German Shepherds that Bark at Visitors

GSD puppy hiding under table

Puppy Milly’s favourite safe place in the garden

It’s not exclusively German Shepherds of course. However, a large proportion of the GSDs I go to are not happy when someone enters their house or especially the room that they are in – and a large number of dogs with this particular problem happen to be GSD-type breeds.

It’s complicated. Here are some of the elements involved: inadequate socialisation, socialisation left too late, lack of ongoing socialisation, highly-strung genetics resulting in jumpiness, inherited tendency to fearful reactivity, inappropriate human responses to the behaviour, lack of training, too much rehearsal allowed so it becomes a habit, difficult circumstances of the owners…

Apart from genetics and inherited tendencies, I’m sure the lack of sufficient very early socialisation will be the crux of the problem. During much of the crucial time before just thirteen weeks of age and the onset of the sensitive period, the puppy will still have been with the breeder; exposure and handling should have begun at about three weeks of age (Ian Dunbar says three days old). After this we are then playing catch-up.

A fascinating study by Mary Morrow (Ohio State University) et al investigates this socialisation period in three breeds of dog including German Shepherds and how it’s more important with some breeds than others to start very early with the window closing earlier.

So, in many cases we already have a dog already inadequately exposed and habituated to people, noises, sudden arrivals etc. at a sufficiently early age – a dog that is highly intelligent and responsive, with a mother that may display the same tendencies and that has guarding in her genes.

I have such a dog – inherited from a client. My Milly lived exclusively in a barn with minimal human interaction until she was thirteen weeks old, so the horse had already bolted so to speak when the lady bought her. The lady was deeply upset by Milly’s chronic fear and the puppy doing all she could to avoid her so I brought her home, thinking with my, then, knowledge that I would ‘fix’ her and then find her a new home.

That was nearly seven years ago.

Little Milly’s terror of everything and especially people at just sixteen weeks old was painful. It took about three weeks for before she dared come and sniff me as I sat very still. Even years later when I softly invited her to me, she might still feel under sufficient pressure to lose control of her bladder.

Dogs like Milly are usually those who don’t have people constantly coming and going or if they do, they are kept well out of the way because of the embarrassing or threatening behaviour. I live a quiet life with few callers. Milly will now settle quite quickly and is curious and friendly when she feels safe, but the person only has to go out and come back in again for it to be like a new arrival.

Complete consistency is a prerequisite.

One needs to be aware of the dog all the time people are about.  It’s no use launching into the various strategies when we spot potential flash points only to walk out of the room and leave the dog having to cope alone, reverting to barking.

Best is to leave the dog in another room unless you can give her your full attention, and then bring an already calm dog into the room where the guest will be sitting quietly (programmed not to move suddenly, put hands out or stand up).

For many people (including myself) this is a real hurdle as there may not be another suitable room or the dog may be too distressed to be left alone.

We look at addressing the emotion that drives this reactive behaviour.

In Milly’s case it’s mostly it’s fear. It can be protectiveness and I have been to dogs that simply seem angry and want me to go away. It may be a mix.

The presence of a person (intruder) must herald good stuff and we ourselves must act calm and unconcerned. If scared to the point of wanting to escape, the dog should always have a route out of the door to somewhere safe. If the barking is aggressive, then safety measures like being kept on lead or muzzled must be in place.  Any ‘eyeballing’ – staring at the person should be interrupted. Too many people ‘comfort’ a dog that is standing in front of them barking at the guest. What does this tell the dog, I wonder. It would take a saint if, in their frustration, a person never got exasperated with their barking dog.

Examples of positive things to associate with the general presence of a person that I use are: sprinkling food on the floor (SprinklesTM), games, the guest rolling food or feeding, a good bone to chew, training games and routines, particularly of behaviours incompatible with barking at people. Gradually counter-conditioning can be introduced with the person standing up predicting instant good things (like fun or food). If the dog starts to bark again we have pushed her too far or gone on for too long. She may need to be put somewhere else – to calm down in peace.

Thirdly we have the knee-jerk reaction aspect.

This is a lot harder than dealing with fearfulness or even protectiveness, being hard-wired. Milly was fast asleep, opened one eye, saw the ‘stranger’ who had been with us all day and instantly jumped up and barked at him before realising everything was as it was before she went to sleep and settling again.

Perhaps in really extreme cases medication may be needed, but certainly the dog’s general stress and arousal levels need to be kept as low as possible. When we ourselves are emotional or stressed we will be a lot more jumpy in general won’t we.

I want my Milly automatically to do something that is incompatible with staring at the person and barking.  Over Christmas I experimented with the following which is just an example, using a ‘bridge’ which could be a clicker but I used the treat tub as it already has positive associations for Milly and it also acted as a distraction at the crucial moment:

GSD holding two balls

Playful Milly with both the balls

When somebody entered the room or stood up I quickly tapped the snack pot against something so instead of barking she looks at me for a snack. I found even if I was too late and she had started, I could interrupt her.  If I could be sufficiently consistent and put in enough work over time which would necessitate frequent callers, when she feels alarm she should be conditioned to look at me instead of barking.

A huge stumbling block is this need for constant and intensive habituation.

Whatever creative things we try to do, without the constantly topped-up habituation all will fail. We need to build up a sort of backdrop to daily life with lots of continual activity and noise including sudden entrances, movements and noises all associated with good stuff and built up gradually but never at a level the dog can’t cope with (flooding).

(BTW – a while ago over three weeks I had completely desensitised my dogs to the doorbell using frequent ringing. I stopped for a few weeks and the doorbell reactivity simply came back).

And just to confuse us – the very opposite can happen to what one might expect.

On a busy day like Christmas, instead of gradually getting used to constant comings and goings and calming down in the presence of the people, the dog may become increasingly reactive and get worse.

She can cope to start with but the stress gradually builds up (trigger stacking). The first entrance was okay, another person stood up and she coped but each thing that happened pushed her nearer the edge…. until WOOF right in some poor unsuspecting person’s face.

This means sessions are best conducted as deliberately planned and controlled ‘set-ups’ and kept short.

The million-dollar question. Do the benefits to us outweigh the sacrifices? 

Most things would be possible if one’s life depended upon it – but I ask myself, are the huge changes to my life that I would need to make in order to succeed, including finding lots of willing dog-friendly people to frequently visit and taking time away from my work, be realistic for me?

And I couldn’t really blitz the situation for a few weeks and then stop when it seems to be working, because without continual topping up the dog will revert to her former state. For those of us with busy lives, the necessary gradual, careful and constant habituation is a huge stumbling block.

My GSD Milly has certainly been, and still is, a wonderful learning curve for me. She is perfectly fine encountering people when out so long as they don’t invade her space. I lead a quiet life with few callers and have three other dogs in the mix; everything is absolutely fine in other respects and I consciously have settled for the best I can get given the amount of changes I am prepared to make to my life.

Here is a link to the story of white German Shepherd Nuala, just one of the many GSD barking cases I have been to. Here is the story of aggressive sounding black GSD Kody and German Shepherd Tara who barked and lunged at people.

To visit my main site, please go to www.dogidog.co.uk

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About Theo Stewart

I am a dog Behaviourist (ABTC - AAB) and trainer covering Beds, Herts, Cambs and Bucks, a 'Victoria Stilwell' Positively Dog Trainer (VSPDT) and a member of the IMDT. Graduate ISCP, International School for Canine Practitioners. My main site: www.dogidog.co.uk
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