Chip is a 6 year old neutered male — cross between a Springer Spaniel and a black Labrador Retriever. A few years back he was hit by a car and badly injured. Before that, Chip loved everyone! Now he barks excessively at adults. If someone comes to the house he barks, retreats, and runs for the back bedroom. It appears that his barking is fear related. Any suggestions for Chip?
I would need a lot more background information to answer this question completely, but it sounds as if Chip was traumatized by his car accident. Springers and Labs both tend to be people-friendly breeds, and the fact that Chip was friendly before the accident reinforces this. A serious medical problem can be very traumatic to a dog: they don’t understand what is going on — don’t realize that the people surrounding them are trying to help. All the dog understands is that he’s not with his family, strangers are poking and prodding at him, moving him around, sticking him with sharp objects, etc. It is not surprising that after such an experience Chip is afraid of people and has become a fear aggressive dog.
This is a very complex situation, however with dedication it should be a resolvable situation. The first thing I would suggest is using some basic management techniques. Try to avoid putting Chip in stressful situations. This means you must be aware of what makes Chip uncomfortable and fearful and avoid those situations.
If Chip has a “safe place” in your house, take advantage of it. If he doesn’t have a safe place, help to create one for him — I would suggest crate training him — and try to make it a place that is out of the heavy traffic patterns — a bedroom or office area is ideal. Observe where Chip spends most of his time when sleeping or relaxing in the house, and if it is an isolated area, reinforce his being there by giving him treats when he’s in his place and praising him. If it is not an isolated area, establish a place that you would like him to use. Put his place on cue — in other words, when he’s headed to his place, give the cue “place” and treat him when he reaches it. At other times, give him the cue “place,” and lure him to his place and, again, treat him when he gets there. Always reward and praise him when he’s in his place, making it somewhere he likes to be. Don’t use his place as a punishment — always make it a good thing.
It is not always possible to know when people will knock on your door, but if you do know in advance that people are coming over, put Chip in his place just before they arrive, and have him stay there. If it’s a room that has a door, close the door so he won’t feel he must come out and defend against the visitor. If you feel comfortable that Chip can handle the situation, after the visitor is in the house and has been there for a while (at least 10-15 minutes), open the door to Chip’s room and leave it open. Do not attempt to coax Chip out, but if he does decide to come out, don’t make a big fuss over him. Basically ignore him, and let him make his own way around. Tell your guests to ignore Chip and let Chip approach at his own pace. Under no circumstances should anyone approach Chip or try to coax him to come to them — let him approach people at his own pace. Do not have your visitors hand out treats – Chip may go over his comfort threshold to get the food, but this will not help the situation. It is your responsibility to explain what to do and the rules to your guests – and to enforce those rules! Most people will cooperate if they are given clear instructions. If they are not willing to cooperate, and feel they know the “way to handle this dog,” it is your responsibility to protect your dog and act in your dog’s best interest.
It is possible to change your dog’s attitude toward strangers with a behavior modification plan. It would require much more information than we have to develop such a plan, but a certified dog trainer (www.ccpdt.com) will be able to help you. When looking for a professional dog trainer, be sure they use only positive methods. This means absolutely no choke collars, pinch collars, shock collars, alpha rolls, jowl shakes or dominance theory. Your dog is afraid, and harsh methods will only make him more afraid. You should use only positive methods to change his attitude. I cannot stress this enough — there are far too many trainers (professional and amateur) who feel that bossing a dog around and using harsh, painful methods will solve all problems. My measurement is: would I do this to my kid? If I won’t do it to my kid, why would I do it to my dog? Fear Aggressive dogs need patience and understanding – not force.
Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.