Does your dog suffer from an emotional behavioral disturbance, such as chronic generalized anxieties, depression, compulsive behaviors, or phobias? These neuroses are maladaptive, distressing conditions that are resistant to typical dog training methods.
I’ve worked with dogs displaying disturbances like this which interfere with learning, cause physical symptoms, and exaggerated emotional displays. There was the friendly pit bull that was traumatized by a threatening person. After that one incident, he became overly suspicious of everyone except his owner, he developed skin and digestive issues, and became dangerous to visitors and strange dogs. Another pit bull was previously owned by a bad guy and his bad girlfriend who terrorized the dog to make him mean. The dog become very dangerous. Then there was the Chihuahua who lived with a human with behavioral disturbances. She would obsessively fuss and mess with her dog for about a day, then switch and ignore the dog for several days. The dog couldn’t figure out what was going on, so the dog became very dangerous and started attacking her and her guests.
I heard of another dog that would bark intensely when the doorbell rang. So, the owner hired a trainer who arrived with a bucket full of rolled up socks. He’d ring the doorbell, which set off the barking, and then he’d toss the socks at the dog so long as it barked. It was an impossible situation for the dog to resolve and it had a complete nervous breakdown.
We see a lot of this kind of thing in animal rescue. The longer a dog is housed in a kennel or municipal shelter, the higher the odds the dog will become sick, dangerous, and self-harming. Many shelters doom dogs and turn them into emotional wrecks, taking no responsibility for what they are doing and ignoring what is happening in front of them. Many shelters are cruel in terms of how the animals are captured, managed, and housed.
As a rule, behaviorally disturbed dogs are created through intense, uncertain, aversive, frustrating, no-win scenarios.
The first pit bull took about 6 months to sufficiently calm down to at least allow friends of the owner to come over and visit. The dog remained suspicious of strange dogs, and the health issues mostly went away. The second pit bull eventually became friendly with strangers but wasn’t trustworthy with them if left alone with strangers. The Chihuahua was rehomed and became a normal dog again. And I never did get a chance to work with the dog that had the breakdown over barking and socks.
Regarding shelter dogs, it is an ongoing problem. Shelters and rescues tend to warehouse dogs and have no idea the factors involved in preventing behavioral disturbances, and they don’t seem to care that they are creating dogs doomed to be put to death. The quicker dogs are transferred into a new home, or at least a well-run foster home, the better.
Unfortunately, most owners of such dogs don’t have a clue as to how to go forward. They ask the wrong questions and try to dictate the treatment plan. So, let me lay out a general outline of what should be done after the dog has been evaluated and deemed to have such a condition:
The first step in dealing with such dogs is to create a low conflict, predictable lifestyle, and relationship with that dog. That doesn’t mean you now need to “be the leader” and boss this dog around. Instead, whatever has been confusing has to be gradually and thoughtfully sorted out. Lastly, these dogs need to be able to practice behaviors and situations where they can obtain satisfaction.
There are no quick fixes for dogs like this. You are looking at many months of patient efforts to get small incremental gains. These dogs have been traumatized and they need to be worked to sort out those traumas. Not all dogs turn out well. Experimental laboratory creation of behavioral disturbances, and resulting treatment to turn them around, in dogs and other animals has often failed, and sometimes resulted in the early death of those animals. Their bodies just gave out. These dogs deserve a second chance, but you must be prepared that it is going to take time, at the very least, to make measurable gains.