Building Up an Insecure Beagle’s Respect for His Guardian to Stop His Territorial Barking

By: David Codr

Published Date: April 30, 2015

IMG_1308

Lucky is a six-year-old Beagle who lives on beautiful Coronado Island, California. I was called in to help put a stop to his barking and territorial behavior when guests come into his home.

Lucky started barking in a territorial way as soon as I knocked on the door. It took a moment before Lucky’s guardian opened the door while holding the dog. His handler was attempting to calm the dog down by telling him everything was OK as Lucky ignored him while barking at me.

Because holding a dog when its reactive can intensify the reaction and I wanted to get a true gauge of his behavior to an arriving guest, I asked his owner to place the dog on the floor so I could recreate the initial greeting again. The second time Lucky barked with about the same intensity which is to be expected as it just saw me a moment before.

After the guardian opened the door a crack, I asked him to step back and opened the door in a gradual way myself. I started out with the door open only a few inches allowing me to insert my right leg into the space to afford the dog the opportunity to meet me with his nose. Lucky stopped barking and instead took several deep sniffs of my leg before backing away from the door a bit.

Once I entered into the home, Lucky resumed his barking at me. But each time he barked, he lowered his head, looked away and took a step backward. This told me that I was dealing with an insecure dog. I gave him an opportunity to settle down on his own but after a couple of minutes, Lucky showed no signs of slowing down. He was clearly barking to tell me he disagreed with my presence.

I took out a leash and started to walk towards him in a calm but deliberate way. I didn’t want to spook him, but I also wanted him to know that his barking had no affect on me and that I was not a follower. As I steed towards him, Lucky continued to retreat farther back into the home until he had no where left to go. I stopped about ten feet away from him and waited for a moment before holding the leash out for Lucky to inspect.

Lucky gave the leash a little sniff, then started barking again, but this bark had far less intensity to it, almost as if made under his breath. I fitted the leash into a lariat and dropped it over his head. The instant I did this, Lucky’s barking stopped. I walked the dog back into the sitting room in the front of the house and sat down with his guardian to discuss the dog’s barking and behavior.

After only a few moments, I learned that Lucky had few rules or boundaries he was expected to follow. I also learned that his guardians had dealt with his aggressive bark greeting by placing him in his kennel or another room when guests arrived. While this strategy ensures that the guests are safe, it doesn’t give the dog the ability to learn that invited houseguests are not a threat.

I went over a different way of answering the door where Lucky’s guardian can claim the space around the door and how to disagree and correct the dog.

His guardian seemed resigned to the fact that Lucky’s behavior was the way it was and wasn’t going to change, so I spent a few minutes explaining how important it is for the dog to see and respect his humans and some things that he could do to appear that way to his dog. Its a safe bet that a big part of Lucky’s behavior resulted from his guardian’s low level of energy. His speaking voice was made at a quiet volume and his rate of speech was slow and deliberate. He also responded to Lucky’s behavior very late. This reserved energy and slow corrections allowed the dog to “get going” which makes it more difficult to disagree or stop unwanted behaviors.

Lucky’s guardian thought that the dog was fearful and barking out of a sense of insecurity. While that is certainly a factor, it was clear that the dog did not respect him as Lucky ignored his attempts to correct or disagree with his barking behavior.

I went through a leadership exercise that I have successfully used with hundreds of clients. The exercise involves the human placing a high value item or treat on the floor and claiming it in a similar fashion to how a dog does. I had taken the dog off the leash to conduct this exercise. When I removed the leash, Lucky didn’t start barking again until I placed the treat on the floor and walked away.

It took a few moments, but Lucky eventually gave me the distance I asked for and after a few moments, he laid down on the floor to signify that he was no longer challenging me for the treat. As soon as he did so, I knelt down next to it and tapped the floor to tell the dog he could have it.

I repeated the exercise a second time but it took Lucky about three times as long to lay down. He barked at me for much of the exercise until he gave up and laid down. As soon as he did, I rewarded him by allowing him to get the treat. While I was conducting the exercise a third time, his guardian told me that the only reason that Lucky was barking was my presence. I explained that while the dog was accustomed to barking at things and people he disagreed with, it was my not allowing him to get the treat that was the main reason.

I ran through the exercise a fourth time and his guardian held fast to the believe that I was the only cause of the barking. I usually want the dog to have nearly mastered the exercise before I have any of his guardians participate but his guardian kept saying it was all due to me being a stranger. Against my better judgement I had him conduct the exercise and I spent the next hour regretting that decision.

Because of his lack of respect for his guardian’s authority and the humans slow reactions, Lucky ignored him and went through or around him snatching the treat off the floor. After about 30 minutes the handler’s timing improved quite a bit but was still severely slow in reaction to the dog’s movements. We went through a number of variations to make it easier for his guardian, but that half hour proved to the dog that he could defeat the exercise and his guardian’s attempts to correct him with ease.

I stepped in a few times to conduct the exercise myself as I had no difficulty communicating that the treat was to be left alone, but when his guardian tried again, he got the same result he did before. Once it became clear that this was not the best exercise for this human, I had him place the dog on a leash so we could practice his reaction to passers by or people out on a  walk.

At first we had difficulty finding people with dogs to practice with, but eventually a woman came by with two small dogs. I took the leash and showed Lucky’s guardian how to correct the dog on the leash before it started to bark. I wanted him to observe the dog as learning a dog’s body language is a crucial component of knowing when and how to react.

As she walked by with her dog, I saw Lucky hold his breath and slightly lower his head. As soon as he did so, I gave a quick tug on the leash to the side to break his focus. As soon as he looked away, I held a high value treat up between my eyes, made a kissing sound to capture his attention then introduced a command word of “eyes.”

As soon as he heard the kissing sound, Lucky looked up at me then shifted his gaze to the treat I was holding between my eyes and his. I repeated the command word several times as I lowered the treat towards the dog while keeping it in a line so I could maintain eye contact. I waited until the woman was just about past us before I popped the treat into his mouth while saying “eye” as the same time.

The woman agreed to walk back in front of Lucky’s house again so his guardian could practice the same technique. As she started to walk towards us, I saw Lucky start to hold his breath and lower his head to stare at them so I motioned for his guardian to correct on the leash then use the eyes technique. He did it perfectly. I saw the dog’s ears oscillate to follow the sound of the woman and her dogs, but he kept his eyes on his guardian and didnt bark at all as she passed back and forth in front of his house.

Each time she passed, I had Lucky’s guardian take a step forward closer to the sidewalk. When you have a reactive dog and you conduct a counter conditioning or redirecting exercise like this, you want to build on small successes and gradually get closer to the stimulus while making sure you stop before it becomes too much for the dog to deal with.

We repeated this process with Lucky and his guardian getting closer and closer to the sidewalk and passing dogs. Each time she passed by, Lucky’s guardian was able to redirect him and prevent any reaction or barking. When I asked him how he felt, Lucky’s guardian didnt have much of a reaction leaving me to think he was unimpressed. I told him he should take up poker as he was certainly a challenge to read.

After the woman left to continue her walk, we waited but no additional dogs were around. After a bit we went out on a walk to see if we could find some dogs in the neighborhood. As we walked we passed the local high school’s outdoor field which was hosting a LaCross game with lots of people coming and going. Lucky’s guardian explained that he usually avoided such places as he was never certain how the dog would react. This is the same strategy that he uses when guests arrive to their home. And while it ensures there will be no barking episodes, it also denies the dog the ability to learn that strangers are no threat.

I took the leash and we stood inside the gates for a few moments so that I could show him how to correct Lucky if he reacted. Although there was a lot of noise, movement and new people, Lucky remained calm and didn’t bark at anyone.

We were getting ready to leave a few minutes later when a small group of students walked up and asked if they could pet the dog. I had already returned the leash to Lucky’s guardian and when I looked up at him, he seemed a little concerned but didn’t say anything. I told the kids they could and the group approached Lucky squatting and kneeling in front of the dog while reaching out the pet him. Guess what Lucky did? NOTHING! He sat there calmly while all these storage hands reached out to pet and scratch him. No barking. No backing away. No avoidance behavior or movement. He just sat there and let the kids show him some love. This was an awesome exposure to strangers that couldn’t have gone better if I planned it myself.

After we returned back to the house we waited bit but the streets were empty again. I told Lucky’s guardian to go inside with the dog so I could play the part of a guest arriving so he could practice the technique I went over with him at the start of the session. But right after he went inside, a woman came by with a couple of dogs. I ran over to her and asked if she could help us and walk her dogs in front of the house so we could practice the eyes technique again.

She was a little reluctant at first saying her dogs were pretty reactive themselves. But once I explained what we would be doing she agreed. I ran inside and had Lucky put the leash back on and come outside. As soon as he did, the woman started to walk by before we were ready.

Lucky did the same body language warning as before, so I told his guardian to correct and redirect, but instead he was looking at the woman and her dogs which were also reacting. I repeated the instruction again with a “now” at the end but by the time he started to correct, it was way too late; Lucky unleashed a garage of barks while rearing up on his hind legs.

I showed Lucky’s guardian how to reposition the dog and to his credit, he regained control and was able to settle Lucky down. This was no small task and I commended him on his accomplishment. Im not sure he believed me or if it was his relaxed nature that made me think he wasn’t giving himself enough credit. But stopping a reactive dog once it gets started without leaving the area is an accomplishment and I made sure to communicate that to him.

After he settled Lucky down, I had him use the eyes command to redirect the dog’s attention as the woman passed by use a few times. Each time she got close, he used the eye command to redirect Lucky’s attention successfully. After the initial reaction that was partly caused by the woman walking by before he could get prepared, Lucky’s guardian did a fantastic job. The woman was nice enough to walk pas the house a half dozen times. After each pass I had him take one step closer to the sidewalk and put Lucky in to a sit to repeat the process. Getting closer to the stimulus is more challenging for the dog, but Lucky’s guardian successfully redirected Lucky and kept him from from barking once.

By the time the woman and her dogs passed the last time, Lucky was sitting one foot away while looking up at his guardian and not reacting to the woman and her dogs at all! After she left to continue her walk, I asked Lucky’s handler what he thought and got a shrug.

I was like “come on man. You and Lucky did great! Don’t you feel good about it?” But instead of feeling good about the several successful repetitions, he referenced how the dog reacted when he first came out of the house saying “He is just unpredictable. You never know when he is going to go off.”

I took a deep breath and went over the procedure again and how the most important element was disagreeing with Lucky before he starts to react. And that If it was my dog, I would stand outside with a pocket full of treats at the times people frequently pass the house so he could practice. Dogs can never unlearn a learned behavior, but if we practice an alternative enough, it usually becomes the way the dog reacts from then on.

While I was very happy with the progress Lucky made, I wasn’t getting that feeling from his guardian. Part of what I pride myself in doing is showing a client what their dog is capable of, then coaching the guardian through the exercise or situation until they get the same result. But the only way that can happen is if the guardian sees and accepts what the dog can do. Usually my clients are impressed with their dog and excited about the progress. But in this case, I felt zero excitement, confidence or any sense of accomplishment from Lucky’s guardian.

I wanted to rack up some more successful house passes to try to build up a feeling of accomplishment for Lucky’s guardian, but once again we were left with empty streets. I started to kick myself for not asking if any of the local kids we saw at the high school could help us by walking in front of the house as that is something Lucky usually reacted to strongly.

After waiting a couple minutes longer, I headed back to the school and found a couple of teens who agreed to help us out. I had them wait a house away them brought out Lucky and his guardian so we could practice again. As they say, practice makes perfect. Lucky’s guardian’s timing was better, and his technique improved as well. The high schoolers passed by a half dozen times without Lucky reacting or barking at all. Another big accomplishment!

IMG_1276

After we finished practicing with the high school kids, we went back inside. A couple of minutes later the guardian’s parents returned home (they all live together) so we used their arrival as another opportunity to practice the door greeting. It took a few moments, but eventually he was able to get the dog to stay ten feet away from the front door while his parents and niece and nephew came in. Lucky barked a bit during the exercise, but it was far less intense in its frequency and intensity.

Lucky is not an aggressive case, he is an insecure dog who thinks his job is to handle house security. As his guardian and his parents practice these techniques and exercises, Lucky will build up the ability to react in a calm way when people pass in front of the house or knock for a visit.

This practice will lead to confidence in the dog. It will also help with his insecurity while also aiding him in understanding that home security is no longer his job. Once those two events take place, Lucky’s days of barking and acting aggressively to passers by and guests will stop completely.

Tags: , , , , ,

Categorized in:

Follow Us via Email

%d bloggers like this: