Forget Punishment; Guests mean Good Things Happen

Question:
We have an 8 month old mix breed dog who is timid but aggressive. We have had her since she was 8 weeks old. There are 3 other dogs. When people enter the house her hackles go up and she barks, all the time backing up. She has nipped at people who she deems “scary”. We do not let visitors back down. We have also tried being dominant.

Dr. Nichol:
This really is a scared puppy, overwhelmed and feeling deeply threatened when confronted by strangers. Her hostile reactions, intended to drive off the “scary monsters”, are motivated by self-preservation. Don’t look for logic here; this isn’t a learned behavior. Research has found a genetic cause for this type of defensive aggression.

Your girl needs to learn that good things will happen when visitors arrive. Modifying her behavior will be a time-consuming, tedious process that may yield only moderate improvement. And you wanted a quick fix. Sorry about that.

Set the kid up for success by putting her in a separate room with a food toy just prior to your guests’ arrival. Pick up this high-value reward when they leave. Repeat hundreds of times and hope she learns to actually look forward to hearing strangers in the house. For the next step tether her around the corner of the room as you party hearty. When that has gone well many times, she can be leashed across the room as she snacks on her toy.

At some point your friends can quietly roll treats. When Nervous Nellie feels brave she’ll risk coming closer to reach the goodies. Be careful. Well-meaning dog lovers who approach, stare at, lean over, or reach for your dog could spark a fear response and unravel her progress. If this odyssey unfolds like a Disney movie your miracle dog might someday take food from the hand of an ignoring guest.

This can be made easier. Antianxiety medication may improve everybody’s quality of life and make learning possible for previously panicked pets. Forget dominance routines like alpha rolls; that would be as pointless as yelling, water squirting, and taking away the car keys. Punishments won’t diminish fear. And besides, you’ll just look silly to your other dogs.