Canine Behavior/Rehoming an adult litter- mate syndrome dog
A beautiful Doberman female, about 2 years old has come into our rescue and I am searching for how to help her and get a possible adopter ready for her and her problems.
the following is from the owners daughter as this dog has already been re-homed, not by my rescue.
"Thanks for your response. My Mom was told that she lost her original home because the owner said she could no longer afford her and her brother. It was mentioned that the two dogs were destructive in her backyard. This dog has not done one thing wrong in my Mom's yard, but she has never been relaxed either.
Annabella prefers to stay outside in my Mom's backyard, she is fearful to come inside my Mom's house. We do not know why this is. My Mom has to put a leash on her to get her to go in the house. She has been leaving a leash attached to her in order to be able to catch her. Once inside, she remains nervous, but will relax when my Mom pets her. She sleeps next to my Mom's bed (she also has a giant dog bed that she lies on in the living room). She remains fearful of my Father even though he has tried to sit and get her to come to him many times. She won't even come over to him when he ignores her. She barks at people when they come into the backyard. She tries to run out the front door of the house when it is opened if they don't watch her. She has gotten out and run down the street and almost been hit by a car. My Mom was finally able to catch her. She has a doghouse but will not go inside.
My Mom takes her to a dog park in order to exercise her. This is when Annabella is the happiest and acts like a "regular" dog. This is the only time I have been able to interact with her and pet her. Some of the time she will remain alone, but she will seek a dog out to play with. She gets along great with another dog as long as it is not submissive. If it is too submissive, she will try to "slam" into it and knock it down or fight it. I guess if she figures it is okay, she will run and play with it for the longest time! This is when she is really happy and acts like a "normal" dog. She will even run back over to my Mom to visit and show no fear of anything. She will run up to strangers and greet them, men or women! She is the happiest dog in the world. You would never know she has issues.
But, once my Mom takes her home, she regresses to her former state. We just can't figure this out.
She seems to be housebroken and has not had an accident unless my Mom was unable to let her out and she was really sick. That only happened once or twice I think. She has not damaged anything inside or outside of the house."
Thank you for the beautiful picture of Annabella. She's gorgeous!
I don't read anything in this email about a litter mate syndrome issue currently happening, though the destructive yard behavior with her brother at the first home may likely have been related to that. How long ago were she and her brother separated (when did Annabella move in the home described in the letter)? It's possible that a great deal of her anxiety is due to the lack of a canine companion.
So, if I'm understanding the question correctly, the daughter of the current owner is telling you about Annabella's behavior history to her knowledge in the hopes of your rescue finding her a new home. Are they still housing Annabella at this time or has your rescue taking guardianship of her? If the latter, is she in a shelter setting or at a foster home?
Was there an actual reason given for their decision to rehome Annabella?
Also, how many owners has Annabella had in her 2 years? From the letter it sounds like she was with one owner with her brother, then the home who is now relinquishing her to you. Is that it, or has there already been a 3rd home which is now trying to find her another home? I'm sure you're aware that the more homes the dog passes through, the harder it will become for her to acclimate to a forever home. I understand your urgency to try to help her become as adoptable as possible so that she can find a forever home and not just a for-now home.
From the information provided, she sounds like a dog who missed out on her socialization window with people and inside. If she was kept in a yard during her first 3 months and never introduced to the inside, then being uncomfortable and nervous inside is a typical response. Also, if she was allowed inside once or twice as a puppy, but had puppy energy (escalated by playing with er brother) and was then scolded or kicked out for being out of control inside, this can also make her uncomfortable inside in the future. Further, if she was a yard dog and only ever had a single caretaker or only female caretakers, then she is far more likely to be concerned by men and strangers.
But, that lack of proper, positive exposure during her first 3 months doesn't mean all is lost. We can do what we call "remedial" socialization with her. It will take longer than with a puppy because it's no longer a blank slate that's learning about the world. Rather, it's now a dog who sees many things as rare enough to be worried about them and so we have to un-teach the fear of those things and change her opinion of them.
The single most effective way to change her opinion is by making positive associations with things that currently make her nervous - while taking great care to keep her below her panic threshold. In other words, if she's nervous of coming inside, I wouldn't force her to go in. I wouldn't drag her inside by a leash; rather I'd make sure she has a place to be that's off the ground and protected from the weather, with a heater if necessary for cold nights for the time being and allow her to stay out if she is more comfortable there. But I would also play games with her with her favorite toys or with super tasty treats (whatever she feels is her favorite) NEAR the open door from the back yard that leads inside. Then, as she's playing fetch or tug or search-for-treats and she shows zero hesitation to go close to the open door, then perhaps you toss the toy/treat just onto the threshold, then once she gets the toy/treat, provide great happy praise and move the game away from the door for a minute or two or ten. Then do another toss to the threshold and then move the game away. Then, as she's showing complete comfort to get the toy/treat from the threshold, then we toss the toy/treat just inside the door. Then a few inches into the house, then a foot or so, then a couple feet, etc. Until she's happily running into the house and through the room to get the toy/treat and coming back out on her own terms and the game continues away from the doorway for a 1-10 minutes.
Once she'll go all the way inside of her own accord, you can stack the awesomeness for her by tossing in a dozen more treats for her to find all over the room while she's already in there. You can then use a medium value treat (e.g. her kibble or boring dog biscuits) outside, but when you're tossing inside, use string cheese or chicken breast or hamburger... This way the super good stuff is always inside and while the game continues outside, it's just not quite as exciting as the inside part of the game.
During all of this, we want to pay attention to her body language. We never want to force her to go inside. We don't want to see any stress signs at all (panting excessively, drooling, lip-licking, yawning, excessive blinking, hesitating, slowing her movements, ears pinned back, tail nub pointing down, cowering, etc). Instead, we want her to be relaxed and happy about the whole game.
One of the best ways to work on this is to provide her the option to go to the door for the goodie, but then reduce that social pressure by moving the game away from the door. If I were playing this game, I'd sit about 5-8 feet away from the door. I'd toss a treat to her. Then another one a few feet from her. Then I'd toss one behind her so she has to move away from me and the door. Then maybe 10-20 feet from her, but not near the door. Once she's into the game, I might drop one just a few feet from me. If she's comfortable, she'll come get it. If she's not yet, then I'll toss it closer to her. Once she's moving, I'll periodically drop the treats nearer to me. When she gets the treat that's nearer to me, the next treat is tossed behind her so that we REDUCE THE SOCIAL PRESSURE BY ALLOWING HER TO MOVE AWAY FROM ME/THE DOOR. Then as she's comfortable with coming to me, I might start handing her treats as well as dropping them at my feet. I will then start including some tosses that are in the direction of the door, but not all the way to the door. Always following 1 or 2 tosses toward the door with a treat or 2 being tossed to the other side of the yard so she has a chance to move away from the scary door. This does two things - first it reduces that social pressure by giving her space. It also resets her at a distance so that she can then decide if she wishes to move closer to us/the door. As she gets comfortable with the game and trusts the situation, you'll find that she'll start coming toward you and hanging out near you. Or the door. If you keep the super high value treats as the ones that go toward the door/through the door, and medium value treats for everything else, you'll likely start to see her move toward the door and just wait expectantly for you to toss the awesome stuff her way. You can play with that by allowing her to go spend time there, toss 3-6 treats to her there, then toss a couple medium value treats away from the door to get her to move away - so she can decide if she wants to be closer to the door again...
I use this technique with dogs who are fearful of people with great success - always allowing the dog to decide whether or not to engage. We can do the same game with the door as the scary thing and moving through the door as the dog feels comfortable.
There are a couple of great books that might prove useful in helping Annabella build her sense of confidence.
The first is by Patricia McConnell, PhD. It is a basic walk-through of counter conditioning. The book uses a single example, but the process is essentially the same no matter what the fearful trigger is.
The Cautious Canine - How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears
Also, Click to Calm - Healing the Aggressive Dog
by Emma Parsons. While this book is focusing on calming aggressive behavior, most aggression is founded in fear and so dealing with a dog whose fear display is flight or freeze can also benefit greatly from the concepts behind this book - watching for the calm/confident behaviors and then marking and rewarding them to help build positive associations and thus more confidence.
Also, I recommend to every client I have (and nearly every All Experts question I receive) to read Turid Rugaas' book, On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals
. This book is an excellent resource for learning a great many subtle behavior signals that dogs give that tell us when they're feeling nervous, anxious, insecure or are making an effort to defuse tension or avoid conflict/confrontation. When we can better read those signals from the dogs, we are in a much better position to intervene far earlier in the experience to help the dog feel safer and more comfortable. It can be a great asset when working with a fearful dog. If the person recognizes that lip-licks or whale eye tell us volumes about how uncomfortable a dog is, then the person who is engaging with the dog can make changes to their approach (change body position to be less threatening, toss the treat further from themselves, take a break or do different activity, etc) to help the dog feel like they've been heard and respected by easing that social pressure and giving the dog a chance to process the encounter - and see that nothing horrible happened. As a rescue, it will be invaluable to you and your volunteers/fosters to know these kinds of behaviors (if you don't already) and then also allows you to educate new adopters to such behaviors, especially for dogs who are particularly anxious and giving off such signals with regularity. (If I ran a rescue, I'd give a copy of this book to every new adopter to have as a reference with their new friend. It opens a whole new world of communication when you can accurately understand the dog's effort to tell us how they feel. :-)
I wonder if she had more confidence and was more comfortable inside or with people when she had her brother in her world. Do you know if this fearful behavior began after she was split from her brother or if she already had this issue? Some timid dogs feel much better when they have a confident canine companion to lead the way. In my own home, I had a very confident and friendly Akita/Chow mix and a much younger, very timid Chow/mix. The younger dog would bark and move away from visitors to the home until the older, confident dog approached and greeted. Once the younger one saw that the older dog was fine with these visitors, then the younger one would come forward and greet and relax. If Annabella had been relying on her brother for that confidence, and now has no canine friend to teach her that new people are safe, that might be exacerbating her fear of people, and even of inside. Since she gets on quite well with other dogs, I might find her a doggie friend to house her with at the shelter, or put her in a foster home with another dog. In either case, that other dog should be relaxed and confident and human/inside friendly - not fearful or timid. This will allow her to take her lead from that dog.
We can use that confident dog in play and training activities to model relaxed dog-human interactions and let her screw up the courage to join the games. And then also work with her privately away from that dog, in case she doesn't get adopted with that dog. It may be most suitable for her to be adopted into a home with at least one other dog who is known to be confident and human/inside friendly. Again, reaching into my own world, if my timid boy had to be rehomed, it would be a requirement that he go to a home that has (or will have) at least one other dog who is confident and human friendly but not pushy/bully-ish or resource guardy because my boy will just back off and avoid toys or food or even entire rooms if another dog shows any indication of resource guarding. So he needs a dog friend that will bolster him but not steamroll over him. It sounds like Annabella might need a similar kind of companion.
I hope some of this proves helpful to you. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance with training ideas/behavior modification or housing options. Or just to update on her progress or if she gets adopted. :-)
Happy New Year.
Los Angeles Behavior Specialist