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My Pet World: Training your dog to relax and not bark at guests

Tribune Content Agency 11/30/2022 Cathy M. Rosenthal, Tribune Content Agency
A young pup's lack of exposure to people can impact her comfort level around people later on, writes Cathy M. Rosenthal. © TNS A young pup's lack of exposure to people can impact her comfort level around people later on, writes Cathy M. Rosenthal.

Dear Cathy,

Our one-year-old female Husky mix was adopted during the height of the pandemic and was not exposed to many people outside of our immediate family. For the last eight months, she has been barking incessantly at anyone who comes into our home, especially men. Her barking will stop while the visitor sits quietly, but once they speak or get up, the barking starts again.

Lately, she has backed away from the visitor, even going upstairs, while barking, indicating she is experiencing some anxiety. There have been times when one of us holds her near the visitor, and the barking will stop, but only while she's being held. I recognize that this is also a sign of anxiety.

We've tried having her meet new people at a neutral location, but the peace this provides ends once they enter our property. And, this is not always possible to do, especially with repair people. What can we do to help her feel secure around strangers and stop the barking?

— Lisa, East Meadow, New York

Dear Lisa,

You’re observant to notice your dog’s barking is anxiety-related. Backing away from visitors does signal that a dog is unsure of a situation. A young pup's lack of exposure to people can impact her comfort level around people later on.

The more you expose a puppy to people, the more comfortable she will be around people. But exposure at any age can help build more confidence in a dog. So please, continue taking her to neutral locations to meet your friends.

Next, begin basic obedience training. The more you train her, the more confidence she will gain, which can help an anxious dog. In addition to the regular basic obedience commands, teach her two additional skills. The first is to train her to relax. You do that by saying "relax" when your dog is clearly very relaxed, using a clicker or saying her marker word (i.e., bingo, awesome) to mark the correct behavior, and then giving her a treat.

Looking relaxed generally means they are laying on one hip. If a dog is simply down on all fours, they can easily pop up from this position, which means they aren’t in a relaxed state. Look for those relaxed states and reward your dog over and over for it. Then use that command around your company.

Second, teach your husky to "leave it." Leave-it training is often associated with food or toys. But asking your dog to "leave it" with people or animals is helpful too. Follow the steps above to train her to leave food and toys when asked. Then train her to "leave it" as she approached someone in those neutral locations, you mentioned.

A good recall (coming when called) is important as well, especially when your dog is off-leash. Follow up by saying “thanks, I got this," to let your dog know you don't need her help or protection. Then position yourself between your dog and your guest. Never let your dog be between you and your guests as this positioning often triggers their protective nature and contributes to their anxiety and barking. If needed, keep her on a leash, and make sure she stands or sits behind you when guests are around. If she knows you “got this,” she will be more likely to relax.

Cathy M. Rosenthal © Provided by Tribune Content Agency Cathy M. Rosenthal

Finally, provide a pheromone collar or pheromone plug-ins for the home, or give her some of the over-the-counter hemp anxiety chews to ease some of the anxiety, especially during training. A relaxed dog is much easier to train than a tense and anxious one.

Be patient. It may take a few weeks or even months to change this behavior.

Dear Cathy,

I read your column in the Wisconsin State Journal about the man with feral cats. I appreciated all of your ideas regarding them, but was disappointed that you did not mention "TNR" programs (spaying/neutering) and barn cat programs, especially given the damage they do due to small animals, especially migratory birds.

— Janet, Madison, Wisconsin

Dear Janet,

I don't think the letter writer complaining about feral cats around his pool will likely trap them for their TNR (trap-neuter-return) surgeries and return them to the neighborhood to care for them for the remainder of their lives. But, if there is a barn cat program in his area, he can inquire as to whether he can trap the cats and bring them to the organization operating the program. If there is no such program, then TNR is the best option for managing feral cat populations in a neighborhood.

Thanks for writing.

(Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to cathy@petpundit.com. Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal.)

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