My New Rescue Dog Does Not Let Friends In The Yard

Question

Our rescue dog is adapting very well to her new home, which has 2 other dogs. Formed a great bond with her human. She will not let some people in the house, others she welcomes….. one person she welcomed, interacted with and then when he went to his car and returned, she wouldn’t let him in the yard? Thanks.

Greetings,
Signe

Answer:

 Thank you for your question. I am glad to hear that your “new” dog is adapting nicely to her family.

As to your question above, my answer is that I have no idea why she “welcomed” and “interacted” with this “stranger” when he came into the home, but would not “let him in the yard.” Let me explain further:

Your question is very much in line with my latest post about not labeling dogs (which you are not) and to stick to observable concrete behaviors so that we can hopefully shed some light as to what the internal/emotional state of the dog might be as well as possible motivations behind the behavior (s). I am not sure what you mean that by “interacting.”

I am assuming she approached the person, but perhaps the man approached your dog. Did you notice her body language when the stranger came in and when they interacted? Was there any vocalization and if so what was it like?  Could you further describe it? What was the reaction of your two other dogs towards the “stranger”?

All these nuances matter greatly.

The same applies to “would not let him in the yard” I have no idea what your dog was doing so I have no way of understanding what her state of mind could have been. Was she charging at the gate? Growling? Staring hard? Blocking the gate with her body? Etc. Besides needing very accurate observations on the dog’s overall behavior there are other considerations here:

We need to take stock of the antecedents for a given behavior. You do mention that even though your dog is “adapting well and has bonded with you that she will not let some people in the house.” This to me is a very salient red flag!

Ask yourself (since I am not there to witness) is there anything in common between the people that she is not comfortable with (my label per lack of more information)?

Demographics such as the following are critical in trying to understand and modifying her future responses. Are the people that she is uncomfortable with male/female?, young/old?, loud/quiet?, tall/short?, etc.

You see triggers (anything that can elicit a response from a dog – in our case a cautious/fearful/ aggressive response from your dog to a set of individuals) are very specific to animals.

Our goal then would be to observe closely so that we can come up with a “pattern” of triggers that is eliciting the warning/ “aggressive” behavior.

Triggers are more than the kind of person, but anything – yes anything that your dog might be relating with as a threat.

Sometimes clients report to me that it is “all kinds of people” their dog might react to and you know what? That is sometimes factual. It means that the dog has learned to generalize an emotion (fear, anxiety, joy, etc.) with all people. Most likely it began with a particular demographics that the dog was not familiar with (under-socialized) or have had a negative experience with but now the behavior has generalized and the dog in case is reacting the same way to all people.

The other area to pay attention to is the context in which the behavior is taking place. From the perspective of your dog the living room or the inside of the home is not the same as the back yard.

Here are a few things to consider:

Is it possible that it was getting dark when the person came into the backyard or that the dog saw the person as a silhouette because of the direction of the light so your dog was not able to see “recognizable” features from the same person in the living room moments before?

Was the person now carrying a strange object that your dog was actually “reacting” to instead of than just reacting to the man?

Was she now alone in the backyard –your other more confident dogs inside when she had to met this person for the second time?

Does she “think” of the backyard as her “territory” because prior to you she lived outside so the idea of “inside” and “mine” has not clicked for her.

I am at a loss because I do not have any of the details surrounding the events. These are just examples of “environmental cues” (context) that are very relevant for dogs as they make sense of their world as safe or unsafe.

There is another important puzzle to this situation. Even though you report that she is adapting well and again I don’t know how long she has been in your household this dog is still “new” in this environment and to you. So changes are to be expected. Now, based on your description of her behavior “to some” strangers I can guarantee to you that you will see more displays of similar behaviors to the one she had to this one stranger. My recommendation to you is to not take this lightly.

Stranger aggression (again, a label) is very complex so get some professional help from a competent trainer that has experience working with behavior modification using positive reinforcement.

As a norm, the behaviors that we want to see changed or improved – from our human perspective do not resolve on its own, but instead can escalate because it works for the dog. In other words, the dog is getting some reinforcement that sustains the behavior (this is why behavior remains in place or increases- it is reinforced in some way) and in addition without the benefit of sound behavior modification the dog has not learned new and appropriate tools to deal with a situation that she finds threatening.
Best of luck!