I had a roommate for all of my 9-year-old Belgian Sheepdog/German Shepherd mix’s life until a week ago. My boyfriend moved in and Dallas lets him walk him, puts his head on my boyfriend’s chest and Dallas even bows his head in front of him. But when I am not around, Dallas shows his teeth to my boyfriend. He snarls without any noise and anytime my boyfriend kisses me, Dallas runs in the room. I am just going to shut the bedroom door during any intimate time but what about the snarling?
—Claudette, Chicago, Illinois
Thank you for your email. Although Dallas seems OK with his roommate changes when you’re home, he’s not. Dallas’ behavior is not at all uncommon in these circumstances. You and Dallas have a very close bond, and he feels threatened by your boyfriend moving in. Of course, you’ll want privacy with your boyfriend at times, but otherwise, the best remedy for Dallas’ unwelcoming gestures is to get him and your boyfriend to be buddies by having your boyfriend take over as many dog responsibilities as possible. It’s great that he can walk Dallas, but both of you need a new routine with the dog.
Here’s the plan:
It’s very important for Dallas to remain “employed.” His clear-cut job of keeping you and your previous roommate safe and being “the dude” around the house just got a huge job description rewrite. Frequently ask Dallas throughout the day for basic behaviors such as Sit, Down, Come Here, Stay, etc., so he can continue to see himself as an important part of the family. Teach him as many new things as you can think of; if he fetches at all, really focus on that because that’s a great “task” for him.
A key element in cultivating household harmony is to make a clear association with your boyfriend walking into a room, and Dallas immediately getting some type of reward. This is the same strategy used to make a positive connection with an established dog and a new dog brought into the family.
Condition Dallas by having a great reward at the ready, whether it’s a favorite toy, treat, or stuffed Kong (my personal favorite). Keep a supply of treats with you, so that when you are alone and your boyfriend walks into the room, you can immediately turn to Dallas, smile and say, “Good Boy!” and toss him a treat. Please realize that at this point, when your boyfriend approaches you, Dallas’ protective nature is triggered, and when you hug your boyfriend, it looks aggressive from a dog’s point of view until it becomes a normal occurrence.
So, start off by simply introducing the wonders of a stuffed Kong to him by having your boyfriend toss one his way. Once Dallas sees the Kong as a high-level reward, have your boyfriend hold a stuffed Kong behind his back. Be by yourself in the living room, then have your boyfriend just start to walk in; have him say “Dallas” in a very upbeat way, then when Dallas looks at him the Kong gets tossed past Dallas so he has to chase it, with both of you cheering him on. Continue this as frequently as possible until you start to see Dallas display true pleasure when your boyfriend begins walking into the living room. At this point, your boyfriend isn’t walking all the way in; we want Dallas to become conditioned to feel a good anticipation with your boyfriend just beginning to enter the room.
After Dallas has given the appropriate reaction at least 10 times, then your boyfriend can walk toward you just a bit more. Take the time and have your boyfriend take just one step toward you (each step is a “level”), and get the same, great reaction from Dallas as he did at the previous level. Do this 10 times, then move on to the next level until he can walk all the way toward you and Dallas is happy about it. You can do this exercise as many times as you want to in the course of one day — just be sure to stuff Dallas’ Kongs appropriately, so he gets his normal amount of food,and not too much.
I recommend people buy five Kongs per dog. At the end or start of the day, stuff them all at once, then keep them in the refrigerator, ready to grab. The Kong is a great reward in this circumstance because dogs relieve stress with avid chewing for a lengthy period of time, as well as seeing it as a food source, and getting him focused on something other than you.
When you and your boyfriend need some private time, have your boyfriend head into the kitchen first and make a big deal out of stuffing a Kong, so Dallas starts getting happy with anticipating it, then it gets tossed for him to occupy his time and focus.
You can work on the hugging problem the same way, but wait until Dallas approves your boyfriend’s approaching you with happy anticipation of the Kong before you start the hugging part. Have your boyfriend enter the room as usual, but instead of tossing the Kong for Dallas when he gets to you, your boyfriend should gently reach just one arm toward you, and stop halfway before his hand reaches you, say “Dallas!” as before in a very upbeat way, and toss the Kong.
Safety is, of course, of utmost importance, and that’s why it’s crucial these exercises aren’t rushed through, advancing the steps too quickly. Take your time with the steps, being sure to get those 10 out of 10 great response before advancing to the next step.
Also, have your boyfriend begin feeding Dallas (only small amounts of food should go into Dallas’ food dish so most of his food can be used in Kongs). It’s the act of feeding him that counts, not how much food is in the bowl. If Dallas knows Sit, have your boyfriend ask for a Sit, then the food bowl gets put down. It’s important not to “bark” the command to Dallas; your boyfriend’s voice should be friendly, not adversarial, when requesting a behavior. Be sure your boyfriend does the whole thing; head to the kitchen, pick up the bowl, run the can opener or whatever the routine is, etc., so Dallas begins to understand that all food now comes from this new guy in the house. And not only food: your boyfriend should be giving Dallas absolutely everything Dallas sees as a reward. If it’s tough for you to stick with this plan and not give toys and treats to Dallas right now, just remember it’s temporary, and certainly worth your patience.
Ask your boyfriend to be as proactive as possible with this, and to also have a stuffed Kong held behind his back, and as he simply passes by Dallas, toss the Kong for him. Making that positive association between the two of them a priority, rather than waiting for Dallas to do something you don’t like to have an interaction with him, is imperative.
Another easy exercise is to have your boyfriend keep a stuffed Kong, toy or another reward behind him when you two are on the couch together; when Dallas walks into the room, your boyfriend should call Dallas over to him (not you; you stay quiet), and when Dallas comes over, the reward is tossed for him.
Finally, let’s be glad Dallas is “snarling without any noise” rather than going right into biting your boyfriend! He’s sending a clear message he’s not happy with the situation, and it needs to be heard and addressed, not punished. If at any point you don’t see a marked improvement, and particularly if you see an acceleration of the behavior, such as lunging, freezing, staring, or anything you’re not sure about, it’s very important you have a professional trainer well-versed in cases like this come out to your home to assess and work with all of you.
The best place to look for a trainer who uses positive reinforcement and motivational techniques is at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ website. Just type in your zip code and you’ll see a list of APDT member trainers in your area. Experience, certifications and areas of expertise vary, so it’s a good idea to call at least four or five trainers and ask about their methods, qualifications, and any other questions you may have. There’s just nothing more helpful than having a professional come and work with you in your home.