One does not simply walk into that yard.... it is Folly.
July 30, 2012 11:26 AM   Subscribe

My dog will nip at strange people if they come to the house and come towards me. How do I stop it?

Folly is a Carolina Dog, both her parents were captured from the 'wild' (feral groups) in the Savannah River Basin by Brisbin himself. She adores me, my mom, her other family, and is shy of anyone else; at the dog park she loves to play with other dogs and avoids the people there. She weighs 35 lbs and is 16 months old. I am her second owner, having adopted her at a year old; long story but she basically chose me over her previous owners after I was dog-walking her for several months, and they wanted to get rid of her, so I agreed to take her.

She is not aggressive to people she -knows- at all.... but when people come to our house, or a place I am staying (I house/pet sit), especially men (such as delivery men, gardeners, etc) she will bark fiercely and loudly and wildly and constantly. If they persist in coming towards me, (as delivery men etc must do), she will eventually charge at them and nip the back of their calves, all the while barking. She hasn't drawn blood (yet) but she can give a mean pinch, I gather.

I have tried yelling at her but I think it makes it worse, because she picks up on my fear (that she'll bite) and she thinks I'm afraid of the man. If I have enough warning I get her on leash or lock her inside, but sometimes delivery people just stroll right up into the yard through the fence and the first thing I know about it is her barking.

Part of me is glad to have a dog who is willing to protect me, and part of me thinks people that come barging into a yard full of barking dog should know they're walking into trouble, but I know this is a liability and I would really prefer she stick to barking without biting.

Treats-for-not-biting don't help as 1. she's barely interested in food and 2. when she's in "DEFEND THE OTTER LADY!" mode she can't be reasoned with; as I say, shouting/calling just makes it worse.

The other problem is the randomness of the situation; I don't have any warning when someone's about to come through the yard, so I can't get treats/punishments/etc ready. And I can't really ask folks to come play 'delivery man' into my yard 'so that my dog can maybe NOT bite you'.

I feel like I should know what to do; I dog-walk and dog-sit for people, I even went to dog-training class!!-- but I am really kind of at a loss here.
posted by The otter lady to Pets & Animals (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Hire a professional trainer who uses what is colloquially known as "positive reinforcement". Using any kind of "negative" stimulus on a dog like this will only make it worse (yelling, e-collars, prong or pinch, etc.) It will take a long time.

I have a dog that is a breed which is known to be alerters, and she's 4. She still barks at people in the same situation, but through working with her using clicker training she has gotten much better. (We also don't mind the alert barking, so have taught her to stop the barking on command, which works about 75% at this point).

Find a trainer who is accredited through and use ONLY positive training teaching her what behavior you DO want, not focusing on the behavior you don't want. This isn't something you'll be able to fix on your own just because you have experience with dogs (absolutely no offense intended)
posted by jesirose at 11:32 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have tried yelling at her but I think it makes it worse...

Raising your voice and yelling are two different things. When you raise your voice at the dog, you're doing it to get her to stop what she's doing and pay attention to you by way of making a noise that bothers her. Mixing fear into your intonation screws this up. I'm not sure if it is effective in this case, but generally, when you raise your voice you need to change your intonation from a freaked-out "OH GOD DON'T BITE THAT GUY!" to a stern "NO! WRONG!"
posted by griphus at 11:33 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

(Also, it shouldn't be prolonged yelling. If you have to raise your voice, it's a quick "NO!" If that doesn't get her attention, raising your voice isn't going to help and yelling will make it worse.)
posted by griphus at 11:34 AM on July 30, 2012

Also, I would seriously consider changing the layout of your fence, so that the walkway to your front door is not through "her yard". You're open to serious liability here. My husband is a service technician who has been bitten by many dogs and those owners KNEW he was going into the yard. They should have known better.

If people are able to get into your dog's yard without your permission, you need to change that.
posted by jesirose at 11:34 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you have her trained to sit? One thing you could do is reinforce the "sit" command, like when her butt hits the floor she gets a yummy yummy treat. Do this all the time, not just when strangers appear. Then when a stressful situation arises, the first thing you do is command her to sit. It might help to break her concentration on bad newcomer, as she is anticipating yummy treat.
posted by pickypicky at 11:34 AM on July 30, 2012

I can't get treats/punishments/etc ready

That's why you have then by the door. My parents' dog had a tendency to wet herself with excitement and/or nervousness (weirdo dog) whenever somebody came home, so they took to sticking a bin of treats in the garage so my dad would have one in-hand every time he came home from work.

Just stick a treat/leash/spray by the door. You'll always be prepared.
posted by valkyryn at 11:39 AM on July 30, 2012

Her Come! and Sit! commands need some work. She should listen to you even when she's amped up like that so be diligent about training her and making her respond, even if there's something interesting. Teach her to come and sit or lay by your side in these situations.

I have a husky so I know the temptation to yell because goddammit, listen to me you jackass! but keeping it simple and using commands she already knows and some redirection is more productive.

Also sometimes if my dogs really ignoring me I throw things at her to get her attention. Not axes or large rocks, obviously, but I did nail her in the butt with a tennis ball once pretty good. Probably not in that Monks of New Skate book, but they are not trying to train proto-dogs like huskies or Carolina dogs, here.
posted by fshgrl at 11:41 AM on July 30, 2012

Trainers are much cheaper than you think they are, and they can train you (because that's who actually gets trained) so much in just an hour. It's totally worth it.

If you can't find one based on recommendations, you might see if your local humane society offers classes and see if you gel with one of the trainers there.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:44 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, your vet might be able to suggest one.
posted by griphus at 11:46 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would definitely consider a pro trainer in this case. I also owned an absolutely lovely huggy sweet formerly feral dog that had severe issues with strangers and prey drive and resource guarding around non-family members, and we sent him on a 6 week training course where he had all kinds of doggy socialization and basic commands training, and it made a huge, vast, enormous difference.
posted by elizardbits at 11:47 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Unfortunately this was overseas so I can't recommend a specific place)
posted by elizardbits at 11:47 AM on July 30, 2012

she will eventually charge at them and nip the back of their calves, all the while barking.

The dog is barking to alert you there are strangers on the property. Heed the alert and leash the dog. Do not allow it to attack visitors. Whatever training you do with treats etc, you must do with the leashed dog.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:53 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

My pup, also a Husky, didn't so much bite when folks came in as she did jump and paw at them. Especially if she was glad to see someone.

The solution is pretty much the same. We started with my wife (because it was predictable as to when she would arrive), whenever it was time for her to come home, I would put a few very high interest treats (caught that typo! if you leave the "r" out of treates it changes this whole idea!) in my pocket. The minute she walked in the door she would turn her back to the pup and ignore the dog, I would do a "sit" command (which she already knew) and reinforce the behavior. It didn't take long before, when someone came in, she would just come to me and sit.

I would suggest small pieces of hot dog or a soft liver treat.
posted by HuronBob at 12:08 PM on July 30, 2012

Get every male person you know to come and visit. Give them a huge bag of her favourite treats before hand. Put her on a lead and have them come in the house, keeping her at a distance until so that she feels less threatened. Have the visitor throw treats to her. Do this for a while until she realise strange people are the bearer of good things.

Our rescue Rat Terrier did the same thing and this is pretty much the only thing that works for us. For one off delivery guys I keep a water pistol by the front door as he used to super focus and will not listen to me and one short squirt breaks his focus, once I have his focus I get him to sit or back off and step outside to sign for packages, and he gets a treat when I get back in if he's been good. He has pretty much learnt now that only humans use that door and rarely tries to rush out of it and I haven't had to try to break his focus on barking for almost a year now.

With strangers coming in, that will be coming back I leash and treat. I keep a lead and treats by the door and people just have to wait as I yell "just a sec" over a furiously barking dog. He has learnt fast that anyone giving him a treat in the house is a friend and the ritual of it reassures him and he calms down after it, it has taken almost 18 months of steady work to get to this stage He will now go from barking/howling/biting at strangers, having a treat or 2 from them to trying to sit on their laps in about 5 minutes, I suspect as he has been abused he may never trust people straight out but I can live with the results so far.

Training classes in a group are great as your dog will meet a lot of new people which can help with this. Agility classes also helped as they really built up our dogs confidence as pretty much all his barking and biting came as a result of fear as he had been badly beaten before we got him.
posted by wwax at 12:09 PM on July 30, 2012

Get strangers to visit, turn them into treat factories. She might start to get excited when strangers come and bug them for treats (which would be a big improvement) but then you can work on being calm so that eventually she learns that strangers+calm=treats. The only issue there is that she might be friendly with everyone so if someone broke in or something, she would just wait to get her treat.

Just make sure that you have at least one stranger help out that has very different skin color than you or the dog might be friendly with everyone but black people (if you're white).
posted by VTX at 12:38 PM on July 30, 2012

If they persist in coming towards me, (as delivery men etc must do), she will eventually charge at them and nip the back of their calves, all the while barking.

She needs to be on lead. It's not okay for you to allow a situation where she can bite someone. It's not fair to them - particularly if they're dog-phobic at all - and it's dangerous for her, both in the moment and if someone were to actually get injured and call animal control. Seriously, don't under-estimate how wrong that can go. If you need to alter the way you do things (if you tend to have her with you off-lead in the yard where delivery people tend to come in, for example) then you need to do it before something really bad happens.

It's a drag to always have to have the lead handy but this is not going to get better without exposing her to the situation and making sure she responds appropriately. It's harder when it's just you; in training our boy to react better to strangers and visitors it was very helpful for one of us to put him into a sit and then hold him lightly. It both forced him into the appropriate pose and behavior and helped reassure him everything was cool.

I sympathize with the treat issue. Casey is not at all food-motivated. We had to buy extra-stinky treats for his training class and skip his lunch on the days when we had evening training sessions. You may need to get some "super treats" that she recognizes as super awesome. Maybe it won't even be food; our dog loves chasing the laser pointer so much that I can't even pick it up and move it if he might see - he immediately steps into 'ready' position and starts looking for it. You need something like that which she's as excited by.

Aside from that I'd suggest simply stepping on the lead to keep her next to you and prevent any jumping up. The barking is far less important than the physical thing and you may have to just view this incrementally. You first calm her to this sort of thing so she doesn't bite/jump, then further calm her to stop the barking.
posted by phearlez at 12:45 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The only issue there is that she might be friendly with everyone so if someone broke in or something, she would just wait to get her treat.

Please don't use this as a deterrent for teaching her good social skills! A poorly trained, bark-y, bite-y dog is of no use to you for guarding (not judging: I have one myself). Better to have her behave too well with an intruder than to bite and injure a friendly stranger.
posted by Pomo at 1:07 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The only issue there is that she might be friendly with everyone so if someone broke in or something, she would just wait to get her treat.

Regarding this, dogs are pretty smart: we have a dog who loves *everyone*, but knows when something's amiss and barks like the dickens when there's a problem. Training the dog to be nice to visitors won't necessarily teach them to ignore visitors coming when you're asleep, or in through a window, or other unusual ways. If anything, it might make them more vigilant when they understand there are 'good' visitors and 'not good' visitors through training.
posted by AzraelBrown at 3:17 PM on July 30, 2012

Do you have a "beware of dog" sign you could bring with you when house-sitting?
posted by Koko at 3:46 PM on July 30, 2012

I have a reactive stranger-danger dog (about the same size), and while she has gotten much better (after 5 years) I will still always have to be on guard with her. There are a few things that are just ingrained in me (and her) now that may help you find what will work for you.
1) People never come in the house (or yard) unwarned, and I can just never be lax about an open door or open fence. Just never. It's not fair to them or her. There always has to be a barrier between her and strangers so I'm not surprised and can control the situation. Until she is no more, I just cannot have screen doors for front doors or flimsy gates that she could go through. I have to adapt the environment to her.
2) I never open the door or the fence gate until she is physically controlled by me. This used to mean crated, or at least on a leash - now I can get away with a leg in front of her - but I always know where she is and can hold her back if she messes up. I also never open the door very wide anymore. Prevention is key.
3) "Beware the dog!! She's not good with strangers" or some variant is usually the first thing I say (holler, scream) to strangers on my property, so they know not to reach over the gate or not to get too close to the dog I'm holding back. Or I tell them I'm putting up the dog through the door before I open it. It's not the most hospitable greeting, but I've never had anyone resent me for it.
4) If people will be in the house/yard for a while or regularly, and if they are willing, I will let her ease into getting to know them. It would take hours of leash time in the first couple years, now it takes 5 minutes and bacon, but slow socialization and practice has helped. I can never perfectly trust her, but we understand each other better, and once the workmen become her friends, well they are butter in her hands.
5) I taught her "leave it" early, and it has really helped. Look it up on Youtube. She actually understands it as a warning to control herself in general, and while again, I can't trust her to ever be perfect with it, it really works as a reminder. Other dogs, cats, strangers -- if I see her start to target them I say leave it and she knows she's supposed to let me take the lead. Also, a harness is much better than a choke chain - it's much easier to control a rushing dog with a harness.
6) Just because she lets me take the lead most of the time now, I have no doubt she would leap in and attack if she felt I needed it. Like you, I like having a guard dog and don't really want her to be passive - I just want her to look to me first. I let her be socialized by strangers if they are to become friends, but not by just anybody. I also let her decide if she likes someone or not - I never force it. I think in her mind now, we're more of a partnership in stranger defense which is a lot better than the 1 dog unit we used to be. I'm ok with that.
posted by dness2 at 4:56 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

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