DEAR DR. FOX: I saw your comments on the rescue husky barking at the grandpa. I have a similar issue with my 3-year-old white German shepherd, Missy, a female rescue we adopted three months ago. She was very nervous initially; it took four days before I could get near her. And then she became my “Velcro” dog. She is with me all the time. Initially, she was scared of everyone, but has grown bolder. She barks when the doorbell rings, but when the visitor enters, she usually quiets down quickly as long as I am with her.
However, she seemed to take an instant dislike to my husband and adult son (who lives with us), and barks wildly at them all the time. When my husband settles in his recliner, she settles down near me, but if my hubby even raises his arm, she barks madly. As time goes on, she has grown bolder: Sometimes her hackles rise and she runs at my hubby as though she is going to bite him. Same with our son. They have both tried, and continue to try, to make friends with her, but unsuccessfully.
I’d welcome any ideas you have. I can only suspect her behavior is reflective of some occurrence(s) in her past. We will learn to live with it and hope time will improve the situation. -- K.H., St. Louis, Missouri
DEAR K.H.: Clearly your dog had a traumatic earlier life, and your detailed description of her gradual recovery will interest many readers.
Over time, she may well become desensitized to some aspects of the behavior of the males in your family that currently upset her. It is best that they ignore her reactions and not try to force her to change her behavior, or try to show affection toward her.
It may help if you all wear the same scent -- a few dabs of essential oil of lavender being a good choice -- and put a couple of drops on a bandanna around the dog’s neck in the morning and evening, as well. Have the two men in the house take turns putting the dog’s food out with you standing beside them. Ignore her when and if she barks at them -- this is another conditioned reaction, which should abate with time if not reinforced by any reaction. Refrain from telling her to be quiet, and simply pretend not to hear her.
It may also help if you sit down with one of the men next to you on the sofa and have the dog sit or stand next to you as you brush her. Get her used to a regular grooming and additional stroking and massage, passing the brush to whomever is sitting next to you to continue. Most dogs enjoy such stimulation, and she should eventually come when called and when she sees the brush -- even, eventually, to either of the men to be groomed and petted.
Keep me posted. Time is a big healer, but conditioned aversive emotional reactions take understanding and patient insight to overcome.
K.H. REPLIES: Just a couple more comments for your consideration. I have wondered: Since Missy apparently used to live with only one human, does that mean to her that I should be the only person in the house? People who visit and leave are OK with her, but because hubby and son are here a lot, I think she feels she needs to let them know they shouldn’t be here. She still shows fear of them sometimes, but usually looks happy to see them -- but still barks. However, on the rare occasion I am not in the house and hubby or son is, she avoids them, but never barks at them. That seems to be triggered by my presence.
We are trying the feeding and grooming, and are determined to modify her behavior eventually with patience, persistence and love.
DEAR K.H.: Your additional observations add another dimension of possibility in the often-challenging task of understanding/interpreting canine behavior. You now say her barking seems to be triggered by your presence. That could be her way of asserting her bond with, and protectiveness of, you.
See how she behaves when you hug your son and then your husband in her presence -- repeatedly. Then hug her. Then all three of you lie down on the floor together. She may then get the message that you are also bonded with them and she has no need to protect or be possessive of you! Once she feels part of the family pack, she will be more secure and accepting of the two men in the home with you.
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