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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Growling at strangers

Hi Jan,
I'm writing to you because recently, our dog Zu Zu has begun growling at people. She never really did this before, except at the mailman, from inside the house. Now she will growl at people, but quite randomly. We thought at first it was just men, specifically tall men, but she does it to women to. We don't know why or how this started, but we are very concerned about it. We are afraid to let her be around strangers, for fear that she may do something terrible. Along with the growling, she will back away from the person, as if she is afraid, and when they approach and put out their hand, she growls more. She does not bare her teeth, but her response is frightening to us, since she has always been such a sweet dog. We are expecting a baby in April, and are not sure how she will react to the baby. What can we do modify this behavior? What should we have done to prevent it? We don't want to isolate her from the baby, but we want to be sure that she can handle a little one in the house. She has been a joy for the past five years, and we hope for many more. Thank you for your time, any words you can give us will be very appreciated. Thank you!!!

Dear Andrea,
First, make sure there isn't anything medically wrong with Zu Zu. She's a big dog, 5 years old, and if she's not feeling well it will affect her disposition.

How much have you taken her out and about lately? Zu Zu needs to go many places with you and continue socialization (it's not just for puppies!) to learn that YOU are in charge and able to safely handle situations. Expand her horizons to minimize her territorial tendencies. If this is physically difficult for you, try a Gentle Leader head halter and a very short leash (like the EZDog leashes they sell at Manning Dog Training). This way, you can confidently and comfortably control her in any situation, without making it painful or threatening to her.

Do NOT allow her to growl and hide. Not behind your legs, not behind the furniture. Keep her out with you, where she can learn to positively confront her stress factors. In a typical social situation, her nose should be at your left leg, not behind it or ahead of it. The Gentle Leader will really help you control this, without discomfort to her. If she growls at someone in this scenario, give an assertive verbal reprimand, like "No!" or "Quiet!" and a tug of the leash. And relax!! If she senses that you are stressed by the situation, her level of stress aggression will escalate too. So, even if you FEEL worried, don't act it!

I'm not a proponent of people giving my dogs treats, but sometimes it helps. Carry some of her own biscuits with you, and slip them into the hand of someone she's likely to growl at. Ask the person to extend the treat to her in the palm of their hand, without making eye contact with her. Don't let her back up. Wait patiently while she sniffs the treat and gets a bit braver. The person should not reach for her or try to pet her, but simply offer the treat and let Zu Zu decide to take it in her own good time. This may make her feel better about friendly strangers.

Congratulations on the pending new addition. It is VERY likely that Zu Zu has picked up on the changes you're going through, and is reacting. Dogs are incredibly perceptive about things like our hormones, our happiness, our frustrations, and our worries. The change in the family unit has already begun, and she's dealing with it.

Provide PLENTY of exercise...a balance of leashed walks and backyard play. Take her back to class, or sign up for a new and different one. She's going to need more attention now, not less. Consider an occasional day of doggy day care too, where she can enjoy herself for a few hours without having to worry about watching after you.

Get her out around children too....babies and older kids. Parks, pet stores, and classes are great places to do this.

Be a leader, calm and assertive, as Cesar Millan would say. This is what she needs.

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