Ask a Pet Expert: Being a hospitable hound

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — 8News has invited the Richmond SPCA to begin a regular feature on WRIC.com. Richmond SPCA Behavior and Training Specialist Alan Lankford will answer your questions and offer training tips not only to improve your pet’s behavior but to improve your relationship and understanding.

My dog, who I adopted from the Richmond SPCA, doesn’t like anyone to come in my house. I can’t have anyone over because of her. She goes nuts. I don’t know what to do because I’m having family over in two weeks. These are visitors who she has never met, and I don’t want her to bite or to have to keep her in her kennel while they are here. What should I do? I need help.

Thanks for your question; I hope I can help! Seeing your canine friend get inexplicably aggressive is quite upsetting. Who knows what unconscious currents could be motivating her antisocial behavior, what puppyhood traumas may have imprinted themselves upon her psyche? We don’t have a Universal Dog Translator (yet…), so, unfortunately, the field of dog psychoanalysis has yet to blossom, and we’ll have to leave these questions by the wayside. With the causes unknown, what we can focus on is changing the behavior itself.

scared-brindle-dog-stephanieFor whatever reasons, your dog has formed very negative associations with strangers. This could be a noble − if quixotic − attempt to protect you from those with ill-intent (a category that currently includes literally everyone but you), or it could be an attempt to mask her inward fear with outward ferocity. The relevant point is that this bad behavior is currently working quite well for your dog. She doesn’t want strangers to approach. She acts mean. Strangers don’t approach. Regardless of how you feel, your dog is pretty sure she’s got this stranger issue worked out just fine. The first step toward change is to stop allowing this preconceived notion to be reinforced. This doesn’t mean getting guests to approach her regardless of her attitude − which I’m sure common sense tells you is a terrible idea − but instead managing things so she doesn’t have to interact with guests in the first place.

Stage-managing around your dog’s neurosis may seem excessive at first, but it will pay off in the long run. Yes, that means putting her in her kennel or in a separate room when you have guests over, at least at first. This does not mean that your girl is the archetypal Bad Dog, but simply that she’s too nervous to receive guests for the time being. I certainly get that way myself, and you can let her know there’s no shame in it. It is not a punishment, and to drive this point home I’d give her something extra-special to chew on while she’s indisposed.

Managing the problem is only half the battle, though. Depending on the severity of her condition, you can begin to enlist visitors to help in your dog’s quest for mental stability. I’d reserve a delicious food she never gets to eat normally (which, if she’s like most dogs, will be something disgusting like cold hot dog pieces or liverwurst) just for this. The goal now is to pair the appearance of her most hated enemies with the appearance of her most desired foodstuff, while not pushing her so hard that she explodes into a barking fit. It takes some practice, not to mention finesse. At first, seeing the actual person will probably be too much for her. Try having someone ring your doorbell repeatedly, and treat her after each ring. Once she starts looking to you and accumulating drool when she hears the doorbell, she’s ready to move on to a greater challenge.

Here is a good time to start building a routine for her. After the doorbell, and before you open the door, put her in her kennel and give her a few special treats. From there, you can let the guest in and help them mentally prepare for your crazy dog. If she’s ready, try having them toss some of those good treats into her crate, without looking at or talking to her. Being very careful not to push her too hard too fast, you can have people begin to get closer and closer to her crate, making sure to keep up the big rewards. Slowly, your dog will begin to reconsider her hardline stance with respect to guests in her house.

When she can stand the sight of a houseguest without getting apoplectic, you can try putting her kennel in whatever room you’re socializing in. Instruct people to act like she’s not even in the room, no looking at her, talking to her, or approaching her, unless they come bearing treats. It’s important for her to learn that guests are predictable, and won’t try to invade her personal space. If you know someone who has trouble following these directions (a child, a very insistent in-law), don’t inflict them on your poor dog, as even one scary (and for her, scary can mean being looked at too hard) experience with a guest can seriously set her back.

It’s not likely that your dog is ever going to relish the company of strangers, and that’s okay. Dogs are just like people, individuals with their own quirks and insecurities, and many of them are just introverts by nature. Forcing dogs like that to socialize is not going to do anyone a bit of good, and can be damaging to both your guests’ bodily integrity and − much more importantly − to your dog’s fragile emotional wellbeing. Two weeks is probably too short a timescale, but if you’re rigorous and consistent both with stage-managing away opportunities for bad behavior, as well as pairing the presence of guests with big rewards, you will be able to get her to at least tolerate the presence of others. This is as far as many human beings get, so it’s nothing for her to feel bad about.

For more in-depth and less grandiloquent advice, call the Richmond SPCA’s free behavior helpline, at 804-643-7722, or visit richmondspca.org/behavior.

Ready to ask the expert? Send your pet behavior questions to be answered on wric.com to rcrocker@wric.com.

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