I am a petsitter and recently met a new client and her dog, Sarge, a Boston Terrier. When I met them, the dog was a little shy, and very active. He seemed okay. As often is the case, however,when I arrived for the first day on the job, Sarge was a lot more nervous without his owner there to protect him. He would not get out of his owner's bed and he growled at me. I'm never one to push a dog beyond his boundaries, so I left and contacted the owner.
I returned to meet Sarge again, and this time both his owner and another trusted human were there. It took awhile for Sarge to warm up but he eventually took a treat from me and we even played a little tug and fetch. We walked together and I held the leash. Sarge was uneasy but I gave him lots of praise and food rewards. By the end of the evening, he appeared to be relaxed.
When I returned the following day, Sarge growled.
I spent another evening with Sarge and his owner. Each day, I return to see Sarge and offer him treats. He'll accept them if they are really good ones, but he won't take the ones his owner buys for him from me. He still growls and I have not put the leash on him yet.
I asked the owner to restrict him to a room other than the bedroom where he tends to hole up on the bed. When I go to see him, I greet him and then go about making myself available to him in a non-threatening way. I meditate. I yawn a lot. I ignore him. I give him plenty of space. We've put him on flower essences. So far he refuses to approach me, and continues to growl as a greeting.
The owner was surprised by his behavior, but after a recent divorce, she and the dog have been uprooted and separated from their other beloved canine companion. I know he's just insecure and probably upset by the changes going on.
Other sitters I know would just go put the leash on him. I don't think this is a good idea. Any advice?
First off I want to applaud you for your attention and concern for the emotional state of your client's pet. You are absolutely right not to push Sarge right now. Forcing him to be leashed and handled when he is acting fearful will likely only reinforce his fears and make him worse in the future.
Without seeing Sarge in person and knowing his exact relationship with his previous canine companion, I can't say for certain, but I would wager that he was probably somewhat reliant on the other dog for security, and without him has lost a lot of confidence.
I think Sarge would benefit from some confidence boosting training. Clicker training, and more specifically target training, would be a great place to start. With targeting, dogs are taught to touch a specific object in exchange for a food reward. Once the dog has learned the basic concept and enjoys performing the behavior, this can be used to help them overcome being around something they fear. Many dogs feel much more confident when asked to perform a specific behavior around a scary object. It takes their mind off of being afraid and it helps them feel like they are in control of the situation. There is a nice explanation of targeting for fearful dogs here. Once Sarge is doing well with these steps, you can try asking him for a "touch" when you come to check on him. This will give you a great way of moving him about without the use of force.
Teaching some other fun tricks to Sarge may help his confidence as well. Trick training is very low stress as there is no pressure on the dog that he must perform the behavior.
I know you are using flower essences to help in calming Sarge. Here are a couple of other products that may aid in reducing his anxiety.
DAP-DAP, or Dog Appeasing Pheromone, is a product developed by veterinarians that supposedly mimics the pheromones that are given off by a lactating female. Studies have shown that the product can help some dogs in relieving stress and feeling calmer. It can come as a plug-in diffuser, a spray bottle or a collar.
Anxiety Wrap- According to the website found here:
"The Anxiety Wrap is an effective, training aid for dogs that suffer from anxiety, insecurity, fear or other stress related behavior concerns. It is often used to help give confidence to dogs scared of thunder, travel or who hate to be left alone. Its effectiveness is in its use of the technique called "MAINTAINED PRESSURE" to aid in calming your animal thereby allowing him or her to redirect their focus. When used with gentle training methods, the Anxiety Wrap works with the animal's entire mind, body and spirit for successful resolution or reduction of the symptom."
I hope these suggestions may help some with Sarge. It sounds like you are doing everything right so far, and I think with enough patience he will come around and regain his confidence.
PS-I'm thinking of starting a weekly advice post. If you have a dog training question you would like answered, drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.