Fearful, defensive, but perfect around the family...

Discussion in 'Bernese Mountain Dog Training Forum' started by Sunny, Oct 16, 2011.

  1. Sunny

    Sunny New Member

    Our Berner, Koda, is mostly the perfect dog. We got her the same day we found out we were expecting our fourth baby. It was bad timing - morning sickness with house-training a berner. Her first 9 months consisted of me sick, trying to train her, then I was on bedrest for 11 weeks, then our baby was in the NICU for 23 days. For that time, we were in survival mode. Koda laid around, staying close to me. When we basically lived at the hospital while our baby was there, we had lots of family and friends taking care of our 3 other kids. Since then, Koda has been very deffensive of our family and home. If someone knocks, she will bark and growl. If they come in the house, she will growl softly for a long while, and try to stand / sit in front of me - making sure she's between me and the person. I don't let her, I gently correct her, and make her move. If she won't calm down, I have her go in her kennel. If they try to offer their hand to let her sniff it, she jumps away from them. She's the same way with other dogs.

    We've tried having new people offer treats, we've tried ringing the doorbell over and over to get her used to the sound, we've tried endless corrections. We've had doggy play dates - she doesn't seem to ever relax and just have fun or be curious. She acts frienlier to the vacuum ... which shes not very fond of!

    We had a large family gathering last week, and had Koda in her kennel for 2 hours before the toddler let her out, and I was supprised because she just went around and was friendly to everyone. It was awesome!

    But, the next day she was back to normal ... growling at my brother who had been there the night before.

    She just doesn't trust people ... she's AMAZING with our family and our kids ... but she isn't friendly to anyone else. She's also not just aloof ... she's fearful.

    Its not breeding ---- both her parents were awesome and sweet and friendly, and all her 9 siblings aren't having this trouble - they are all really friendly and outgoing. So, its not genetics, its from US.

    What should we try? Any advice? I feel like I've failed her by being so sick and uninvolved during her first year, such a developmentally important time. What can I do at this point? Can I help her get over her fears? Any reccomendations?

    Honeslty, besides this issue, she's soooo perfect. She adores our family, is gentle with our 4 kids - even the baby, and is just so sweet and loving and obedient. Its just when others come around!!! I'd love to help her through this so she can be the 100%-perfect dog for our family!

    Thanks so much in advance!
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2011
  2. BernerRescue

    BernerRescue New Member

    The most critical period for socialization is between 8-16 weeks. At 16 weeks, the window closes hard and you never get the same opportunity back to socialize what is often a shy breed through genetics.

    So I am not saying this to beat you up about your situation - what is past is past. I offer it just to inform you of what to expect now going forward as you can make improvement but will likely never get the full turnaround of a friendly dog who is stress free. So much of things will require lifetime management.

    Lynn posted a link for Dr. Ian Dunbar and I highly recommend you look at his resources. My favorite behaviorist on the subject of fear based aggression and shyness is Dr. Patricia McConnel and I highly recommend her book "The Cautious Canine"

    Dog Training Books at Patricia McConnell

    If you can, and it is in your budget, you will see the best results from hiring a certified APDT trainer who specializes in this issue. You can go to the site at:

    Dog Trainer Search

    to find a certified trainer in your area. Be sure you only hire a positive trainer with a CPDT certification - anyone can call themselves a trainer otherwise.

    What you really need at this point is a comprehensive training plan to change her view of the world outside your home and immediate family and to ensure it is always positive and stress free. This will require a lot of patience and will not happen over-night...in fact, prepare for a big time investment.

    Good luck!
  3. Lynn

    Lynn New Member

    Sorry to hear about Koda.

    Our Ollie was the same. Some people and his family he loved so much strangers he was very wary of.

    Firstly I would say do not correct the growling this is her warning mechanism and if you stop her doing that she may well if pushed just go for the bite this way she is saying I am unhappy and any sensible human will back off. There are the odd few that will try and push it and say they can sort the problem we had this sometimes and had to step in more than usual to defend Ollie more than them if they cannot take heed of a warning then they really are quite silly in my opinion so you have to step up and protect your dog more than usual.

    We found with Ollie when we had people visiting the house he was uncomfortable with he was happier in the kitchen behind a stair gate where he could see and hear us but was not stressed out by having people he felt he had to protect us from roaming freely in the house. He was allowed out if he laid quietly and without any signs of stress he stayed out and visitors were told to ignore him no eye contact or speaking to him. He was very happy sometimes and with some people with that arrangement some others don't ask me why he could just not relax around so he was happier with arrangmeent of being seperated but not entirely from us.

    We went to a trainer he was very good. We use to do the people coming in the house have a treat but again no eye contact no speaking to Ollie and just toss treats to the floor. When they were sitting the idea is to sort of make a trail. The guest throws them away from them and slowly but surely they get nearer to where they are sitting and eventually if they are staying long enough they end up placing one on the arm of the chair and hopefully the dog will approach and take the treat again no eye contact or speaking not even from yourselves completely ignore the behaviour they are meant to realise this is not a big deal. Sometimes it worked sometimes it didn't. When it didn't it was back to the kitchen.

    You may find she copes well with some people and not others this was our problem. To us there was no rhyme or reason why he was happy with some humans and not at all happy with others when this happens you just have to accept it never push them past their comfort zone. They may well have a valid reason for disliking someone something they pick up on but of course they are not able to tell us.

    Ollie was perfectly happy when out and about if people stopped to talk to us of course what they really wanted was to fuss this big cuddly teddy bear but he wasn't so happy with that arrangement so it had to be them talking to us but hands off Ollie and he would lay happily and wait until ready and then trot off with us and he was praised for being a good boy and waiting nicely.

    I think all you can do is watch and learn her body language what she is happy with and what makes her unsettled and when it is the latter remove her calmly and with no fuss from the situation. When she does something that you feel she has coped with very well then praise and lots of it to reinforce the positive to her.

    Ollie loved us all dearly especially our Grandchildren they could roll about on the floor with him and never a grumble.
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2011
  4. BernerRescue

    BernerRescue New Member

    You can also try this discussion list:

  5. avrgejane

    avrgejane New Member

    Ours is doing it too!

    I'm in the same boat as you, Sunny. I'm actually bringing Hugo to the vet today to see if everything is OK with him physically. I have a feeling it is...I also have a feeling it's US that are promoting this behaviour and I have no idea how/what we are doing to make this happen all of a sudden!

    It's weird - he just turned 2 in August. I've heard people say it's because he's growing up and getting more mature...I know some of it comes from that, but I don't think all of it does. Just within the past two months this behaviour as become noticable. 1) He snapped at another berner at the groomer (who was doing nothing and he was friendly with not even two minutes before then), 2)he was lunging at trying to get at the PCs that came to the door during campaign canvassing, 3)same thing with the jehovah's that came to the door - lunging, angry barks and needed to be held back, 4)he took off after the mailman yesterday when I was locking the house door. The mailman had a few choice words to say to me for sure (which was upsetting and very embarassing), 5)he was lunging and barking furiously, growling at people walking by my office.

    Now the scary thing about the office is I work in an old age home. Hugo has been certified as a therapy dog and has passed his canine good neighbour certification. He's also passed his beginner and intermediate classes. I can't bring him to work anymore - not with this new crazylike behaviour. It scares me.

    No idea why this is happening, where it is coming from...I think it's time to see a dog therapist though because firstly it's new behaviour and secondly, I don't want to not trust my own dog...especially when I love him so so so much :confused:

    So, Sunny, if you do find something out and something that is successful, let me know! I need all the help I can get too!!
  6. BernerRescue

    BernerRescue New Member

    What you are describing is real aggressiveness, and particularly "fear based" aggressiveness. This is in stark contrast to the shyness commonly seen in this breed (which is genetic on two fronts: some of it is temperament inherited - in these cases, it is seen very young and the second is endocrine/adrenal dysfunction whereby low cortisol & DHEA create the onset later in an otherwise friendly confident dog).

    Neither of the above explain aggressiveness to this magnitude however and what you are describing typically occurs for one of two reasons:

    1) temperament - parents are a key factor here but not the only factor. If both parents are friendly, there may still be other grandparents, or aunts/uncles that have this inherited factor - I see this a lot and it is not just mom and dad that should be looked at here.

    2) Vaccines - specifically the neurological vaccines (rabies and distemper) have been documented to cause a host of side effects but aggressive behavior side effects is a key one. See Dr. Jean Dodds' research on this to learn more and the Rabies Challenge Fund:


    to understand why to be very very careful with vaccines in an otherwise, immune compromised breed that does not respond well to immune assaults (which is what vaccines are designed to do).

    So I suggest you look at your vaccine history - what was given when and evaluate whether there were any signs of this in the first year (to understand genetics). Talk to your breeder, if you have one, and find out the true temperament of relatives beyond mom and dad.

    For what it is worth, we are seeing a lot of aggressiveness in certain lines coming through rescue in the eastern U.S. mostly.

    If the onset was truly late, then neurological vaccines may be the root cause, or testing endocrine hormones may be worthwhile. Traditional lab testing in the U.S. does not provide/help with this; europe does much better with this so depending on where you are and if in the U.S., you will need to consider Dr. Plechner's lab testing to accomplish - his is the only one.

    Good luck and in the meantime, definitely keep solid control of your boy so he can't "practice" this behavior...everytime he is put in the situation, it gets reinforced. And I hope you can work through this.....

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