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Bert is an approximately 1 yr old, 15lb mystery breed (we say he is a monkey/alien mix) that we adopted from a rescue 2 weeks ago. Bert had been found abandoned in a house with 3 of his siblings in Jan. and went, first, to a shelter then to a foster home from which we adopted him.
He is a sweet, playful, cuddly guy who has blended perfectly into our “pack” of 2 Bichon Frises. We know nothing of Bert’s background other than he was abandoned. It is very clear that he has had no socialization and very few experiences. He is afraid of doorways, terrified of our back porch and finished basement, and panics at odd things like pulling a Kleenex from a box. He bonded very quickly with our family and seeks out reassurance from us. I know that as we expose him to new people and experiences he will become more confident and I plan to start training classes with him to help him build more confidence.
Having said all of that I’m not sure how to handle his fear barking when new people come into our house, My 21 yr old son’s best friend Matt comes over every day and is very gentle and quiet with Bert yet Bert still stiffens and barks frantically. I started having Matt give Bert little pieces of freeze dried chicken as soon as he walks in the door and Bert will take them from Matt, even approaching him for more, as Matt speaks to him softly. But as soon as the treats stop Bert goes back to the alarm barking. My best friend, Matt’s mom, was here for 3 hrs this week and Bert either alarm barked or curled up in a trembling ball with my Bichons the whole time she was here.
What can I do to support and comfort Bert without giving him the impression that he should be afraid of things?
Let me start by saying thank you for not only rescuing a dog in need, but for being dedicated to giving him a happy life. I like what you’re trying so far. For some dogs with fear issues, offering a few treats gets them over the hump. But, I want you to change what you’re doing a little bit.
When a visitor walks in, have them toss some treats. I want you to have some treats too. While the tossing is happening, I want you to also give Bert some treats. After a couple minutes of treat tossing, remove Bert from the room. (Put him in the other room or a crate, etc.) After being put away for a couple minutes, bring him back in the room and repeat the treat tossing and giving. After a few minutes remove him.
Keep repeating this.
What he is going to figure out is that he only gets the treats when the scary person is there. I actually like the idea of you going into the other room with him and showing him treats but not giving him any. After that couple minutes, bring him back into the room with the person and give him the treats. While this may sound a little mean, (to show him treats and not give him any) he will start to realize that treats only come to him while the scary thing is present.
With these repetitions he’s going to want the scary thing around because he knows that the treats will come back. This is a process that is called Counter Conditioning. If you practice this often you should start to see results. Another piece of advice that I like to give is when the person is tossing treats, I like them to toss the treat past the dog. What happens is the dog goes and gets the treat, and then will return to the person. You’ll notice that overall Bert will start to get closer and closer between throws.
Another thing to work on is hand targeting. This can help him build up the confidence to actually touch the people. Here is a video explaining what hand targeting is:
You’ve already got the right idea, to reward Bert when he’s around the people that frighten him. Just slightly change the way you’re doing it, and you’ll start to see a change. And, continuing to improve his confidence with time, socialization, and training will only help him improve.
Please also remember to find a positive, rewards-based trainer when you decide to move forward with training classes. Training a fearful dog with aversive or punishment techniques in many cases can actually make the problem worse.
Here are a few links to help you find the right trainer in your area:
Thanks for the question!
Kevin Duggan CPDT-KA
Kevin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT.org) and is a Canine Good Citizen Evaluator through the American Kennel Club. He currently resides in Ohio with his dog, V, a six-year-old Shepherd/Lab mix, where he operates All Dogs Go To Kevin, LLC, specializing in helping build positive relationships between humans and their canine companions using clear communication, not pain and fear. For more training tips and tricks, and to meet his amazing dog, V, follow him on Facebook by clicking here.