Greta Kaplan, CPDT, CDBC
On one list I belong to, someone recently noted that her shy, reactive dog is much more barky and reactive when he is with her than when he is with other people, e.g. her sister and her pet sitter. She was wondering why. I suggested five possible reasons, and I’ve come up with a couple more since.
First, dogs who really dislike being alone may exhibit unusually affiliative behavior with anyone who relieves their solitude – and if they are dogs who also have anxiety around strangers, their need for company can trump their fear of strangers in some cases. I once fostered a dog who turned out to have clinical separation anxiety (among many other quirks). He was scared of me when we first met and he was in the company of another foster parent. But the second I got him to my house, he was all charm, wiggling like mad and wanting to sit on my lap. He can’t stand being alone so … any port in a storm
Second, some dogs resource-guard their owners. This isn’t protectiveness; the dog isn’t responding to some perceived threat to the owner. Instead, the dog is treating the owner as a valued possession and is working to defend his ownership rights from interlopers. These dogs tend to move in between their owner and dogs and/or humans who approach, and may stiffen and snarl or bark if the interloper gets closer. These dogs are often also food-guarders and their efforts will redouble if the owner is carrying treats.
Third, it’s not uncommon for owners to inadvertently reinforce barky, reactive behavior. A dog who’s hysterically upset is not going to act more hysterical because he happens to get a treat while he’s screaming; he’s too panicky to learn from consequences like a small treat. But a dog who’s feeling worried, but not hysterical, may experience a cookie that interrupts the barking as a reward for barking… and bark more next time. It can be hard to sort this out, since owners who are doing this may simultaneously be forcing the dog into closer proximity with the trigger, thus increasing the intense emotional reaction, and this increased emotion may be driving the barking rather than the cookie reward. An experienced pair of eyes can make all the difference in figuring this out.
Fourth, shy or fearful dogs may shut down and essentially freeze up when they are seriously stressed. Being separated from their familiar, safe person can cause them to freeze. Their behavior looks calm; they don’t appear to be reacting to much of anything, so the barking stops. When the owner is around, they are confident enough to bark out of frustration, communication, warning, etc. With these dogs, the fact that they are barkier with mom is a good sign, even if it’s hard to live with! This phenomenon is behind a lot of the “honeymoon period” behavior we see in recently adopted dogs. It’s not uncommon for the dogs to just close up and simply not behave much at all until they relax and understand the rules in their new home. Once they relax, the behavior they’ve been keeping under wraps may be charming or it may be difficult.
Fifth, we owners are at a real disadvantage compared to people who have our dog for an hour or a day. It’s pretty easy to be clear and consistent about rules and expectations for limited periods. It’s really hard to stay clear and consistent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year! Lack of consistency can make some dogs anxious, so they may trigger more easily, come down more slowly, and information-seek more often. (Much barking is information-seeking.) This is one reason it’s often very easy for a trainer to take your dog’s leash and get beautiful attention or quiet. The trainer isn’t magically skilled, she’s just being clear for a short period so that the dog has no questions about what to do and not to do. Even the best trainer would eventually see your dog’s “issues” if she took him home for a few months! A variation on this theme is how well my Border Collie worked for my herding instructor. He could control the sheep easily by where he stood, whereas (she figured out) I could not consistently control the sheep no matter where I went. She was pretty much free to run the sheep as she liked, and she did! Dogs who know you’re in control of the reinforcers are generally very cooperative dogs.
Sixth, owners may inadvertently increase their dogs’ stress with their own emotional reactions to the situation. If an owner starts to breathe shallowly, tighten the leash, and let a certain screechiness or sternness creep into her voice, the dog accurately reads signs of stress and becomes more stressed himself. This is a perfectly normal adaptive behavior since stress signs from a member of your social group can warn of danger before it’s too late to escape. The now-stressed dog is then prone to start barking or snarling much more readily since he is producing adrenaline and looking for the threat. The owners’ stressed behavior may be directed toward the dog as an apparent attempt to calm the dog – but if the owner’s body language is stressed, the dog will pick up on that rather than the soothing intent. The owner’s stressed behavior may be directed toward the dog in the form of a punishment for the dog’s own increasingly stressed behavior: “Rover, knock it off! How dare you growl at that nice Poodle!” Or the owner’s stressed behavior may not even be directed toward the dog… but the dog will still feel it. (Note that it is perfectly possible for owners to direct calming, soothing behavior at dogs that does not increase stress; and we know this happens when the dog is calming down rather than getting unhappier. If your behavior truly makes your dog feel calmer and better, then there is no reason to stop, even if someone tells you to stop coddling your dog.)
Seventh, some owners may inadvertently increase their dogs’ stress by repeatedly forcing them too close to triggers. Even if the owner’s demeanor is cheerful and calm, the dog can still be hating life if forced to stand nose to nose with the neighbor’s overly friendly puppy, subtly threatening middle-aged male, or wobbly toddler. Eventually one will snap, and if this type of interaction happens repeatedly, the dog will become agitated more and more pre-emptively (when they see another dog (or toddler) across the street… whenever they walk on a certain block… when the leash goes on…).
This seems like an awfully long list of ways we can freak our dogs out and make them bark and react more in our presence. But it goes with the responsibility of having a dog. In just the same way, it’s much easier to hurt a person who loves you, because that person is the one who cares about what you think, do, and feel more than one who is neutral toward you.
Many dogs who are reactive are experiencing more than one of these phenomena, so a big part of our job is identifying how each owner’s behavior might contribute to the dog’s behavior. Change takes place on both ends of the leash, so if you’re experiencing any of these problems with your dog, let us know. We love talking to our readers about their dogs!