Help! My dog Can’t cope with The Family!

In a previous post, I wrote about dogs who can’t cope with strangers coming onto the property. Although it may seem odd, there are also dogs who also struggle to cope with their own family members. The advice I wrote in the first post still stands for those dogs who can’t cope with people living in the house, but I think it’s worthwhile adding some changes simply because it’s not the same for dogs living in the home.

Sometimes we see this with dogs who have been adopted and who are struggling to cope with certain individuals in the home, but it’s not unknown for dogs who’ve been bought or raised as puppies to start barking and growling at certain family members from time to time. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about dogs who have trouble with guardians moving around food bowls, trying to take toys or valued possessions from the dog, or dogs objecting to being disturbed or moved. Often, these dogs seem to struggle when certain family members arrive home, when they stand up or move, or sometimes even when they go out of the room and come in again.

Some examples:

An eighteen month Jack Russell, bought as a puppy, who barks for five minutes when the male guardian comes in through the door. The dog copes reasonably well with guests, manages admirably with the four children in the home and the busy household, but goes nuts barking uncontrollably when dad comes home, even though he often sits on dad’s lap of an evening.

A rescued Pyrenean shepherd who lives with two elderly sisters. When one of the sisters moves about during the evening, the dog will often run after her and nip her, though she does not do this to the other sister.

A rehomed two-year-old pointer who barks at the teenage son if he moves, often first thing in the morning or during the evening, even though the two have a relatively friendly relationship and the teenager plays frequently with the dog.

A rehomed three-year-old malinois who won’t let the male guardian stand up at night, and growls if he moves.

There are several common scenarios. These can roughly be divided up into flashpoints and hotspots.

A flashpoint is a time during the day when there is a change in energy. This may be a family member returning to the property. It may be a family member getting up and leaving the room, or returning. It may even be some point when the person has been sitting down and then stands up.

A hotspot is a place where the behaviour often happens. This might be the living room, the kitchen or a doorway. I’ve even known one dog who won’t let his guardian back in the car if the guardian has left and returned.

One of the fundamental things to do if you have a dog with these problems is to identify the location where the behaviour happens and to identify the time of day that the behaviour occurs. It’s also useful to notice what happens just before and just after the behaviour. What triggers it, and what happens next?

In my experience, hotspots tend to be more connected to anxiety, health issues and guarding behaviours, or the dog being disturbed when resting. For instance, if the dog is resting or needs to rest, being disturbed can be an issue for them. I see this often in dogs whose resting places are either easily disturbed, for instance if they are on the couch with the guardians, or their bed is on a commonly travelled route.

For instance, one GSD would run after his male guardian and nip him. The dog’s bed was in the living room. It didn’t matter if the guardian was moving away from or towards the dog: the dog would leap up out of his bed and then nip the guardian on the backside.

Another dog had his bed in the hallway near the stairs. Whenever the family would need to go up or down the stairs, the dog would growl and snap at them.

Then there was a little cocker spaniel who objected to her female guardian getting up from the couch.

It’s important to work with a behaviour consultant if you have a dog whose behaviour is very strongly related to a single location. You may also need to get your vet on board. While it’s easy to assume the dog has been beaten if they’re an adopted dog, behaviour is often related to men because men are less elegant sometimes at moving about. Men are more threatening than women simply because they’re bigger, they move differently and they smell different. Not all behaviour directed at men alone is a signal that the dog was abused by a man. As I often say, I’ve had Heston in my life since he was six weeks old. He finds men scarier than women. If we stay at my mum’s, he’ll often growl and bark at my step-dad. That’s not because Heston has ever been beaten by a man. He hasn’t. It’s just that most of my friends are middle-aged women like me who are used to dogs.

What we shouldn’t do is create narratives for our dogs. They’re unhelpful. Creating a fictional history for them to explain their behaviour doesn’t make much of a difference for the dog.

I would also say I’ve worked with a number of dogs who struggled with male teenagers who’ve suddenly hit puberty. Their voice deepens. They stink. They move awkwardly and have sudden growth spurts. A non-threatening child suddenly turns into a stinky, grumpy, awkward would-be adult.

It’s not that the dog has a history of abuse, simply that hormonal changes in humans can affect our dogs’ understanding of us.

This can be as true of pregnancy and changes related to health and medical treatment as it is to anything else. That may not simply be about the humans, either… changes in the health of other animals in the home can also be a factor that plays into changes in the dynamics of relationships in the home.

If there is a fairly sudden onset of behaviour and the dog has been in the home for a number of years, it’s useful to consider all the things that might have changed recently, including the dog’s own health, the health of the family and the health of any other family companion animals.

If you have a dog whose behaviour seems to be related to hotspots, it’s also worthwhile ruling out health issues, particularly earaches, tummyaches, toothaches and musculoskeletal pain. If you’ve ever tried to get some rest when you’re not feeling at your best, you’ll know why.

You should also rule out relationship issues. Sometimes, if we feel anxious in our homes, it’s about the relationships we have with people we share that space with. If you don’t feel safe enough to rest or sleep, then that perhaps says something about the relationships we have with other people in the household. It goes without saying that any and all punishment should be stopped. Punishment – even mild tellings off – does not contribute to a trusting relationship.

Finally, if the behaviour is related to a hotspot, you should also rule out guarding issues. Again, though, that can come back to our relationships. My guardy little cocker Tilly felt absolutely safe with Heston moving around, with Ralf, with Saffy, with Molly, with Tobby and with Effel. She absolutely did not trust Amigo or Flika, although they lived fairly amicably. There’s no particular reason dogs should generalise to all household members, be they dogs, cats or humans. A behaviour consultant will help you rule out guarding behaviours.

The first thing to do if your dog has an issue with hotspots is make sure they are safe in those spaces. I often find that these dogs live in homes where they are drawn into the family milieu of an evening and even if we think we’re quiet and relaxed, we’re actually not.

I find that the dog may well have a bed outside the family space but that they don’t use it. Dogs, like humans, are social beings. The draw of wanting to be in a space with your family can compete with our need to rest. A bit like my Gramps who’d never take himself off up to bed after a tough week of hard work and a week of late shifts in the factory where he worked, he’d nap on the couch. Most dogs are not unlike my Gramps: drawn by competing desires: rest and company. I don’t have to tell you how awkward it is when teenagers decide to spend all their free time away from the family hub, hiding in bedrooms and barely socialising… most of us would feel uncomfortable living in a home where a family member hides themselves away for long hours of the day. Social groups draw us together. We might not want to be right next to each other, but it feels a bit odd when one of us takes ourselves off.

Many dogs with these issues are expected to relax in the family hub and they are not given a choice as to where else they can rest. Other dogs have a choice but the warmth and security of the family group seems to appeal to them more than the silent isolation of another room.

Much like my Gramps, then, who would no doubt have taken exception to any of us climbing on him, fidgeting around him or making sudden bursts of movement, dogs can be compelled to come onto couches for a rest, or to sleep at our feet, and then find it immensely objectionable if people start moving about.

Especially if there are levels of noise or movement, this can be a real difficulty for a number of dogs. It’s not uncommon that these behaviours happen when the family settle down for the night, either.

For dogs who’ve lived differently from the way they live with you, it can also be the fact that they’re used to peace and quiet of an evening. Many dogs simply can’t cope with having to live in a social milieu for such an extended period of time. In the shelter, once the doors shut at 6pm, the dogs settle down. It can be odd, then, to go to a home where activity levels ramp up as people come home, as people move around the kitchen cooking, as they watch noisy TV programmes or play video games.

Good management can often help. Giving the dog a secure space where they will not be disturbed is one way forward. Giving them a comfy bed out of the way of traffic is one solution. Crating may help but can often exaceberate problems. The dog then has no choice to get up and move, and the metal framework can exaggerate the effects of movement around it. Baby gates can be another solution if the dog is happy to be split up from the group.

A careful arrangement of puppy pens can help too. One system I use is octagonal. We get two or three, so the dog has a large area to move in, and one gate. The gate is left open so the dog can come and go as they like. However, the opening is placed in the opposite direction from the one the dog usually takes to get to their target. That way, the dog has to move away from the target, come around the pen and then move towards the target again. It’s counterintuitive to move away when you’re responding to someone, and so I tend to find that the dogs don’t run back to the opening and then come around to the target. Supervised tethering can work to break habits as well.

If you have only one dog, a remote treat dispenser can be a godsend. For the family whose dog slept in the hallway, they had a remote sellotaped to the upstairs landing and to the doorway at the bottom. Anyone coming in or going out pressed the button and the treat dispenser, situated near to the back of the dog’s space, encouraged the dog to move away. It also counterconditioned the dog by pairing up food with the people moving up and down stairs. You absolutely must rule out the presence of food as a complicating factor, however. I worked with one spaniel who was guarding the kitchen space. Like many British dogs, the dog’s ‘room’ was the kitchen, which was a hive of food-related activity from 4pm – 7pm, and then the dog was left to settle as the family went to watch TV. Anyone coming into the kitchen from 7.30 to get snacks or a drink was met by a very cross spaniel who had complicated health problems that made food even more valuable. Things changed significantly when the dog was given a quiet sleeping place away from food sources and when their health was more stable.

It’s worth noting that many guardians say that these things happen more at night or in the dark and wonder if their dog has eye problems. Always worth ruling out. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not a problem at all. I think it comes from the fact we are visual monkeys and we assume other animals are the same. Smell and the way we move can be much more informative for dogs, so when dogs have this specific problem at night, it’s worth ruling out eye problems and low light, but remember too that dogs have more ways than one of knowing who’s moving about.

As well as the automatic treat dispenser, it’s also worth teaching the dog a cue that you’re about to move. More about that in the next two posts.

Dogs who can’t cope at particular times, like any time the guardian stands up from a sitting position, if the guardian returns (even from a room within the house) or if the guardian enters the home seem more frequently to have generalised anxiety issues or relationship issues. Often, they’re on edge and the flashpoint event just triggers an autonomic fight-or-flight response. Many times, these dogs are very sensitive to changes, and that often happens when we’re living on our nerves.

Sometimes I find that it’s worth doing a sleep diary for both kinds of dog, and making sure they are getting two to three hours of uninterrupted napping during the day, and a good hour or so of mental stimulation. In these cases, a life audit can help. Too much physical activity, not enough mental activity and not enough quality sleep can leave us on edge.

As I must have said hundreds of times, dogs are not a fusion-fission species like monkeys and humans. They don’t break up and come together again as frequently as we do, or with as little complication as we do. It’s not uncommon for dogs to find fission and fusion complicated. Fission would mean splitting up. Fusion would mean coming together. My dogs even ‘greet’ each other when they wake up and they’ve been in the same room! Even a nap can cause fission and fusion.

What do we do when we all wake up?

We do the rounds to say, ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’

Fission and fusion can both cause anxiety for some dogs.

Now I’m not a massive fan of strangers or threatening individuals giving the dog food. All it does it draw the dog into the space of someone they feel anxious about. All that does is leave us all much closer to the threat. So many bites happen this way that I can’t even begin to explain why it’s not a good idea.

If you live alone, an automatic treat dispenser can be useful. Place it away from the door where you’re coming in, or away from the couch if you’re going to stand up. Again, rule out any complications caused by the presence of food, and also make sure that the dog won’t try to destroy the machine in your absence to get to the treats. I’ve known very ingenious people put it on a shelf with a bit of plastic piping that drops the treat down the tube which can be ideal if you’re struggling and you wanted to use this method.

If you live in a family, let the other people who aren’t so much of a threat give the dog a treat when the scary person moves. Imagine my grumpy old Gramps having his Sunday afternoon nap. Should Gramps be the one giving the children chocolates for good behaviour? Or Nana in the kitchen? Anyone who can move the dog away from the threat is the solution, not the people who are the threat themselves.

Movement of individuals in the home can be a real threat to some dogs, whether that person is familiar or a stranger. My girl Lidy is a prime example. Once you’ve overcome her stranger danger, you face a different kind of problem: the movement nip. In many ways, she’s still saying she feels a bit uncomfortable about you. But if you start moving unusually, you may find yourself getting a nibble. It’s never offensive really – a nip to the butt or the hand is not the same as a small and very offensive burned toastie of a dog going on the attack – but at the same time, she can’t cope with faster movement. If these movements are very infrequent, management can be the most sensible option. Even if the ‘safe’ guardian stands up first to call the dog to a predictable spot for treats and then the non-safe guardian can leave, it can make things much more manageable. You need a reliable in-home recall and a pocketful of treats. If you’re going to restrain the dog temporarily with a collar grab or a hand across the chest, make sure your dog is used to this and knows that it brings reward. There’s nothing worse than seeing your dog is about to sprint after your husband and nip him, trying to restrain the dog to prevent that and getting a nip yourself.

When we’ve opened up our home to a dog, it can seem soul-destroying when you’re facing battles to get in the door without a volley of barking, or to get up and go get a glass of water without getting a butt bite or an ankle bite. For many guardians, the behaviour is a daily occurrence. Some feel like they can’t move because the dog is lying in their bed growling at them.

If you find yourself in this position, it’s essential you find yourself a professional who can help you solve this problem. Should said professional tell you that your dog is dominant, thank them and find someone else. I’ve never seen this with a dog who is dominant – only with dogs who feel insecure for one reason or another.

Having a good think about the situations and locations where the behaviour occurs is another essential step. You can’t treat what you don’t understand. When you understand it, then you have more chance of action plans actually working. Video can also help, but don’t put yourself at risk. It’s better to have a think about what you saw over the past few days than to try and video a truly uncomfortable dog who is trapped in an inescapable situation and is thus a bite risk.

Food can help, but it depends on the dog. Management will also need tailoring to the specific dogs. Crates are not for every dog and they can add layers of lengthy and complex training when you could have implemented a full plan without them. Sometimes training a dog simply to manage a problem can take longer than training the dog to behave differently where management won’t be needed.

Carefully located automatic treat dispensers can be an absolute gift for dogs who have problems with family members, meaning you can use food but you can do so by reinforcing distance-increasing behaviours, moving the dog away from humans and making it incredibly predictable. This depends on the dog not having a problem with you around their food bowl. You don’t need to test your dog by taking their bowl away: if you move slightly closer and a dog speeds up their eating whilst simultaneously keeping a beady eye on you, then you know they’re not that comfortable with you around their food. Automatic treat dispensers can solve many issues where the dog is an only dog. If you have more than one dog, it can still work but you’ll need two machines and each dog reliably trained to go to one spot.

Some people worry that they’re using food and ‘rewarding’ aggressive behaviours. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, so if using food makes the behaviour worse, then stop. In most cases, all it’s doing is reinforcing the dog for moving away and creating distance. That’s not a bad thing. It certainly beats throwing food over a dog’s head – a movement that, in itself, can be very threatening.

You can also train your dog to get used to you moving using a word that makes your behaviour predictable. Again, this should be taught using food that is delivered away from you. That will need someone else to do the feeding, or an automatic treat dispenser. You can, of course, simply keep the treats away from you so that any movement changes the dog’s feelings. If Lidy had, in her infinite malinois wisdom, decided to lie next to me and also growl if I moved (as my adopted cocker spaniel Tilly used to do!) then teaching her our ‘snack time’ cue to jump up and go to the dresser for a treat can make this into a fun activity. Teaching the dog ‘on’ and ‘off’, or ‘up’ and ‘down’ can help here. Predictable games are so useful when you’re dealing with a dog who’s sensitive to your movement. Of course, you also need to think about the law of unintended consequences here: are you building a dog who moves every time you do? Make sure that behaviours like this are very clearly cued, otherwise you may find you’re reinforcing your dog for ‘velcro’ behaviours. This is another reason why a session with a behaviour consultant can really help. It’s all dependent on your own dog as to what balance of training and management that you might need. Again, a dog with generalised anxiety may benefit from a trip to the vet to discuss psychopharmaceuticals, and it’s always wise to rule out common issues that may make dogs more sensitive than usual.

Building up trusting relationships can be really crucial here. Tilly really struggled at first when she was first adopted. Not only would she choose to sit on or near us, she’d also then growl or wet herself if we moved. The more comfortable she got and the more she trusted us not to do remove her physically, to touch her or to take things from her, the less these behaviours happened. Sometimes, however, it’s not necessarily trust but an instinctive reaction to movement or being disturbed. Dogs who’ve not been used to human movement or who’ve never lived a restrained life can find this hard. My old girl Flika’s reaction to me sneezing told me she really didn’t know humans that well: she never habituated to me sneezing or coughing. There are many clues our adopted dogs might have lived outside the human sphere, and an experienced behaviour consultant can certainly help you understand if this is the case, and to help you build a programme to help your adult dog learn how humans move.

My book for dog trainers is out now on Amazon. Thanks to all the kind people who’ve left reviews so far.