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Dog Behaviour Problems: People & other animals

Nervous or scared of a person, or other animal:

Question: Our 7-month old male puppy is scared of my husband's voice. Whenever he raises it, our dog runs away ñ he has also taken to leaving the room when my husband comes in. What can we do about this?

Answer: Deep male voices are often more threatening to dogs than the high-pitched female voice. However, for your puppy to be so afraid, it is likely that either he did not have much experience with men at a young age or he has had bad experiences with men in the past that have frightened him.

If he is a very sensitive puppy, these experiences do not need to have been very extreme – a simple scolding may have caused the fright. What needs to happen is that your puppy needs to learn to trust your husband. Your husband will need to stop all discipline for the time being and leave that to you (for such a sensitive puppy, it is much better to prevent bad behaviour and encourage and reward good behaviour instead, rather than scolding for things the puppy does wrong).

Then, for the next few months, all good things in life from your puppy’s point of view need to come from your husband. These include walks, food, titbits, and games with toys. Ask your husband not to stare at the puppy or force it to approach him, but to gently encourage him and reward him well with something he enjoys when he does get enough confidence to approach. In this way, your puppy should begin to get his confidence back, and then all should be well

Please also see Training for Life (everyday life) easy & fun training classes you can do at home, including:
  • Audio tape of noises your dog must learn to be unafraid of
  • Video on how to raise a friendly, well balanced dog that can cope with everyday experiences in the modern world
  • Explanation of training using rewards, toilet training, learning to be alone, chewing, adolescence, setting boundaries and saying ‘no, solving behaviour problems, tricks, games and having fun.

Question: My German Shepherd is 10 months old and is quite aggressive towards other animals (he has attacked another puppy), and sometimes people. I was wondering if neutering him would solve the problem, or if he requires proper training? I think that most of his aggression is a result of fear ñ he does most of growling from behind my legs.

Answer: Neither neutering or training will help. The answer lies in helping him overcome his fears by gradually desensitising him and making happy associations with them instead. He will need a structured plan of treatment to ensure that you make steady progress before he matures fully. Please contact the The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors.

Until then, stop him from getting any worse by accepting that he is frightened and not forcing him into situations that he can’t deal with. The pet behaviourist will help you to treat his fear by teaching you how to gradually socialise him with other dogs and people, using food and toys to speed up the process while ensuring that no dogs or people get bitten or frightened. Good luck.

Question: I have had my rescue border collie bitch, Fin, for three years and she is very happy around people, especially those she knows well. However, she is nervous with other dogs, aggressive towards unknown dogs and can try to herd dogs she knows well. Next week, I am taking on another 1-year-old rescue rough collie who is ultra-friendly with dogs and will look at Fin as her playmate. How can I introduce the two of them so that they play well and are not fearful of each other?

Answer: If Fin is afraid of other dogs, introducing her to your new dog may be difficult. Introduce them away from home on a walk. Have another person help you and walk them in parallel with each other so that there is no head-to-head meeting, letting them get to know each other slowly.

Before they get home, remove anything they are likely to argue over and introduce them in the garden so there is plenty of space for them to move around. Muzzle Fin if you think she may bite the new dog.

If the new dog is quite lively, keep her on a lead until she has settled down to prevent her approaching Fin and scaring her.

Give them time to get to know each other and try not to interfere too much unless the situation looks serious. If either is looking unhappy, distract them and encourage them to concentrate on something else (don’t introduce toys and food until much later).

If the introductions go smoothly, it shouldn’t be too long before they form a pack. It is importantly, that once they do, Fin does not teach your new dog to show aggression to other dogs.

To prevent this, it may be a good idea to try to solve Fin’s problem with the help of a pet behaviour counsellor (try the The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors)

You may like to read The Rescue Dog which has more information on understanding & adopting a rescue dog.

Please also see Training for Life (everyday life) easy & fun training classes you can do at home, including:
  • Audio tape of noises your dog must learn to be unafraid of
  • Video on how to raise a friendly, well balanced dog that can cope with everyday experiences in the modern world
  • Explanation of training using rewards, toilet training, learning to be alone, chewing, adolescence, setting boundaries and saying ‘no, solving behaviour problems, tricks, games and having fun.

Question: We have a 7 month old Parson Russell puppy and are a bit concerned as he does not like to be stroked. It is almost as if he is scared of our hands. We have never smacked him or been rough with him, so cannot understand this behaviour. Whenever we put our hands down to stroke him, he ducks away. We would appreciate your opinion as we find this quite upsetting.

Answer: It could either be that he didn’t have enough socialisation as a puppy during the critical period between 3-12 weeks, or he may have had bad experiences with people before you got him.

Either way, it is important that you take things slowly with him and keep trying to build up your relationship with him. Try holding tasty pieces of food tightly between your fingers while you touch him gently with the other hand. Let him gradually take bits of the food, stopping your stroking just before it has all gone.

If you do this enough, he should begin to learn to enjoy being stroked, rather than resenting it.

It is also important to teach him to play with toys and to spend a lot of time playing with him. This will build the bond between you quicker than anything and help him to learn to trust you and enjoy being with you.

Begin with soft toys at first that he can easily hold. Soft toys that squeak will probably attract his attention. Keep them moving so that he stays interested, and always end the session while he is still having fun.

Please also see Training for Life (everyday life) easy & fun training classes you can do at home, including:
  • Audio tape of noises your dog must learn to be unafraid of
  • Video on how to raise a friendly, well balanced dog that can cope with everyday experiences in the modern world
  • Explanation of training using rewards, toilet training, learning to be alone, chewing, adolescence, setting boundaries and saying ‘no, solving behaviour problems, tricks, games and having fun.

Question: Every time I try to brush my Yorkshire terrier's tangled fur he goes for me, becomes very upset and shakes a lot. How do I solve this problem?

Answer: The hairs in their coat are usually fine and easily tangled and their skin very sensitive. So you probably frequently hurt him without realising. Since he cannot say ‘oi, that hurts!’, he has to put up with it until it gets too much. This is why he shakes – he will be anticipating the pain, be upset that he has to be aggressive with his friend, and probably also be worried that you will get cross too.

To overcome this, try to groom him little and often, perhaps 2-3 times a day for a few minutes. Be very gentle and hold the base of the hair firmly if you are teasing out a knot so that you don’t pull his skin. Do a very small patch at a time but keep the sessions going until you have groomed him all over.

Start with the easy bits first and gain his trust before you tackle the difficult bits. If he is very knotty, you may have to consider having him clipped out by a vet or groomer. Once this is done, it will be very easy for you to brush him and win his confidence.

The secret is patience and trying to imagine what it feels like to be him.

You could also try bathing him with shampoo designed to prevent tangles in children’s hair or spraying on a coat conditioner that will make the hairs slip over each other more easily, making him easier to groom.

Question: Can you settle an argument. My wife says it's wrong to hit the dog for being naughty. But I will still slap our children if they are doing something dangerous like playing with electric plugs and it certainly stops them ­ so why shouldn't we hit the dog if we catch him doing something really annoying ­ like stealing or chewing something? I think we've all gone too soft ­ but my wife says she'll thump me if I so much as raise a hand to our dog!

Answer: Humans are quite aggressive as a species and it is quite natural for us to lash out when we are frightened or frustrated. Children and animals usually get hit for these reasons rather than as part of a calculated discipline intended to make them behave better.

It has been proven in scientific experiments that punishment is a very ineffective way of helping animals to learn, particularly if it happens long after the behaviour started or worse, after it has finished. A nasty experience that happens at the same time as the behaviour begins and ends when the behaviour stops is effective, but this is difficult to get right in practice. People often go way over the top which often results in the animal becoming frightened. And frightened animals are thinking more about survival than they are about learning how to behave.

With our pet dogs, punishment often spoils the relationship we have with them and makes them mistrustful of people. From my experience with ‘problem’ dogs, I know that dogs that are punished a lot learn to bite rather than learning a different way to deal with their problems. Owners who don’t punish usually have such a good relationship with their pets that they respond well to a little scolding when necessary. It is important to have boundaries and to make sure your dog is not allowed to cross them, but this can be done with peaceful means even if you do need to be quite forceful.

So what do we do instead? Well, dogs are creatures of habit and once good habits are in place and are being rewarded, they are less likely to behave badly. To do this, think ahead and prevent bad behaviour and then reward the good behaviour when it happens. For example, if your dog wants to jump up to greet you, prevent him from doing so by holding his collar or turning your back until he has calmed down, and then reward the good behaviour by getting down to his level and making a big fuss of him.

It is also important to make sure that all of your dog’s species needs are met, for example, that he has things to chew other than the carpet, that he gets enough exercise and mental stimulation. A contented dog is usually a well-behaved dog so rather than shouting or hitting, think about why your dog is mis-behaving and teach him to behave better or attend to his species needs instead.

You may like to read Good Dog Behaviour has more information on understanding what to do.

Question: We have lovely Norwegian Elkhound who is nearly 16 weeks old. In most cases he is a confident little chap, interacting well with children, adults and travelling well in the car. We have been attending puppy training classes for some 5 weeks now where he has been doing great during the learning part of the class but when it comes to play, he is absolutely scared out of his skin by the other pups approaching him for play.

We walk him every day in a popular dog walking area so we can meet other dogs frequently for a hello sniff, he is quite happy to sniff other dogs but will tuck his tail between his legs and run if they try to sniff him or get too close. Can you offer any suggestion on what we can do? We were so wanting to get him a playmate once he was a year old, but now have some doubts we should even consider this.

Answer: It is easy for puppies to lose confidence if faced with too many challenges too often that overwhelm rather than reassure them. Puppy classes have moved on these days from free-for-alls where all the puppies were allowed off lead to play together, to more controlled environments where two or three pups are hand-picked to play together. Free-for-alls tend to overwhelm shy pups and can cause them to become aggressive with other dogs in later life. Hand-picking pups to play together allows gentle pups to play with the shy ones which helps to give them the self-assurance they need.

What your puppy needs now is many, many pleasant encounters with other puppies and dogs to restore his confidence. Make sure, from now on, that he has no experiences that leave him with a negative feeling. If you live near the owners of the other puppies in the class, ask them if they will help you and travel every day if necessary to walk your puppies together until they have formed a friendship and your puppy is playing happily. Choose the least boisterous puppy in the class and slowly work through the others if possible. Also try to find some other dogs in your neighbourhood who are good with puppies who you can meet every day.

During all encounters with other dogs, remember that face-to-face meetings are more scary than if they gradually meet as they walk together. Walk your puppy next to the other dog or puppy, letting him off the lead first so that he is free to get used to the others in his own time. (Obviously, if you are letting two puppies off the lead together, choose a very safe area well away from traffic.) Never let him be chased and try to make sure that he makes all the first moves. Distract the other puppy with a titbit or a toy if he shows too much interest in your puppy too soon. Watch your puppy’s tail and try to make sure it stays upright throughout the encounter!

You have until he is about 7 months old, at which time he may develop enough self-confidence to begin to use aggression to keep others at a distance, so try to do as much as possible in the next few months. With each positive encounter, his confidence will improve and, gradually, he should be able to cope with meeting other dogs without feeling anxious. If you work hard now, you should be able to restore his confidence so that when you get him a companion in about a year’s time, he can influence the new puppy in a positive way rather than pass on his fear.

Question: I have recently adopted a 3-year old Great Dane. When we are out walking, she becomes very distracted by people approaching her from behind, even if they are some distance behind, and constantly turns round to stare. If someone gets level with her, she refuses to move and glowers at them. Although she doesn't bark, this is quite embarrassing for me, and intimidating for the other party. Can you suggest why she might be doing this and how I might prevent it in the future?

Answer: She is probably just a bit apprehensive about people for some reason. Perhaps she has had a bad experience (joggers often come up from behind quickly and can be very scary for a shy dog), or perhaps she is just a bit wary of people and, although she can cope with them coming towards her from the front, coming up behind is more frightening.

I would suggest that you try to build her confidence with strangers. Make sure that the people she meets at home give her food treats and games with toys so that she doesn’t just tolerate them, but begins to actively enjoy their company.

Try to arrange for friends to help outside by coming up behind you, stopping and offering her favourite titbit or toy (walk slowly around a small block of houses and get them to walk faster so that they come up behind you several times). If you can do this with several different people at different times and in different places, she will begin to change her view of people approaching from the rear.

When complete strangers approach from behind, turn her to face them, put yourself between them and her to give her security and make it a pleasant experience for both of you by feeding her small titbits or offering a little game with her favourite toy.

If the problem begins to escalate as she settles into your home, please seek further advice from the The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors

Question: Lucy is now 5 years old. She used to be very good with children as a young dog but we are now having problems. About 18 months ago, she had a litter of puppies and when people came to see them she was very protective. So, if children visited I put her in another room. Since then she has barked and snapped at children, especially if they are inside where she can't move away easily, or if children are near myself or my partner.

I used to be happy to have her outside with children as she would avoid them rather than feel the need to warn them but recently she did snap at a child outside when she was on the lead. I am concerned that her fear of children being a threat to her or us will worsen. Is there anything we can do about this?

Answer: Having puppies brings out a bitch’s protective instincts. However, she will not protect the puppies from things she does not consider a threat (i.e. you) so it follows that she must see children as a threat, not just to her puppies, but to herself.

If, at that time of heightened emotion, she not only tried to get rid of children that came near the puppies, but, at one point succeeded (the time you saw her being protective and decided to put her in another room), she will have learned that ‘going for them’ works and either they go away or you take her away.

So her level of fear of children is probably no different, it is just that she now has the confidence to do something about her fear. Now that you know she has this problem, you can do something about it to stop it getting any worse.

Since children need to be protected from her, helping you cope with this problem is beyond the scope of an answer like this, so I suggest you get professional help (contact The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors). Until them, keep her well away from children and begin work on the problem by playing with her and giving her tasty titbits whenever children are nearby to begin giving her pleasant associations with them instead of fearful ones.

Question: My dog has recently developed some behavioural problems. He used to love people visiting our home, but now growls at visitors, especially girls. Why is this and what can I do about it?

Answer: If he is an adolescent or young adult, it could be that he has a deep-seated fear of strangers, particularly girls, and that he has just reached the age where he has gained enough confidence to do something about the fear he feels, rather than just put up with it.

Growling at strangers is a good way to make people back off and, if you are wary of them, it makes sense to do so.

Fear in young animals can be a result of poor early socialisation or bad experience and it is important that your dog receives a properly planned programme of treatment designed to overcome his fears and make him feel better about people (contact The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors)

Alternatively, if your dog is an adult and has only just started this behaviour, it is possible that there is a medical condition underlying the problem.

Behaviour problems that suddenly appear in normal animals often have their origins in pain, or could have been there under the surface all along and are exposed once the animal is feeling below par. If this is the case, take your dog to your veterinary surgeon for an investigation.

Whatever the cause, heed the warnings and try not to put him in a position where he has to growl to make people go away.

You may like to read Good Dog Behaviour has more information on understanding this subject.

Back to Dog Behaviour Problems


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Training for Life - Puppy/Dog Training Classes in a box!
The Rescue Dog/ Adopt the Perfect Dog by Gwen Bailey
The Perfect Puppy by Gwen Bailey
What is my dog thinking? by Gwen Bailey
What is my cat thinking? by Gwen Bailey
Good Dog Behaviour/The Well Behaved Dog by Gwen Bailey
The Puppy Handbook/ The Ideal Puppy by Gwen Bailey