Dogs bark at difference. Not all dogs. Some dogs – whether because of excellent socialization or a placid personality – accept everyone. Other dogs, with the herding breeds often being the kings and queens of noticing difference, except more often.
Usually dogs notice and react to differences we can (mortifyingly) see ourselves: someone in a wheelchair or who has crutches, the little girl from next door or your friendly uniformed delivery person. Caras, my late-great Australian Shepherd, tutored me in this.
Once he was poolside with me as I swam. I put on a swim mask and he freaked out – racing back and forth, barking with pure alarm. My good buddy would not come near me. I simple moved the mask to the top of my head and he came right over to say, “Hi.” Slipping the mask back on right in front of him while praising him caused him to not recognize me a bit, no matter what I said or did. He was terrified. All I can imagine is that I suddenly became a monster before his very eyes.
Hats, glasses, hoodies, masks, beards and uniforms can all cause this reaction. Your nice, friendly dog can go to Zombie-alert level 10 in a way that makes you want to crawl under a rock. Which reminds me that Caras also went through a phase of barking at the homeless man who lived in the corner of a local NYC playground in the 80’s. After seeing him emerge from the box he lived in, Caras erupted in alarm and nothing I could do at that moment would calm him.
Because Caras was raised in New York City, racial variation was normal for him. But for a dog raised in a single-race area, differences in skin color can do it, the way a neon-pink person might alarm us. When I lived in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn years ago, I was one of “those people” some dogs barked at because I was white in a largely black neighborhood. A number of dogs who had never left the area just didn’t know what to make of me.
Other times your dog may react to things we cannot see: people on prescription (or nonprescription) drugs or intoxication can create a canine commotion. All depends on the dog.
Regardless of the cause, you have to deal with it. Here are a few things to do.
1) At home practice difference. Dress up with hats, beards, glasses. Wear them around the house. Put them on before your dog’s favorite game so your dog learns difference = fun! Pick up a cane or some old crutches so you can hobble a bit. Have fun.
2) Give your dog something else to do if he erupts. The temptation can be to correct him because it is embarrassing and you want the person being barked at to know what is happening isn’t okay with you but that won’t help much. It’ll usually just teach your dog that you have issues around this difference, too. Instead, I rely on skills I have already taught the dog: head turns, simple sits, touch to reorient the dog and create rewardable moments.
3) If your dog is too far gone to respond to anything when this happens then removing him from the situation or blocking his view may be the only way to calm him. Consider a head halter if this is a regular issue as that will give you better control over the bark while you work on getting better control in general. And, get professional training and behavior help as well. When serious, this is not a DIY dog issue.
4) Work your basics at home, so your dog is in the habit of listening. Whenever your dog fails life’s “Pop Quizzes” the answer is not more of those but rather more successfully completed homework. Practice your basics so you can ace the next quiz that literally comes around the corner.
If this ever happens to you and your dog erupts at some variation he’s not used to – a difference in height, age, mobility, race, dress or whatever – try to remember that he isn’t saying that person is one of “those people” at all. He’s just saying he’s alarmed. Your job is to get control over your dog immediately and then get some help for the problem so it doesn’t happen again.
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