The purpose of this training is to:
•   Teach your dog to obey you, but this is really a trick!  The dog will be having fun – s/he will want to work.  The psychological benefit of this as the dog obeys is that, little by little, the dog’s routine of taking your “commands” will result in the his acceptance of permanent lower rank in your household.
•   “Sit” and “Drop” are both behaviors that give you physical control of your dog from a distance.  Having suffered from a behavior disorder, your dog needs this control.

FIRST STEP in using your clicker is to teach your dog that EVERY TIME it hears the clicker it will get a treat.  This is called “Charging the clicker”.  In order to do this, click/treat (click and feed within two seconds of click) several times in a row.  After the fourth or fifth try, let the dog offer you a behavior by itself, with no cue from you (usually a dog sits, especially if you step toward it.)  Click/treat the very second the dog’s rear-end hits the floor (during the behavior).  Back up.  The dog will follow and sit.  Click and treat again.  Repeat this at least three to four times. Now, just as the dog begins to sit, point your finger in an exaggerated manner toward the floor (this will be your “cue” for the dog to “sit”).  The very instant he sits, click/treat.  You will no longer give a c/t (click/treat) for the dog sitting unless the dog is following your “cue” (the pointed finger).   Continue to point, dog sits, c/t.  Repeat this a few times, then end the session.
During the first days of working with the clicker, it is a good idea to click/treat two or three times to keep the clicker “charged”. Then, point (your cue), dog sits, c/t.  Never ask the dog to do this more than twice in a row, and do it randomly throughout each day.  Within approximately one week, you will have a “conditioned response” to your cue (the pointed finger).
There are a few very important things to remember.  Classical Operant Conditioning (which is what you are doing) requires consistent reward for optimum learning in the dog.  An argument is raging among clicker trainers as to whether or not the c/t can ever be totally removed.  The answer is: NO, not totally.  IF you begin to remove the c/t too soon, your dog will no longer sit to your cue.  Learning, in order to become a long-term memory event for the dog, must be continuous and rewarding.  Does this mean you have to use a c/t for the rest of the dog’s life?  You may, at times (early in training, before six months) have to reinforce the c/t.  Generally, however, simple behaviors like “sit” become permanent behaviors in a dog after a while.  Your praise will replace the click/treat, but don’t make the mistake of rushing this!
  Remember, once your dog clearly has got the idea (after 30 to 50 successful repetitions), a treat can be offered any time after the click, providing it does not take more than half a minute. Within several days you can train a dog to sit to a signal given across the room or yard using an immediate click, and then walking toward the dog to offer a treat.  Do NOT allow the dog to “get up” while you approach.  If this happens, turn your back for five seconds.  Turn to the dog, give your “cue”, dog will again sit, click/treat immediately.  Go back to basics for a few more days.  Your dog should remain sitting until you reach it from across the room to give it the treat.
  Once you have gotten a reliable behavior to your cue, you begin to “shape” it.  That means you begin to extend the sit for a “stay” period.  (Do not use the word “stay” at any time.  In fact, use no words at all except the ones I
suggest).  Beginning with short intervals (five seconds), cue the dog, dog sits, withhold the click for five seconds, click and toss the treat away from the dog while saying “Release!” in a happy voice.  Once the dog is “solid”, extend the prolonged sit very slowly by ten-second intervals.  Within approximately 30 repetitions, the dog will have learned the word “release” means “you can get up for your treat”.  You can now begin to use the word “release” and expect the dog to get up, then offer a random “jackpot” (handful of treats).
    No dog should ever be required to remain in a “sit” for more than two minutes.  It’s uncomfortable for many dogs.  Once you have achieved a 2-minute extended “sit”, begin to ask the dog for random time limits.  Once a day, ask for a ten-second “sit”; next time, a 2-minute “sit”.  Do not require the dog to maintain a 2-minute sit each time or the dog will begin to find the “sit” more punishing than the c/t is rewarding.
Do your training in different locations in and around your home (so the dog does not associate the behavior with the kitchen, for instance).  Do your training at different times of day and night wearing different clothing, so the dog does not associate specific time periods in your schedule or your apparel as a cue to perform.
  One very important thing about using the clicker:  Never use any negative signals when the dog is trying to work for you.  Never “correct” (throw out that choker collar!); never say “wrong” or “No”.  The only “punishment” the dog should receive is you turning your back for five seconds.  If the dog fails to learn and is making mistakes, it’s your fault!  Go back to basics and begin teaching the behavior all over again.  

You’ve GOT the Power!!!!  
  The clicker works.  It conveys information to the dog that effects its behavior instantaneously.  It can be used from a distance.  It conveys your pleasure and a reward in a single instant from across a room or a field.  Carry clickers and treats everywhere when you take your dog outside. Click/treat all the behaviors you want, and IGNORE the rest.

Re-teach "sit" once you feel confident about the clicker.  Then take it outside.  When the dog BEGINS to REACT to anyone or anything at a distance, STOP.  Do NOTHING.  Say NOTHING.  Wait for the dog to turn to you, click/treat.  Slowly but surely go from click/treat for his turning TO you to his APPROACHING you in a calm way, click treat.  In other words, you are slowly shaping a behavior you prefer, rather than the lunging and hysteria.  The dog will learn that, when an article appears in the distance which excites his hard wired response, turning TO YOU and approaching YOU for direction is highly rewarding.  This is a slow process, weeks perhaps, and requires absolute consistency on your part, but it works.

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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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