Pet training: Family's yellow lab barks at everyone

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

Q: I have a 2-year-old yellow lab. She is a WONDERFUL dog and has had advanced training.

Our problem with her is that she is very PROTECTIVE. She barks when someone comes to the door or on the property. When guests come in she does NOT like them in the house. I have to hold her back then she is fine. But when they try to reach out to her she barks at them, tail between the legs and barks and backs up. She acts shy with them but doesn't want them petting her. If we are outside with her, she doesn't like the neighbors coming over to talk to us.  Can you please help, I don't want this to get to the point that she bites someone.

Dear Hobbs & Family:

As with any unwanted behavior, such as when dogs bark incessantly, something (or someone) in their environment is rewarding the unwanted behavior.  For dogs that find “strangers” a bit scary or unwelcome, barking is an easy behavior to warn away the “intruder.”  By barking until the intruder leaves, withdraws their hands, refrains from petting or she tucks her tail and backs away, the dog is accidentally reinforced or rewarded for that excessive barking.  In other words, it learns to control its immediate environment (i.e, remove the intruder) through barking.  As long as the unwanted barking gets rewarded in this manner it will continue.  Attempts to correct or punish the unwanted barking do nothing to resolve the animal’s underlying fear or frustration which prompts the barking in the first place.  In fact, punishment of the barking may make matters worse by teaching the dog to resort to a more severe form of aggression such as nipping or biting. So please don’t do it!

Instead of correcting the animal, let’s try to teach it a new behavior in response to strangers and visitors.  You will need the cooperation of all your future houseguests as they will play an important part of retraining her behavior.  For example, until she improves, instruct visitors to refrain from any attempts to get too close or pet her.  Why? She is telling you that she is just not comfortable with others near you or her, much less being petted by them.  Some animals need a little more space between them and people so it’s important to be vigilant to her comfort zone even as you try to improve things for her.

Here are several more things to consider:

Always carry a good supply of high value toys and treats (I use boiled beef liver because dogs can’t seem to resist!) whenever strangers or friends may be encountered.  If she learns to associate lots of little treat bits with the APPROACH of people, she will quickly learn to like new people.  Lots of tiny treats fed every few seconds or minutes for being quiet and calm are more effective than one or two big handfuls at at time.  The idea is to get her attention and keep it with frequent rewards for being quiet, before she starts to bark.  Eventually, in future encounters you can give some of these bits to your friends to toss to her while she’ still being quiet.  I would suggest guests not try to hand feed her until she grows much more comfortable.  Also, once people move away from her, stop giving her any rewards or praise.

Instead of having neighbors join you and her, while you are already standing in “her” yard, try bringing her closer to your neighbors at a neutral location down the street.  In this way, you can reduce her “home field advantage” and perhaps reduce her urge to protect her space by taking her to a neutral location.

Also, be aware of how close to other people she can tolerate before beginning to bark (e.g., 3 feet, 10 feet or more, etc.).  When you do say hello to friends, do so at that distance and no closer. At the same time, ask her to engage in calm behaviors such as sit, lay down, or just stand with all 4 paws on the floor.  Barking is often accompanied by anxious, high energy behaviors, so rewarding her for a sit etc. will help reshape the overall barking response.

Take advantage of all opportunities to reinforce her for “meeting” new people in new locations.  For example, drive to places where she can see and hear other people such as a shopping mall or park.  However, keep your distance, or perhaps stay in the car in order to prevent her from starting to bark. 

Practice having people ring the doorbell when it’s just you at home.  Ask her “sit” several feet away from the door opening and press the doorbell.  If she remains quiet, quickly toss her a treat or toy and end the training session.  A little while later try it again. Make it fun to sit quietly when the doorbell rings!  If she breaks from the sit or barks, simply wait her out and once she stops making noise, start over.

In closing, for now,  all of her future interactions with people should be kept short and successful.  If you exceed her threshold for staying calm and quiet or getting too close, it’s too late—she’s rehearsing the problem again.  So don’t be greedy.  Get some success, reward her for being with people, and then get her out of the situation by putting her in the yard etc.  But remember, all the fun rewards come for being with people--quietly.

Good luck!

Venti & Dr. Grey