I have worked with many dogs that never recognize certain people, regardless of how many times they have met. They will sniff and react to them on every encounter as if they were strangers. This can be quite frustrating when you live with a dog that acts as if it doesn’t recognize someone in the home, or people you regularly encounter, and responds fearfully and/or aggressively.
I remember two large dogs I worked with about a decade ago. From the day I met them until the day we finished working with them, they never accepted me and always treated me as if they had never seen me before. Even after months of work, this never changed. This was not typical of that breed. They had to be muzzled around me for my own safety, and they made a simultaneous and explosive attack on me at the end of all that time, lunging for my face, while off their territory and with their owners on leash, even though I was not acting in any provocative manner. The muzzles, the leashes, and my distance were what kept me safe.
Key contributing facts: 1.) They were never socialized outside the home for at least 2 years; 2.) The owners were going through a significant, stressful, hurtful, and angry family trauma that entire 2 years; 3.) These dogs experienced and absorbed all this early life stress from their owners and there was no emotional safe escape from what was going on around them; 4.) Hypervigilance when near any stranger and when outside the home; and 5.) Hypervigilant to any clue that an unknown person or animal was active outside the walls of the home or fenced yard. There are other factors that might be involved with other dogs which could be clues as to how this develops and to diagnose what’s going on. With these dogs, I could even walk around the back yard with them if the owners were there to let me in and I didn’t try to interact with the dogs. These dogs didn’t try to avoid me, didn’t try to get to know me, would lift their legs to pee on something when I entered their sphere, didn’t act as if they were afraid of me, but gave off all the typical warning signs when I was around and within 20 to 30 yards before any greeting. While the owners treated these dogs with the utmost in kindness and care, these dogs were soaked in this isolated, intense, unhappy social environment for 2 years. The training was appropriate, non-confrontational, affectionate, and rewarding… for the typical dog. However, with all that, we could not create new happy memories or extinguish the negative emotions in these dogs. That first 2 years was cumulatively traumatic.
Thus, it is a warning sign that you are dealing with something deeply rooted in a dog when you see this kind of behavioral pattern. My observation is that this can go from a very mild and manageable condition to an intense and dangerous condition, depending upon that individual dog. Dogs like this have an impaired ability to form positive memories of some people, especially new people and to unlearn past triggers. We never tried to do anything with these 2 dogs beyond basic obedience since they had trouble just learning those basics. These types of dogs are typically content and will show and accept affection with only a few known people.
These types of dogs need to be assessed by the owner as to their danger to others, both animal and human. Many times, these situations can be managed to keep the dogs away from the people or animals they don’t like. In other cases, it is impossible or too risky to attempt to do this and euthanasia should be discussed. The assumption here is that the animals and people who the dog isn’t accepting do not have a bad history with that dog and aren’t currently doing provocative things to make this dog unstable. The concern here is the dog that can’t be effectively managed around others and the risk of harm that might entail. No one can ever predict what a dog might do in the future. We are not prophets. We can test whether a dog can be made better, and that’s about it. If the dog shows a turnaround, then fine, it might be that the remedy worked, and life goes happily along. If the dog doesn’t show a turnaround after these tests (and I see training in these circumstances as a test of what the dog will do), then decisions must be made. I don’t like seeing owners having to face giving up on their dog. I didn’t become a dog trainer to play God and tell people that this situation isn’t going to work out, yet discussions inevitably are going to come about the more dogs anyone trains. Furthermore, there is no set formula for when the owners will accumulate enough evidence to justify what should come next. Don’t go dragging your dog trainer through the mud because they haven’t yet proclaimed what they think is the right decision, even after a lot of lessons. Sometimes the answers are not yet definitive. Furthermore, you will have to separate your feelings for the dog from what you think is the morally right way to go. That final decision should be up to you. The trainer is only there to help expose what is going on and to offer interpretations of where things are at and what might be tried next, or if all options have been exhausted. In the meantime, people can get hurt.
Dogs that act this way can often be turned around. Dogs that act this way can often not be turned around. This article can’t tell you what the outcome is going to be, and the only way you’re going to be able to decide what you can live with is to collect enough data where you feel it is justified to go either this way or that way. I can’t say how much data or time you will require. I will say this, however, if this dog doesn’t accept your children, and seems dangerous to them, then I think you have a serious problem on your hands.
The two dogs I mentioned lived out a long, good, but isolated life with their owners until they passed away. They were well cared for and caused no problems in the home. But the dogs needed to be kept away from strangers and that never changed.