TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. - Dear Carla,
We have had our 4-year-old Lab named Molly since she was a puppy. She was 2-years-old when we had our first child and we just had another baby three months ago. We have a nice fenced yard and Molly spends most the day outside. She barks and charges whenever people walk by and our house backs up to a trail. Last week we were in the front yard and she charged up to someone walking by and bit them. She didn't break the skin, but I've never seen her do anything like this before. She has always been very sweet and gentle with our toddler, but now I'm worried. What should we do?
- Worried Mom
When you had your first child, Molly was still a young dog. I'm guessing that before you had children, Molly was the center of attention and got plenty of exercise. Once the first baby came along, you probably didn't have the time and energy you once had for Molly. All dogs, but especially young ones, need daily physical and mental exercise. Without it, they will become anxious and will start to find inappropriate ways to entertain themselves and burn off the excess energy.
Molly has spent the last couple of years developing and practicing bad behaviors while left alone in the back yard. She has staked out the fenced yard as her territory and charges the fence barking to warn passersby to stay away. Since they keep walking, her behavior is reinforced. This behavior has become a habit, so when you were in the front yard and she saw the person walking by she instinctually barked and charged. The difference was there wasn't a fence to stop her. The good news is that she didn't bite hard, but the bad news is that she bit at all. This is a red flag that you must do something to deal with her anxiety and fast!
The first thing you absolutely have to do is get her out for daily exercise. If possible, this should be off leash so she can really run. If she likes to play fetch, get a Chuck-it and ball and go to an area with soft ground to play. Be careful playing on pavement because her pads are soft from lack of exercise. She's out of shape, so you might get away with 30 minutes of good exercise in the beginning.
The next step is to keep her in the house more during the day, especially at times when people are walking on the trails. She needs to stop practicing charging and barking and the only way to accomplish this is through management of the situation. Dogs do not need to spend the whole day outside. If Molly gets daily exercise she will be more tired and will likely sleep more.
Last, but not least, comes training. You no doubt have a busy life with two small children, so the only way you will fit dog training in is to integrate is into every interaction you have with Molly. The "Nothing in Life is Free" method makes her work for every reward she receives. Rewards can be food, attention, playtime or anything she enjoys. If I make my dog "Wait" before going out the door, I don't have to give her a treat when I release her with an "OK." Getting to go out is the reward. Training sessions are most effective when they are short, fun and your dog is motivated to work.
For most dogs, hunger equals motivation! Measure out half of your dog's daily ration of kibble and put it in a baggie. Use this as training "treats" throughout the day. I love this method because it keeps me honest! If I don't train, my dog doesn't eat. You can easily learn a few cues in a couple sessions with a trainer. Focus on simple, functional behaviors like "Sit," "Down," "Wait," "Leave it," and "Go to Bed."
- 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.