Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have an amazing 1-year-old male pit bull named Zeus. I got him in late January, so I haven't had him for a very long time.
When I first got Zeus, my roommate was on vacation. The day she came home, she walked in and he started barking aggressively, hair up on his back and trying to attack. Every time she comes home or leaves her room, he barks at her. I calm him as much as I can. Now he just barks aggressively and still tries to attack, but the hair doesn't stand up and he wags his tail. He has not been this aggressive with anyone else who has come into our apartment.
He honestly scares her. She's scared to come home or leave her room. Please help, I hate that my dog gets this stressed and I hate that my roommate is terrified in her own home. Thank you so much for all your help; you don't know how much it means to me.
The first thing you need to do is limit your roommate’s exposure to this dog until the problem can be fixed. Until you completely address this problem, your dog should be crated or secured away to ensure that he can’t have any encounters with your roommate. Yes, I know that's easier said than done.
While I can certainly suggest several things that can help, dog aggression is nothing to be taken lightly — especially with a larger sized breed. If possible, I'd suggest you enlist the services of a dog behavior expert who can come into your home and assess, first-hand, the dog and situation.
My first suggestion outside of hiring an expert is to make sure you are providing your dog with enough exercise and structure. Many dogs act in a territorial way because they think they are in a leadership position. Enforcing rules and increasing exercise both help tremendously when attempting to modify a dog’s behavior.
I'd also suggest you start petting your dog with a purpose to help him see you as the leader and himself as a follower. This is super easy, but is only effective when repeated often. When your dog is away, have your roommate grab handfuls of his kibble, rub them between her hands and into a plastic bag. You should use this food to feed to your dog. Having her scent on it can help a lot.
You also need to start building in some positive exposure to the roommate. A great way to do this is walks. A trick that can set your dog up for success is to exercise him before the walk. A 10-minute game of fetch or 15- to 30-minute walk will do it. Give your dog about 15 minutes to recover and then have your roommate meet you outside. Make sure your roommate has a bag of high-value treats and is waiting while seated a few houses away. As you approach, make sure the roommate is positioned with the dog on the right or left side. Front facing is confrontational to dogs.
Pay close attention to your dog. Stop as soon as he starts to get stiff, stare, his tail goes up, his hair on the back stands up or if he holds his breath or breathes heavily. Take a few steps back and give your dog a sit command. The most important thing is the dog is NOT reacting when you do this and that will all be about the distance.
Once you find the closest you can get where your dog will sit and take a treat without reacting to the roommate, have her pull out a handful of treats and drop one where she is sitting. Have her get up, take one step away and put another treat on the ground. Have your roommate repeat this until she is a good 20 feet or so away.
Have the roommate sit down sideways to you first, then lead your dog to get the treats. Don’t let the dog pull and ask for him to sit any time you think he's getting excited or fixating on the roommate. Repeat this a few times and then try to have your roommate walk with you but across the street. Keep everyone in a line and, after a few short 10 to 15-minute walks, start having the roommate walk a little closer. If you go slow, you should be able to get the roommate to be next to you while you walk while keeping the dog on the other side.
While doing this, have the roommate avoid direct eye contact and try to not look at the dog. She should not try to pet, talk to or engage with the dog at all. The less the roommate does outside of walking and dropping treats, the more comfortable the dog will get.
Make sure you avoid petting the dog when he's reacting to the roommate; anything a dog is doing when you pet him or her is what you are rewarding the dog for. This is a very common mistake with dogs.
With practice at positive exposure and creating a healthy leader/follower dynamic, your dog can warm up to your roommate. Go slow and if things get worse, call in an expert.
Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.
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