The Case of the 160-Pound Yard Guard

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.

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12 Responses to The Case of the 160-Pound Yard Guard

  1. Jerry I says:

    YAY!!!! Love success stories; especially when they have such bonuses as learning a new game.

  2. Great success story! Thanks for posting this!

  3. Linda Blauch says:

    Love this story. Good for Lisa for inquiring as to why the dog was reacting the way she was instead of just assuming it was an aggressive dog trying to dominate her.

  4. Chris Vereide says:

    I’m very glad Lucy’s behavior could be modified successfully with positive methods. My only concern here is – What if Lucy continues to be harassed by the teenager? Now that Lucy is more trusting of people at the fence, could this trust cause her to be injured or unduly tormented? I want to make it clear that I am not advocating that Lucy be allowed to resume her previous behavior in order to scare people away from the fence. If Lucy is to be left outside unsupervised, I would suggest that the owners change Lucy’s environment somehow so the chances of her being taunted by the bothersome teenager (or anyone else wanting to harass her) are greatly decreased. I don’t know what the layout is of their property or fencing, but maybe putting up a privacy fence along the sidewalk or something to that effect.

  5. I too can’t help but wonder, why was Lucy being left out in the yard unsupervised in the first place? Is being the “Yard Guard” her purpose in life? It sounds like the dog was living in the yard while the owners were away, if Lucy was loose and at the gate when the dog-sitter arrives and leaves. Taunting teenager could be the least of their worries, who knows if that might escalate, or who or what else could be triggering her when there is no one around, and if she was let out or escaped, yikes!

    • judy says:

      that’s what I was wondering! Nice that she had a wonderful caregiver, but to be left alone in a yard….there are cretins out there who could hurt the dog or worse!

  6. wildewmn says:

    To Chris Vereide and caninecaretaker:

    Thank you for making some excellent points. Here’s what I know, from my pet sitter:

    1. The kid who was tormenting Lucy is no longer an issue.
    2. Being a “Yard Guard” is most certainly NOT Lucy’s purpose in life. Her family loves her very much and treats her very well. The only time she’s in the yard is when no one is at home, otherwise she’s in the house where she’s got dog beds and other comforts. (And trust me, no one who thought of their dog as a “yard guard” would be paying a professional pet sitter of this caliber.)
    3. I’m not clear on the layout, although I do know it’s a large property where you need an access code to get in. According to Lisa, Lucy cannot get out at the fence line or anywhere else. I’m thinking this is a case where they layout is different than what most of us would envision (a typical house with yard) and that somehow the teenager had gained access to where the actual yard was, within the property. This is probably not a case of a typical yard with a gate that fronts a sidewalk.

  7. ashbrookecs says:

    my other thought (other than – what a great idea, glad it worked!) is that this is a breed that is BRED to guard; wasn’t Lucy just doing what comes naturally to that breed? A guard dog *probably* is supposed to instinctually guard a point of entrance to it’s property…

  8. martie13 says:

    I love the way this problem was solved and have no other comment on that. But it continues to disturb me that the dog is left in the yard when no one is home. With increasing reports of dogs being stolen, even from people’s yards, dog owners are being cautioned to not leave their dogs in the yard unsupervised. I have been trying to envision a property that is not vulnerable to dog theft and I really can’t think of a situation that can’t be cracked in some creative way. Ten foot tall buried privacy fence that can’t be scaled? Audible burglar alarm? Is this a gated community? I’m not sure any of these safe-guards are enough to prevent someone from entering a yard if they really want to bad enough. No socio-economic group is immune from individuals who are capable of great harm when given the opportunity. And a property that is described as large is probably not something that can be monitored by neighbors. Since a pet sitter comes by a couple of times a day for feeding and playtime I would secure my dog in a comfortable room in the house or garage that is dog-proofed.

  9. Robert Paul says:

    I’m a bit puzzled. Teaching Lucy to accept Lisa is not the same thing as teaching her not to be threatening when people she doesn’t know approach the gate. Unless the owners ‘train’ her by playing the Find It game whenever —anyone— approaches the gate; which would, of course, be impractical. I’d like to know just how we’re to describe what we think Lucy has ‘learned.’ All good wishes.

  10. Evelyn Haskins says:

    I personally think that dogs are safer and happier left in ‘safe’ yards, rather than cooped up inside houses.

    Keeping the gate to the yard that the dogs are in locked means that casual visitors will not open the gate not enter the yard.

    Ideally the yard should not have a public access boundary. That means that for someone to access the dogs’ yard they would already need to be trespassing.

    • Evelyn Haskins says:

      PS. Even when I am home, I really do NOT want anybody entering our yards unannounced.
      We have signs on the house block gate to ask people to ‘ring bell or blow horn for attention’ which most people respect.

      If you live in an area where you are required to have free public access to your front door, then that should be securely fenced off from the yard where the dogs are free.

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