‘My dog keeps barking at my sister — what can I do?’ Canine agony uncle Ben Randall has the answer

The A-list dog trainer Ben Randall shares his advice on how to deal with a dog who's taken against someone important in your life.

Part of the joy of having a pet is getting to enjoy his or her company with your friends and family — but what happens when your dog seems to take against someone you hold dear?

It’s an awkward problem, and one that is faced by this week’s reader:

Hi Ben,
I have a 20-month-old female French bulldog. She is a lovely dog most of the time but when my sister and her husband visited for the first time, Minni would not stop barking and trying to attack my sister! I am distressed about this as obviously I want her to like my visitors. She likes to bark at any noise, especially when the door gets knocked, but she is okay when my son and daughter and my grandchildren come to visit. How do I approach this problem please? — GP, via email

I’m very sorry to hear that you’re having this problem, and I know it can be a tricky one. When people share issues like this with me via me via paws-for-thought@futurenet.com, it can be hard to know just what’s up without meeting the dog, or coming to your home and seeing the behaviour for myself. That said, I’ve been training dogs for decades while honing my BG (Beggarbush) techniques, and there are a few potential issues which I’m going to ask you to consider.

First off, ask yourself honestly how well-trained the dog is with you? Is there a good mutual respect between you both? Does Minni sit and stay when required, leave distractions and come away from them when asked? Does she stop barking at other dogs, or people, when out on walks? Does she walk nicely to heel?

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You might wonder what all that has to do with your sister — the answer is not much specifically, but it’ll tell you a lot about your pet’s state of mind.

If all the training you’ve done is perfect, that’s great — but my guess is that some of these things aren’t as good as they should be, particularly given that you mention her barking at noises or the front door.  If Minni dog was really confident, calm and had full trust in you to protect her, when someone strange came to the house she’d respond to a simple trio of, sit, leave and bed commands, delivered with your calm reassurance. She should feel comfortable that this new person is okay, and trust you that she doesn’t need to worry. Instead, she’s nervous, so is trying to take over the situation and protect you.

I’d strongly suggest going over my previous articles on teaching your dog the leave command, getting your dog to walk to heel, how to improve your dog’s recall, and stopping your dog barking at the door. Once you’ve mastered those you’ll likely find that things become much easier.

We want to go further than that, though. You might have seen self-declared ‘animal behaviour experts’ online claiming that this sort of thing can be triggered by your sister’s particular perfume, or the colour of her shoes — frankly that sort of thing is just nonsense. The fact is that your sister can, and will be able to build her own relationship with your dog to make sure that Minni looks forwards to her visits instead of trying to nip her ankles.

When your sister comes through the door, she should try to ignore your dog as much as possible, to make it clear she’s no interest in causing stress. After a few minutes, get your sister to go through the feed routines with your dog — something that works particularly well if your dog is motivated by  food and mealtimes. It’s an opportunity for your dog to see your sister as someone giving her something positive, and as someone that she needs to respect.

Importantly, assuming she’s comfortable doing so, your sister should do the feed routine while remove yourself from the room. It might seem strange, but actually it can really help the dog become less worried about you — or about protecting you, or getting your attention. From your letter it’s clear you’re a mother yourself; remember the days, then, that you dropped off your child at school worried sick because they were in pieces? Then when you called later you found out they were fine the moment your car had gone round the corner? As soon as you’ve left, the behaviour changes completely — and it’s the same with dogs.

Often a client will bring a dog in for boarding or training, dog will be jumping up and barking, as soon as the client leaves I take the dog and settle it in, and it’s completely different with me. Much calmer and more relaxed – totally different behaviour. The dog is trying to work me out, but also it feels confident in me and more relaxed around me — getting a sense of good positive vibes from me — I’m confident and calm  – and everything is fine.

Once your sister starts looking at your dog like that, everything will fall into place. It’ll also help if, when she comes round, she can she take the dog out for a walk or a play, just the two of them. The dog will see her as someone super-positive that they look forward to seeing — and you’ll forget that you ever had this problem.

For more detailed advice about Ben Randall’s positive, reward-based and proven BG training methods, one-to-one training sessions, residential training or five-star dog-boarding at his BGHQ in Herefordshire, telephone 01531 670960 or visit www.ledburylodgekennels.co.uk. For a free seven-day trial of the Gundog app, which costs £24.99 a month or £249.99 a year, visit www.gundog.app/trial