When evaluating dog behavior problems, I often notice problems in the relationship between the owner and the dog. I evaluate their mutual stress levels, emotional states, communication, tendency to work together, and emotional health. In other words, are they in tune with one another. Are they mutually entwined in a healthy relationship?
I got to thinking about this the other day after reading yet another posting on social media about someone wanting to find their dog another home. The reported problems were a.) jealousy of the newborn baby; b.) food bowl, water bowl, and toy guarding against the other dogs in the home; and c.) “hyper” energy level. The owner said they had tried a pet store obedience class and it didn’t work, and had talked to 2 other trainers about the problems.
Something is wrong with the relationship between the owner and all the dogs in the home. I didn’t have to meet the owner or the dog to figure that one out.
Pet store dog training wasn’t the right fit for addressing the types of issues that were going wrong in this relationship. I don’t know what was discussed during the mentioned class. But I have seen people enroll in these classes partly to save money. I get that. Hiring a good dog trainer can sometimes be pricey. But that isn’t always true. For example, I did a lesson for a man who had an emergency heart problem. The entire crew of a fire department rescue team had shown up at the home, the dog was put in the back yard by someone, and the owner was taken by ambulance to the hospital for surgery. Some time during this emergency, one of the EMT’s apparently put their fingers into the chain link fence and was bitten by the dog. Someone got the dog back into the home, the owner returned after a few days. The owner now needs a few months of in home care by multiple visiting helpers. But after the shock of all of this, and with the owner severely weakened by it all, the traumatized dog doesn’t want strangers near the owner and doesn’t want these people coming in the home. This dog presents a noticeable insecure demeanor, not smiling much nor wagging his tail much. He will still play ball, do a fun game of chase in the back yard with a neighbor’s dog, and is OK with the owner’s adult son and daughter-in-law. He was mostly benign with me yesterday, but never completely accepted me in the home. I spent about an hour and a half in the home, suggested a protocol for these medical guests, and some behavioral protocols for helping this dog cope with, and hopefully overcome, his insecurities. The dog’s relationship with the owner has been rocked, he doesn’t feel secure, the owner projects (understandably) vulnerability and weakness because of the aftereffects of the surgery, but some good news: the family is helping to support everything for the dog and the owner. That was all covered in one lesson. Probably about as much money as a series of pet store lessons that wouldn’t have been appropriate for this situation.
Next, what is probably wrong with the subject dog?
First, there is new chaos in the home. A new baby will do that. Second, the bowl and toy guarding, which seems to have started up since the arrival of the baby indicates the dogs relationship with the owner has become insecure. Those items probably represent the only source of comfort and security the dog has, and so the loss of those items makes the dog feel awful.
Second, the “hyper” energy of the dog is probably a result of too much confinement. I have been working, long term, with a male black lab that was confined too much as a young dog. I see them, on average, about every 2 to 4 weeks. When the dog was rehomed and adopted by my student, the dog was also “hyper”. They had mentioned that the previous owner kept the dog crated “all the time”. With time and some concerted work, this dog has finally calmed down and his level of activity is normal for his age and breed. When this dog first came into the home, he would run around, get on and into everything, steal shoes, pillows, and other items, and had learned to run away with them to get attention. I’m guessing all of this was why he was over confined by the original owner. We are still working through all of this. Part of this is learned, since he obtained lots of reinforcement by being chased. Part of this is probably some insecurity, and those human scented items provide some kind of substitute relationship comfort. If a dog can’t get direct comfort from a person, they sometimes will find some kind of substitute to fill that emotional hole in their feelings.
Lastly, the jealousy of the newborn baby, if that is what it is, would probably be based in some kind of relationship insecurity with the adults, and there has been no bond established with the new baby. Maybe the baby is still a novelty. Maybe the dog feels competitive with the baby. Or maybe the dog is being ignored and punished too much, and the dog cant figure out how to relate to the family any more. Often, the more you punish the dog, the more it tries to appease the punisher and you get an abnormal bond between the two.
Clearly the stress levels in the home are high. When stress is high, it can drive a dog and owner apart. I think that is the case here. This dog can’t then read or predict what’s going on, and neither can the owner. The dog is insecure, and the owners have lost the necessary warm feeling toward the dog that would cause them to do whatever it would take to solve this situation. There is clearly a break in the communication, since the owner can’t read the dog and the dog can’t find alternative ways of obtaining his needs. I don’t think the dog and owner are working together, and I suspect the dog is being punished and overly confined. And the emotional health of the dog and owner are suffering. I would bet this is a first child, and the mother probably feels overwhelmed and under resourced. Dogs find safety in an orderly home with predictable routines. They also find safety when their relationship is properly established and maintained. All of this needs to be unravelled. Unfortunately, all rescue groups are full of dogs and the probability of this dog finding a new home any time soon are pretty slim to none.
Now, maybe the child is at risk here. I don’t know. I haven’t met the dog or owner, so a lot of this diagnosis is speculation. However, based upon experience, I have encountered this story before, and the behavior of the dogs and people mirrored what I saw online.
Many people think they can fix these situations by putting the dog in some kind of a strict training program. They are wrong. Teaching the dog a bunch of new skills won’t work if the relationship between the dog and owner isn’t fixed. Yes, if the dog and owner had more skills before the baby arrived, maybe those skills could have been used as some kind of workaround. If the puppy was heavily socialized with other dogs and small children as a very young puppy, from 2 to 16 weeks of age, most dogs would accept a new baby in stride. A well trained dog could be commanded to go to a Place and lay down when the diapers were being changed or as guests were coming and going. The dog would have been taught proper play and interactions with the other dogs in the home. The dog would have an outlet for exercise, such as off leash Fetch or taught to use a home treadmill as the mom was recovering from childbirth. And the dog would just be more directable in every way. However, even a dog like that can be unsettled if the home life becomes chaotic, if the dog starts being confined too much, if the stress levels in the home are too high, and the dog starts being ignored. At this point, the correct approach is ”all of the above”. I’d start with managing the dog differently to get the relationships worked out, and I’d recommend basic obedience. It is hard to do all of this after the baby has arrived, however. I’ve been called way too many times just before or just after a new baby, being asked to fix the dog at the last moment. Many times the owners just get rid of the dog, when they should have planned for this long ago. It isn’t exactly a surprise that a baby is on the way and that preparations need to be made, including with the dogs in the home. I hope everything works out well for this owner and dog, but the warning signs, and based upon my experience, aren’t very hopeful. The relationship synchronicity isn’t there.