TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. - We have a 6-month-old female Chihuahua named Coco, who was adopted from a person standing in front of a store. The situation made me uncomfortable, but I just couldn't walk away. She was the last pup and I didn't have a good feeling about what would happen to her. Coco is good with me, but growls and snaps at everyone else. She hasn't bitten hard enough to break skin yet. Is there any way to teach her people are not going to hurt her?
- Coco's new mom
Dear New Mom,
The growling and snapping behavior you describe is classic fear aggression. It sounds like this poor little pup has had a rough time during her short life and she's learned to use these behaviors to keep scary people away.
The first 16 weeks of a puppy's life are crucial. During this time, puppies learn what is safe and what is potentially dangerous. Some pups are more resilient than others, but this early socialization period establishes the foundation of who the dog will be. Since Coco had an uncertain first few months, it's very likely she wasn't properly socialized. In addition, her breed has a tendency to be sensitive to new people and things.
The first thing you need to do is build her confidence. Training is the most effective way to do this. Positive reinforcement-based trainers focus on teaching dogs in a non-threatening way and poor little Coco will need to feel comfortable in order to learn. It will probably be best to work with a trainer privately until Coco has learned some basic cues. A trainer can help you determine how quickly (or slowly) you will need to progress.
Coco also needs to develop positive associations with people who approach her. Recruit a friend who is willing to follow your instructions. When she comes over to help, keep things quiet and calm. Have your friend approach Coco but only as close as she can tolerate. If she growls or shows teeth, the friend is too close. Your friend should toss a really good treat like chicken or cheese and keep walking. Do not let your friend reach for her or lean over her. These are both very threatening movements for a dog like her.
Once your friend has been in the house for awhile, have her sit down and ignore Coco. If Coco approaches, instruct her to toss a treat but not to try and pet her. You want Coco to initiate any interaction. If she comes close enough, have your friend put their hand down to be sniffed, but she should not reach for Coco at all. Coco may not even approach until your friend has visited several times.
It's important not to push her into an encounter that will make her uncomfortable. Remember, the goal is to build her confidence - not have her practice the fearful behavior. Once you've had some success with one person, invite another and follow the same procedure. You'll want to repeat this process with as many willing friends as possible.
- Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.