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Barking and reactivity in newly adopted pup, aka Am I screwing up my dog?

2754 Views 16 Replies 13 Participants Last post by  titiaamor
Hi! I would really love some advice (and encouragement). It might take a few paragraphs to get this out but here goes... I'm 31 and single, living with a roommate in a duplex apt. A month ago adopted a very large 9-month-old male pup (Great Dane/American Bulldog/??? mix). He had just been neutered the week before adoption. He is sweet and mellow most of the time, submissive toward people, and was totally chill for the first 2 weeks - he would come up to me or visitors and lie down belly up, he didn't bark much, and he didn't have a problem seeing other dogs when we were out walking (I walk him 3x a day).

His behavior has begun to change, and not for the better. He is still sweet and submissive to me and people, though he doesn't offer his belly so readily, which makes me a little sad! Worse, he barks (loudly, since he's a big dog) a lot at new noises/passersby (including my upstairs neighbors, who have been nice about it but I'm afraid are ready to kill me). I am trying to ignore the barking and teach him a "quiet" command, but when he barks in the middle of the night I just need him to shut up. I'm afraid if it lasts long, my neighbors will think he's mean, and worse might complain to my landlord, which could cause all sorts of new problems.

The biggest problem is that he is suddenly SUPER reactive to other dogs. I think that started after we were walking past a fenced-in yard down the street and a Doberman rushed out of nowhere aggressively barking his head off (and a few similar incidents - there are a lot of dogs in my neighborhood whose outdoor time is mostly in a yard or porch). He has gone up and sniffed a few dogs, but then when they make a movement that startles him, he starts his barking/lunging routine that is very hard to calm, and sounds/looks scary. I'm working really hard to turn away from other dogs we see on walks and training incompatible behaviors (sit/stay, watch me, etc) and I think it's getting a little better, slooowly. But since he didn't have this problem in the first place, I worry that I'm doing things that inadvertently CAUSE the behavior. And I'm nervous that he'll start being reactive to kids or others who do something sudden, though he's been fine so far. I'm sure my nervousness doesn't help, because he can probably tell I'm nervous when he meets kids, etc (I'm trying hard not to show it, but...).

Walking my dog is now incredibly stressful - it's the worst part(s) of my day. I'm working on all sorts of training, reading everything I can find ("Click to calm" is great!), and I'm going to have him evaluated by a trainer at the local SPCA this weekend to talk about next steps. I'm not going to give up, but I'm just really stressed and frustrated and nervous that he's not going to get over these new issues - not to mention that I gave them to him somehow! Thank you for any tips/advice/support!!
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First, I'm sorry you're having so much anxiety at a time that should be positive for you and your new pup.

When we first got our dog, Katie, she was reactive around other dogs - quite possibly stemming from an incident similar to your doberman encounter. The third day we had her, our neighbor's dog ran up to her as if to say "hey there, welcome to the neighborhood" and Katie, I think, was intimidated. After that, when we walked down the street, she'd bark and lunge at dogs in their yards (most of whom were barking at her before we approached). In her first puppy class she did a little of the barking and lunging (what looked to us like aggression or reactivity). The trainer said all she saw was an excited puppy and recommended we read Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt.

We've slowly been able to get her to the point that she can walk past most dogs politely by rewarding her for calm behavior in the presence of other dogs. The process was similar to the "look at that" game, but not quite as formal. Now, when we walk past houses with barky dogs, she looks up at me for direction (or treats ;) ) and barely pays attention to the dogs. Oddly, with the exception of two loose dogs who ran up to her unexpectedly shortly after we got her, she's been fine when she has the opportunity to actually "meet" other dogs. She is happy to greet other dogs she meets at the park or pet store.

Update: The behaviorist evaluation went very badly. He was extremely aggressive (toward the life-size stuffed dog "walking" toward him) to the point of biting the stuffed dog. He was all hackles and puckered mouth and assertive forward movement (with his leash attached to the wall so he couldn't actually run around). The behaviorist believes he's very aggressive and that I will never be able to fully trust him around other dogs, though with a lot of work I should be able to teach him to stay calm. Her guess is that he was never socialized with other dogs as a young puppy, and that this may be a big part of the reason he was dumped by the side of the road (which is how he ended up in the shelter) - as she said, "nobody dumps Lassie."
Katie and I took a one-day "polite meetings" class today, but were the only students. For the dog portion of the session, the trainer brought out a large stuffed husky. Guess who freaked out - barking, jumping, bowing, etc. This after having had several calm encounters with other dogs at the park this morning. Our trainer, however, had me drop Katie's leash and allow her to explore the stuffed husky without restraint. She calmed down at bit, started eating treats of the dog's nose and leg, and we were able to continue the session.

I agree with HankSimon - dogs know the difference between live and stuffed animals and will have different reactions to each. I'd recommend finding someone who can supervise / observe a meet & greet between your dog and a real dog. Definitely try to get a second opinion before making any decisions.

I know some people will think I'm a horrible person if I consider trying to re-home him somewhere where he'd have space to run but wouldn't be around other dogs (I wouldn't just give him back to the shelter), but I feel I have to weigh all the factors here both for myself and my dog, and if just walking him every day is too big a risk to him and me, that option has to be on the table... if I could even find him a new home. Which is a thought I totally and completely hate, but I just don't know if I can do this. I know that sounds weak, and it feels absolutely shameful (believe me, "strong and stubborn as hell" is a much more common description of me), but... I just don't know what to do. Any (non-judgmental) thoughts and advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
I don't think anyone would fault you for making a well-reasoned decision based on what is in the best interest of the dog and your safety / sanity. If he truly is reactive, he may not respond well to living in a busy environment and would be happier in a different situation. That's not a failing on your part. Many shelters, though, have a stipulation in their contract that you need to return the dog to them if you can't keep him/her. You might want to check your contract.

Good luck! Let us know how things turn out.
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