Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to email@example.com. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.
Dear Beast Mode,
I adopted a second dog about four months ago. She’s a Chihuahua mix and has a tendency to be yappy, which I expected. (My other dog rarely barks.) But I can’t get her to stop barking at my roommate. She goes into protector mode when he comes down the stairs or comes home while I’m there. He’s lived here the entire time I’ve had her and has never been mean or yelled at her.
I’ve tried stern noes, scooping her up and putting her outside, holding her while standing next to him, feeding her treats when he comes downstairs, and she still goes into high alert when I’m home and he moves around the house. It’s so annoying, and I know it sucks for him to have this tiny dog freaking out and yapping at him when he’s just trying to go to the kitchen.
—No Room for Roomies
Dear No Room for Roomies,
Dogs are like alarm systems with personalities. An ADT monitoring panel can’t snuggle in front of the TV, but it won’t blare its siren if a ball gets trapped behind the sofa, either. Likewise, you can train your pooch to be a more refined protector at home, but you can’t play fetch at the beach with your house alarm. (Please don’t try this. The sand is a nightmare for its circuitry.) Pup or robot, we all have our strengths and weaknesses.
Dogs are weirdos. We’ve covered this before, and I’d venture to guess that 20–35 percent of the questions I get can be answered by reminding people of that fact. Our odd little friends have particular and often incomprehensible tastes. They likely have their reasons, even if these forever exist beyond our grasp.
For example, your dog could have been treated poorly or outright abused in her previous home by a man. There is no way for me to know if this is true, but it could help explain why she’s wound so tightly around your roommate. Dogs can hold on to trauma, and your roommate’s voice, height, or smell could put her on guard. Or, she could have simply decided on her own that he is a punk who needs to be kept at bay. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but you need to convince her of that, not me.
Reacting to your dog’s undesired behavior will only make it harder to correct. You may think that stern admonishments or a banishment outside will send a clear message, but all she learns is that she’s made a difference by barking. These sudden reactions can also contribute to a chaotic environment, which will make training all the more difficult. She’ll eventually calm down, but she needs everyone else to cool out first.
You say you feed her treats when he comes downstairs—but are you giving them to her while she’s going berserk? If so, you are reinforcing her wayward protective streak. Reward her only when she’s quiet. This means enduring some barking, but that shouldn’t be a novel experience given all the, uh, barking that’s been going on.
If your roommate is OK with dogs (and I really hope he is considering his housemates), ask him to gently give her treats whenever she’s chilled out. If she wants nothing to do with him, try tossing some especially delicious munchies behind his feet to get her accustomed to making an approach.
There is an element of panic and surprise when your roommate comes downstairs now, but if they get acquainted with each other, then that fear will turn into excitement. This can also lead to barking, of course, which is why you always want to reward her placid moments. Either way, the worst case scenario is that they will have each made a new friend. Not bad.
Getting her to accept your roommate will require patience. Keep at it. You have formed a profound bond in a short amount of time, and that is awesome. All that’s left is for your dog to get accustomed to this new world that she has already pledged to protect.