My doberman is defensive and fearful

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Watson M's picture
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My family's doberman, JJ, is usually a pretty good dog, even if he's stubborn, but occasionally when he's caught doing something bad, he completely freaks out, hunches over, bares his teeth and tries to scare me (or whoever discovered him) away, or try to escape. He's never bitten me or anyone else, there's no fear of that happening, but this is still obviously an issue.

I've only been taking care of him for a few months, so I don't know if his previous caretakers had a habit of physically punishing him, but for some reason, he becomes a terrified wreck when he thinks he's about to be punished.

How can I help him?

WNCDobes's picture
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How is he told he's done something bad?  How WAS he told he's done something bad before you took him over?  Does he growl when he bares his teeth?  Is it possible he's smiling?  Some Dobermans "smile", showing their teeth, but its not an agressive thing, I think its actually a submissive posture (somebody else can confirm or refute that).  You might be overdoing it - some dogs need to be really "gotten onto" and others don't.  I've found that Dobermans in general don't like raised voices.  Previously abused dogs, especially.  We rescued Ziva at about a year and a half old, and when afraid of something, she'll go flat on the ground (but no bared teeth).  We just give her a minute, then go back to what we were trying to get her to do.  Now that we've had her a year, she trusts us when we say its OK. 

HarleyBear's picture
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Poor baby... make sure he is not doing a submissive grin.  

Here is a quote directly from the ASPCA website: http://www.aspca.org/Pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/dog-articles/canine-body-language

Some dogs show a “submissive grin” when they’re feeling extremely submissive. They pull their lips up vertically and display their front teeth (canines and incisors). This signal is almost always accompanied by an overall submissive body posture, such as a lowered head, yelping or whining, and squinty eyes. Only some dogs “grin” this way. People sometimes mistakenly think a dog is being aggressive when, in fact, he’s grinning submissively and trying to communicate the exact opposite of aggression.

You will have to work on building up confidence with this dog.  Usually with training and letting him know that he can do something right.  Agility, nosework, or simple obedience.  Use gentle praise and treats to work with him.

Watson M's picture
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Edited: Spelling

Usually by a raised voice and occasionally being sent from whatever room he was in, sometime being escorted to his spot that he picked out when we moved into a new house a few months ago. Before I came into the picture it was usually being banished to the cage, or even chased into his cage, while being slapped on the rump in extreme cases.

He bares and growls at once. He usually won't bare his teeth unless you try to approach him, probably because he expects to be hit if I come too close, or chased if he runs away.

I don't think he smiles. I 've never seen him do that, I don't think.

I don't think he's a hands on dog when it comes to discipline, but his size and appearance probably made his previous caretakers over react to any misbehaviour.

It's clear he doesn't like raised voices, but I didn't realise that raising my voice might be part of the problem. These days a raised voice is just how people address him is he's misbehaving, do you think a normal inside voice with a stern tone would do a better job?

My approach to this behaviour so far has been to give him space and if he won't calm down, ask him to leave the room and cool off somewhere else, he usually goes to his spot and lays down flat and watches anyone walking past.

Do you think he might need to be reassured? But I heard somewhere that petting him or giving a snack might encourage that sort of behaviour. I'm really at a loss here.

Watson M's picture
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After reading this, I'm very sure it's not a submissive grin. He does generally take on a submissive posture though. He definitely not being aggressive.

So building his confidence and trust in me with training? A guess a working breed needs to work, even if it's only simple training exercises.

KevinK's picture
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Dobes tend to be very sensitive, and have a good memory.  It's hard to say what caused certain things when we have rescues and don't know their history, but sounds like he just needs to learn that you're not going to beat him when he makes a mistake.  There are always the few exceptions, with people that had legitimate reasons for turning a dog over to a rescue.  But the vast majority of cases, the dog wasn't well cared for.  My current foster Roxy was kept in a college dorm room that wasn't allowed to have pets...  You can imagine what that does to a 80 lb rottie, never being able to go out and play and whatnot.  You throw a tennis ball a few times in the yard, and she can't move for 2 days.

I would just do lots of training, with lots of praise and rewards.  Maybe he just needs to learn that he isn't always wrong.

WNCDobes's picture
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I would definitly start with a stern, "inside" voice instead of a raised voice.  KevinK is right - most Dobes are very sensitive and don't need to be yelled at.   Sometimes it takes one negative reaction for my Harrigan to change his behaviour.  They have incredible memories. 

Quick story: my veterinary practice has two vets.  The lady vet startled Harrigan with a shot once (totally our fault) and from that day on we had to muzzle him if she was the Dr.  He has never, ever displayed any agression to anyone, loves kids, but she upset him.  Its only been lately, 4 years later and a bucket of treats, that we trust him with her.

So, yes, build his confidence.  Kindness, time, consistency, obedience classes will help with that.  I wouldn't try a placate him when he does that with a snack or any kind of encouragement, though.  Try and prevent the trigger instead.

Gotta go, Ziva, my Doberman alarm clock says its time for breakfast!

HarleyBear's picture
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I gotta ask, what is he doing that you are reprimanding him for?  Is he jumping on people?  Is he counter-surfing?  Is he nipping?  Potty accidents?

You want to correct behavior problems by telling him what you want instead.  Dogs hear NO all the time, but they really don't know what it means because, as people, we tend to apply it to too many things.  That usually beyond a dog's comprehension.  For instance, we tend to say, NO when a dog jumps, nips, barks, digs, etc.  That can get really confusing for a dog.  He sees you (or the previous caretakers) getting upset, swatting him on the butt, and chasing him into his crate.  And he has no idea why.  Eventually he may start to think that people are unpredictable, and he could easily become fearful aggressive, because he doesn't know WHY humans are acting the way they do.

Simple obedience and encouragement will build a confidant and bid-able dog.  Is he jumping on people?  Ask him for what you want instead.  Ask for a sit and praise him when he does.  

Tannaidhe's picture
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I don't have my Koko yet, so I can't speak from dobie experience, but if they are as sensitive as everyone says, you may not even need a stern tone; just your body language may be enough.  One of the biggest mistakes most people make with dogs is that they do not need to be punished.  They don't understand the concept.  All they need is to be informed when they are doing something wrong.  With my yorkie-pom Nyxie, for the most part all I have to do is stand very straight, and stare at her if she's doing something wrong, and 9 times out of 10, she stops.  Sometimes I make a little chuffing/"Hey!" noise to catch her attention, but that's only if she doesn't notice me. 

Harley is also spot on.  If possible, replace the behavior/reaction you don't want with the one you do.

Watson M's picture
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He's actually very good when it comes to biting (the only time he ever bit anything was when he was a tiny pup and tried to chew on my hair) and doing his outside business. He jumps up when he's very, very excited, but his biggest problem is stealing food. The last time it happened, about a week or so ago, he sneakily snatched someone half-finished hamburger off of a low table. I shouted at him to stop and leave it, but all that did was scare him.

On one occasion, a visitor came over, and he was happy and friendly until said visitor gets frustrated with his pushy way of getting attention (basically just sticking his face on their lap and sometimes nudging a phone or video game controller in their hands) and tries to send him away. A reprimanding tone coming from a visitor apparently spooks him a lot more than one from me, and he froze, went wide-eyed and growled.

Thanks for all the help so far. It's extremely informative.
 

HarleyBear said: And he has no idea why.  Eventually he may start to think that people are unpredictable, and he could easily become fearful aggressive, because he doesn't know WHY humans are acting the way they do.

This is something I can't believe I didn't realise. It's hard sometimes to recognise that even though dogs can act very human, they think and process information in a totally different way. I always have to keep that in mind.

 

talisin's picture
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Just a bit of insight into the remark by harley - Ben doesn't like one particular cat in my household but the cat LOVES Ben, the cat adores him, but Ben avoids this cat because one time he comes up to ben he is sweet and loving the next he comes up and screams at Ben and swats his face, Ben does not TRUST this cat to do something predictable and dogs like routine and being able to "know" what to expect when they can't they get into avoidance and sometimes fearful biting etc. My husband is also not consistent with commands and Ben gets very confused when my husband is home and looks to me for direction, Ben knows he is to do something in a particular order with me and when my husband doesn't tell him to follow the routine Ben gets confused and will attempt to do the order of things but realizes my husband is not telling him the routine - so he ends up starting to sit then up then sit then up and then finally doesn't sit at all, then he looks at me as if to say "why didn't he make me sit" and you can see the confusion on Ben's face as to why he wasn't told to do what is "normal" that confusion can lead to Ben not doing other commands and misbehaving which he does when my husband is around....

so be consistent and predictable, he will feel secure in knowing that there are some things set in stone that he can depend on.... let him know YOU are the one thing he can depend on.....

WNCDobes's picture
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Stealing food is tough to overcome, especially if a dog has been starved or stray.  I copped out with Eowyn, who was a notorious opportunist and ate EVERYTHING, by simply never leaving anything out.  Frankly, I didn't even try to train her not to steal food.  The only things I ever found that she wouldn't eat or drink was green olives and Crown Royal.  There were multiple calls to the emergency vet about brownies, cigarettes, gin.  She was indestructible - none of it ever caused her any trouble.  Strangely, I had her from 11 weeks old and she was never without steady food. 

I might get some flak from this, but I think its easier to train people not to leave stuff out than dogs to not touch it. 

Its your responsibility to keep your dog from being a pest to guests, however, especially if he gets ugly about being told to leave.  Obedience classes should help that.  Does he have a bed in the public areas of the house?  You could teach him to go to that bed on command when he starts getting annoying.  Be lavish with the praise when he goes.

HarleyBear's picture
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I think WNCDobes and Tali are spot on. 

Go to your bed is a great command to teach.  When I say "Go to your bed" to tell Ellie, she runs so fast into it that she and the bed slide across the hardwood floors!  LOL!  She cracks me up.  But you also have to work on a Sit/Stay.  Work in small increments and make sure he is successful.  If he stays in his bed for 30 seconds.  Reward.  Then 1 minute, then 2, etc.  If he gets up, break it down further.  Maybe, as a reward for going to his bed, you can offer a deer antler.  That should keep  him occupied for a little while.

And like Tali said, be consistent.  Use the exact same command every time.  My husband would say, "Go to your crate" when I would say "Go to your box."  Not the same thing to a dog.  And it gets confusing.

You can use "go to your bed" while you are making dinner so he is not in your way.  But don't forget to reward good behavior.  We frequently focus on what the dog did wrong and not what the dog did right.

Also, I agree about food on the counters.  I just don't leave food out.  Never have and my dogs have never put their paws on the counters.  Simple as that.  But let's say you just pulled out a beautiful roasted turkey out of the oven and it needs to sit before serving.  My dogs don't have access into the kitchen, because I close the door.  If you don't have a door to close, use a baby-gate.  Dogs are hard-wired to be scavengers and sometimes as humans we just have to make adjustments ourselves.