Q: My adopted 10-year-old Miniature Schnauzer has the habit of barking incessantly at strangers. I’ve tried bringing her to crowded places and letting her mingle with other people (and dogs), but it doesn’t seem to help much. How should I tackle her barking?
A: When a dog isn’t comfortable or feels threatened in the presence of strangers and/or other canines, it’s often the result of under-socialisation. It’s highly probable that when your dog was a puppy, she was not frequently exposed to situations where there were many new people or pooches.
When a dog is uneasy in certain situations, dog trainers always try to work on the situation when the dog is under threshold—this means ensuring that your pooch does not escalate to the point where she feels she has to react defensively and shut down in the process. Here is an example: You have a phobia of spiders and you’re trapped in a tiny room filled with hundreds of spiders, so you start to scream and freak out. Your friend who is standing outside the door keeps giving you instructions on how to get out of the room. You hear her but you just can’t follow what she’s telling you to do because you are too distracted by the spiders. Now picture this instead: You are still stuck in the same room and your friend is standing outside the door. However this time, there’s only one spider in the room. Do you think you would be able to respond more appropriately this round?
It’s similar to the situation you have been putting your dog through. The strangers and other dogs are the spiders, and by placing her in a place full of people, she cannot escape so her stress threshold goes through the roof. I highly recommend that you engage a dog trainer to guide you through a systematic desensitisation and counterconditioning programme to help your pooch feel better when meeting new people and other dogs. This will not be a quick fix as the training programme needs to work on changing how your dog feels about strangers and dogs, and there are plenty of different scenarios to cover.
Meanwhile, avoid crowded areas with many dogs, and refrain from scolding her when she barks at another pooch—it might make things worse.