My pet sitter recently called me with a behavior question. She’d just begun a weeklong assignment caring for a 3-year-old, 160-pound English Mastiff at the owner’s home. Lisa had taken care of the dog before, and they’d gotten along well. This time, however, Lucy was displaying a previously unseen behavior. Whenever Lisa placed her hand on the gate to enter the yard, Lucy would stare at her and issue a low, throaty growl. She’d then bark as Lisa entered. Once they were in the back yard things went back to normal, with Lucy jumping and rompting around like a big, happy puppy. But the threateing growl resurfaced whenever Lisa approached the front gate to leave.
Lisa was concerned for her safety, and rightly so. She was also worried about what would happen to the dog in the future if a pet sitter couldn’t interact with her, as the family took frequent trips. Lisa scheduled someone to go with her to the next feeding, to wait outside the gate just in case something went wrong. What she really wanted, though, was to change the situation. Not knowing the details of the dog’s history or anything about her, there was no way I could say for sure why Lucy was behaving the way she was. Lisa wanted to know if there was anything she was doing with her own body language to trigger the behavior, but I doubted it—she’s very aware of her body language, and is very good with dogs. (And can I tell you how thrilled I am to have a pet sitter who’s not only great with dogs, but always wants to learn more about their behavior?) I didn’t think this was a typical case of fear-based reactivity, like those where a dog is only confident enough to nip once the person turns their back—the behavior didn’t start when Lisa turned her back to walk to the gate, but only once she’d reached it. My gut feeling was that for whatever reason, the gate had become a highly charged location for Lucy, to the point that she became reactive whenever someone touched it, regardless of whether they were coming or going.
Tossing treats would be an easy enough way for Lisa to gain access when entering, but more needed to be done. I explained how to teach Lucy the “Find It” game by tossing a treat on the ground for her and saying, “Find it!” in a happy voice. Lisa would begin the game in the back yard where Lucy felt safe. Once Lucy was happily playing along, Lisa would gradually move the game down the walkway that led to the front gate, always monitoring the dog for signs of stress. If all went well, she’d move close to the gate, still playing Find It. To exit, she’d scatter-toss a windfall of treats in a final Find It, and then walk out. (I also suggested including a well-stuffed Kong be included in the last toss.) Lisa said she’d try it the next morning. I assured her that if things didn’t look promising, I’d accompany her on the evening feeding to observe.
The next morning, I received an email. Lisa wrote:
“The Find It game was a hit! We played in the back yard, and Lucy caught on quickly. Each time she would come and sit, and wait for the ‘Find it’ command. She was wagging her tail every time she came back to me.
In the front yard, we played the game. I moved closer to the gate before each throw. On my exit, I threw the ‘Find it’ cookies in one direction and the cookie-filled Kong in another and went out the gate. Lucy could care less! I left, and she was so happy playing the Find It game.”
Lisa has gone back to the home a few times since and each time, Lucy was very happy to see her. There were no incidents on the way out, either. Lisa finally got to speak with the owners last night and told them what had been going on. They revealed that there had been a teenager who was taunting Lucy through the gate a short while back, and that Lucy had actually snapped at the boy’s hand. As a potential root cause for Lucy’s behavior, that made a lot of sense!
The whole situation with Lucy made me reflect on what a trainer who relies heavily on physical force would have done, assuming the person wasn’t up to overpowering a reactive, 160-pound mastiff. Someone had actually suggested to Lisa that the owner should physically “correct” Lucy for the behavior. It’s true that allowing a huge dog (or any dog, for that matter) to growl and lunge at visitors is not okay. But as with all behavior issues, we’ve got to look at why the dog was behaving that way in the first place. As with any canine behavior problem, instead of reacting with violence, we must address the underlying issue. That way, the symptoms cease naturally, and there are no unwanted side effects like those that can occur when meeting violence with violence. Lucy’s dad loves the joy the Find It game gives her and plans to keep playing. I’m glad, as he’ll be able to use it in situations such as when Lucy notices another dog he doesn’t want her approaching, or the moment she spies a squirrel. Most of all, I’m glad Lucy is learning that the gate is not a scary place, and that the Case of the 160-pound Yard Guard ended well and safely for everyone.