DEAR DIDI: We have a 17-month-old male, medium sized Labradoodle. At about four months of age, our neighbor (who is a tall man) tried to play with our dog by chasing him. The dog was frightened of the game and has never forgotten it. He is very anxious whenever our neighbor is present. He hides behind me and shakes. The dog is cautious of tall men in general, but he is fine after a few moments. We take him in public frequently. Is there a way to help him get over his fear of our neighbor? -Parents of Anxious Labradoodle in Manteca
DEAR PARENTS: There are several other questions that I would want to ask before making an official determination in cases such as this. Factors like, what generation Doodle you have (i.e. F1 or F2, etc.). It can be important to understand that the genetics of colorations in dogs is frequently directly linked to temperament. I would also like to understand your dog’s education during the crucial socialization period which was between eight and 14 weeks old.
Assuming, tall men are truly the only issue and it isn’t about men in general, or men in hats or sunglasses amongst other variables, I would recommend a program of systematic desensitization. It is a complicated process that must be carefully followed in a step by step process. Each step must be mastered before moving to the next step or you can easily fall back to ground zero or make things worse. It is frequently best to have a behaviorist oversee these steps or at least assess what the first step should be.
The first step is to determine at what point your dog begins to experience stress or anxiety with regard to “tall men.” This requires recruiting a volunteer that fits that description and is willing to help out. Once a dog shows obvious symptoms of nervousness it is too late. The goal is to figure out when the dog psychologically is perceiving a threat but not showing it outwardly yet. That is where we start. In this type of therapy we don’t want the dog to ever experience any level of anxiety. We are seeking to change his perceptions of the event.
For example, if our tall volunteer remains across the street and just casually walks the opposite direction of you but your dog takes no note of him. We reward your dog with a yummy treat. One that he will get at no other time other than during therapy. This could be bits of rotisserie chicken or hotdog. It is important to note that if the owners anticipate an issue and tighten up on the leash, stiffen their shoulders, or look across the street more than normal, the dog will sense something is wrong and act on it. The owners cannot send any kind of signals whatsoever. Over days or weeks of therapy we would repeat this scenario in different locations with our volunteer wearing different types of clothing and moving at different paces. If no anxiety is ever triggered then we would begin to close the distance between our tall man and your dog. It is crucial that these stages are handled with patience. We would never go from having our volunteer across the street at step one, to him petting your dog at step two! You can begin to see how having professional guidance can help. Eventually, over time we recruit other tall volunteers because your dog will get used to the first one. Then we begin to alter your dog’s perception of the tall men. Instead of being concerned about them we want him to look forward to them coming over to him because it means he gets yummies.
If your dog’s anxiety is low, the whole process may begin at a much closer proximity but it is important not to push things too fast or he will become even more fearful. Dogs on leashes know they can’t run or escape. If they are forced into a fearful situation they may think they have no alternative but to growl or snap. Your dog is approaching an important psychosocial developmental phase, so it would be best to begin working on this sooner rather than later. Feel free to contact me again should you like help evaluating him.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. For a free consultation with Dierdra or to ask your dog behavior question, email firstname.lastname@example.org.