DEAR DIDI: I have a dog and I spend a lot of time training him. One traits that I cannot seem to curve is when he's in the car he barks loudly at people walking by. At home, he is not accepting of any visitors he hasn't met. Strangers, per se, no matter how I approach it. I can, however, take him to crowded events in public and he lets everyone pet him. Figure that! I'm stumped on what to do next. Please help! Stumped in Manteca, CA
DEAR STUMPED: Dog behavior can definitely be confusing at times! It seems that the one thing that is consistent in your dog's behavior is territory. He is demonstrating a guarding behavior over what he considers to be his territory, the house and the car. For some dogs these are the two places they don't frequently encounter 'strangers' so they begin to get the idea that 'strangers' don't belong in these places. How we fix this can depend somewhat on the breed of dog and type of training you are doing.
If you want your dog to be accepting of 'strangers' in the home then we need to change his mind set. This requires inviting neighbors, friends, coworkers or family members to come over and help. Your pooch should be on a leash before the expected doorbell. Use a fun and exciting tone of voice as you lead him to the door. Something like, "I wonder who has come to see us. Shall we go look?", will do just fine. Ask the human helper ahead of time not to make direct eye contact with your dog, but to instead drop a piece of yummy hotdog (or equally desirable treat) on the ground before the dog. Close the door and repeat this action half a dozen times. After several different people perform this action, your dog will begin to see strangers that come to his home with yummy gifts as a pleasant experience! It is easy enough to, then, put your canine in the car and ask those people to walk by. Distract your dog with a piece of treat and only let him eat it if the person can walk by without your dog barking. You should be sitting in the driver's seat, but parked at the curb so that you can focus on training and not your driving.
There is another way to approach this problem if you would prefer your dog be wary of strangers and alert you when they are present. Once your dog sounds the alarm with 2-3 barks and you have assessed the cause for the signal your canine companion should stop barking when you give the 'quiet' command. Teach your dog during a fun training session to bark on command. Use the 'bark' or 'speak' command. First, you should prompt him with something exciting to illicit a bark from him. Try whining, barking, or show him his favorite toy but don't let him have it till he barks. Reward with a yummy treat the second he barks. Ironically, teaching a dog to bark on command is the easiest way to teach them to stop barking! Separately, reward the dog when he is not barking while using the 'quiet' command. The dog will begin to associate 'speak' with barking, and 'quiet' with not barking. Once practiced thoroughly at home in a controlled environment it will come in handy in the car when he is being overly protective.