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2 months ago I bought a plot of land with a workshop on it, and the seller mentioned that he let his friend keep a dog there. He suggested I might like to have the dog stay on there, for security (he's not much of a guard dog once you get to know him, but at least it shows there's always someone visiting.)

The dog is half Irish setter, half some other hunting breed. I have zero experience with dogs.

From the start, it seemed to me that the dog was lonely. He always waits at the gate barking when my or any other car comes) and manically chases his tail when I leave. Yet he would not interact with me in a way I could relate to. He would follow me, but as soon as I turned to look at him, he would run off. At first I thought this was some kind of fear, but now I think it's a game.

I want to get on with this dog, but at the same time I want him to know I am in charge. As a result, for over a month we basically ignored each other. I'm not going to get involved in his running games, it's not what I'm there for. On the other hand I would be happy to interact with the dog by petting him.

A female friend visited and the dog immediately went to her to be petted. He also likes to be petted by the owner (and is happy to be petted by me when the owner is there.) On the other hand the first time the dog allowed me to pet him when there were just the two of us, was today, just after the owner left, and before he had had his customary howl about the owner leaving. I expect he will go back to his random, charging around ways tomorrow.

I asked the owner why he didn't have the dog at home. He said one of his children was scared of the dog. I asked him if the dog had been abused by a man and that was why he let my female friend pet him but not be, and he said he got the dog from a home but there was no prior abuse. I feel the dog would benefit from more social contact (both human and other dogs) and in particular would benefit from some training.

I observe the following behaviour patterns: what can / should I do about them?

  1. Following me, then running away when I pay attention. This one freaks me out a bit sometimes, especially when he snorts right behind me. Sometimes he snorts when he's playing at "hunting" with his rag. (When I walk purposefully toward the dog he always stands his ground then suddenly darts out of the way to let me get where I'm going.)

  2. Smelling my urine, then urinating on top of it (there is no toilet for miles around this plot of land.) Is this some kind of display of dominance or is it harmless? (I'm sure the dog himself doesn't know why he does it.) Anyway, that in itself is not a problem, but he also likes urinating on my car (its such an old car I've decided not to make a fuss about this, though I gave him a good shouting for trying to urinate on my generator.)

  3. Running in front of my car. When I leave the dog runs round and round my car, and frequently runs in circles right in front of it. This behaviour is quite annoying, and the only "solution" I have is to sound my horn. I really would hate to injure him.

I get the impression the dog likes having me there though he cannot or will not interact in a way which shows we are friends. My way of showing this would be to pet him, but he seems more interested in his "approach then suddenly run away" game which I will not be part of. I would like to have more trust with him, in order to be able to reduce some of his antisocial behaviours, as I feel bad bawling him out for doing things I dislike as it's not really his fault if he's never been told.

*As discussed in the comments, I've only bawled him out for urinating on my generator, as I consider it potentially dangerous to the dog.

  • You may have the legal deed but the dog considers it his land. You bawl him out - don't. – paparazzo Oct 19 '15 at 2:56
  • @Frisbee I bawl him out only for pissing on my generator (and yes, while he's doing it, not afterwards, as I know he wouldn't understand.) As I say, I tolerate him pissing all over my car partly because its an old car, but principally because if I told him off every time it would destroy our relationship. But why does he do it? The other thing that really must be sorted is the running in front of my car when I'm leaving. I don't want to hit him. And yes, he probably does consider it his land. He seems more accepting of me now than before, though the pissing on my car has also intensified. – Level River St Oct 19 '15 at 3:46
  • @Frisbee impossible. The workshop is a converted container/site hut. I have to put the generator inside when I'm not there, to avoid corrosion / thieves. It has to be outside when I'm there, partly because of the fumes, but also because what I'm building is outside, so I'm constantly walking past / plugging things into the generator, and moving it around from place to place (it's quite heavy, by the way.) – Level River St Oct 19 '15 at 4:02
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    Bawling out the dog is not moving things forward – paparazzo Oct 19 '15 at 4:16
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    One totally different question: who feeds the dog? The female friend baffles me a bit, though... perhaps invite her again, watch exactly what she does, and try to mimic her? – Layna Oct 19 '15 at 9:36
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To help explain this, it's useful to understand why dogs work so well with humans in the first place.

It's all down to what's called the formative period. This is the period during which a young animal 'learns the world' understand what is or isn't 'normal'. And the reason dogs 'work well' with humans, is because for dogs, this formative period is considerably longer than with most wild animals (some, probably most of this will be down to selective breeding too).

But it's strongly recommended for a puppy, that in it's initial 8-12 weeks you expose it to as many experiences as you can, because then it has a wide range of stuff that is 'normal'. This includes interaction with humans, other dogs, etc.

However an older dog - that is no longer in the 'formative period' will have a harder time. If they weren't taugh 'people are ok' at an early age, they will always be more cautious about it.

Does this mean you need to give it up as a lost cause?

By no means. Your dog will never quite be as domesticated as a household pet, but there's still plenty you can do.

As you note - training is a good first step. Both of you should go to training classes, because then you will get to understand each other. Your dog needs to understand your version of body language, and you need to 'read' the dog. It's not hard, it just takes a bit of practice, and going through the steps of training helps with it.

Given he's reluctant to be touched, that implies he's suspicious - he may never entirely lose that, because it's a strong survival instinct. I would suggest your first port of call should be shameless bribery.

Get some properly stinky treats. Tripe sticks, bits of liver, that kind of thing. Honestly, the stinkier the better. You can cook the liver and it'll get a bit less messy, but trust me - your house will smell if you do.

But make teeny tiny pieces, and focus on rewarding 'good'. Things you want to reinforce in the dog.

Negative reinforcement is difficult, and should be avoided as much as possible. (But telling him off for pissing on a generator is probably still a good thing to be doing). Where you must you must ensure that it's done immediately - any more than about 5s after, and they won't understand why they're being punished.

But otherwise be careful, because you can accidentally 'reinforce' negative behaviour. A classic example is if a dog wees on the carpet, and you punish them. They might have been weeing because of anxiety, and you've just made that anxiety worse. Or barking - they may be barking at a threat. If you punish them, they may associate the punishment with the threat - and confirm that they were right all along.

You do much less harm with positive reinforcement. E.g. like this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/fashion/25love.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The trick is - LRS - Least Reinforcing Syndrome (or Behaviour). Because any sort of reinforcement (positive or negative) can potentially strengthen something undesired. And focus on rewarding any good, because at worst all you'll get is a slightly tubby but well behaved dog. (And you can 'ease off' the food later!)

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Regarding the urinating on the car and over your urine - that sounds more like marking than pottying. Yes, they both involve urine, but are for vastly different reasons. Marking is done to mark territory. He's urinating over your urine to tell other dogs (whether they come or not) that this land is protected. It's not necessarily him trying to be dominant over you, but more that he's saying that he'll take care of you and his territory. It also can be done to help a dog feel secure. One of my dogs, who is perfectly potty trained, will mark when he's stressed. When he feels secure, he doesn't mark. Because you're new, you created stress, since he doesn't know you and so he marked the thing you brought with you. Doing things that communicate that you're a safe person will encourage his security and will help prevent the marking. There is a spray that you can use to discourage his marking of your generator. It's the smell of it that keeps the dog away. You can get it a pet store. You also might try Vicks Vaporub - most dogs hate that smell and will avoid where it is. Like someone else said, unless you catch the dog doing it and discipline then, the dog won't associate the discipline with what he's doing. If you do catch him and he leaves the generator but then goes potty someplace else, praise him for doing the right thing.

The tail chasing is another sign of stress/excess energy. That with the crazy running says that he's excited. It does sound like he's trying to play with you, which is a good sign and says that he does consider you friends. You could be more scary than a woman partially because your voice is deeper than a man. High pitched normally communicates happiness to a dog where deeper pitches are more serious and/or disciplinary.

The snorting he's doing is a sign of pleasure. Sometimes it can be an actual sneeze but a lot of times it's the equivalent of a laugh. The freezing (before jumping out of the way) actually sounds more like a calming signal to you - dogs give them to us all the time when they think that we're stressed or he's unsure what's going on with us. Things like walking in an arc towards you, stopping in its tracks, looking away, blinking, licking lips, lying down, these can all be calming signals. Again, helping him feel secure will help with these things.

The suggestion of a smelly reward is a good one, especially if you start by simply dropping the treats in your vicinity when he's around so he associates you with the treat. Then, when he's hovering, don't look at him but hold out the treat in your palm. Staring down a dog is a sign of dominance/aggression but looking away tells the dog you're not a threat. Don't react when he takes the treat. When he gets used to taking it from you, start looking at him and interacting with him. I would also start feeding him a little, but make it look like you're eating the food first. This tells the dog that you're the boss; the dominant dog eats first.

As far as the car problem, the suggestion of desensitizing the dog to you leaving is a good one. Go sit in the car. Get out. When he doesn't react, get in and start it. Get out. Build up to no reaction when you leave. Leave and come back after a minute. Etc. When you come back, get out of your car and go back to whatever you were doing, ignoring the dog until he's calm. It communicates that you leaving is no big deal and you'll come back 'soon.' What I also would do is invest in a Kong toy, the kind where you can put something inside it. Most dogs love peanut butter. Put PB in it and give it to the dog when you're about to leave. This gives him a reward and distraction when you're leaving. You may find that he settles down and goes to work on the Kong, allowing you to leave without the car chasing.

This might sound like a lot of work - but it'll only be in the beginning. Put in the effort and you'll have a great guard dog and companion for your property.

I've owned many dogs as well as fostered and rehabbed unsocialized dogs.

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  • Thanks for your answer. Spray or Vicks for the generator sounds an excellent idea (or it would be if my tools hadn't been stolen. I'm leaving Spain and going back to UK for a while so they won't be replaced any time soon.) He's calmed down a lot, he knows the only way he'll get response from me is to be affectionate, not run around like crazy, so he doesn't bother to try that on me (though if I need to distract him, running is the best way.) This is both good and bad: he's a bit too demanding of affection when I'm working, and he was probably as good as gold when the theives came. oh well :-) – Level River St Jan 12 '16 at 2:59
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I was prompted to write this question because the dog (whose name is Chico) first approached me to let pet me him without the owner there that day. It seems I have now broken the ice with Chico, and he comes to be petted quite often, sometimes being a little demanding about it.

However the closer I get to him, the more he wants to interact, which is both good and bad. When I stopped petting him, he immediately got up and ran off at an alarming pace. He's not an agressive dog but he has an enormous amount of energy and the speed at which he runs, turns and STOPS RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU is quite alarming. I guess this is why the owner's child was scared.

He very much wants me to join in his running games, but there's no way I could keep up, even if I wanted to. I tried throwing something for him to fetch but he couldn't find it and became even more excitable, so I won't try it again.

I'll have to accept that he is a dog and I am a human, and let him get overexcited about anything and everything. It was very entertaining when two dirtbikes were riding around outside my land. Chico was sprinting up and down the fence and they were as amused by it as I was.

I'll just have to accept that he's going to urinate on everything. He's lived in a field all his life, and he's never been taught not to urinate on man-made objects. Between that and his energy, there's now probably no way he could live in a house like all the other dogs I've ever met. I may get a cage for my generator, per comments from Frisbee.

It's sad that the closer I get to him, the more he's going to run in front of my car when I leave. If I don't use the horn he can spend quite a while there and all I can see is his tail bobbing up and down. I still need a solution for this and I've no idea what to do about it. Training him to sit and stay is going to be an enormous amount of work, and he's unlikely going to have any discipline given that my arrival and leaving are such exciting events to him. He knows when I'm going to leave because I start putting stuff in the car, and begins to work himself into a frenzy about it. I guess I'll just have to be patient about getting to the gate. I'd like there to be some way of deterring him from approaching the car as I'm leaving, but I really don't want to consider something cruel like an ultrasonic siren. I wonder if there is some way to distract him.

Regarding comments about who feeds him: the owner comes every day and spends about 10 minutes with the dog, who usually lets him quietly pet him. He hugs the owner's legs with his forepaws, makes the most of the time the owner is there to interact in the manner that humans like, and does relatively little sprinting around. If I wasn'there that's the only contact he would have.

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  • Regarding the car: if you have the time, spend a few times a day just getting in the car, starting it up, stopping it again, then getting out. Hopefully, he will end up thinking that you doing so is tremendously boooooooring. – Layna Oct 21 '15 at 14:00
  • The car is Separation Anxiety; there is much written about it. But I really don't like this defeatist attitude that you have ; this dog is not mentally disabled, there is no reason why you couldn't potty train him, work on commands, work on people manners, etc. These things are not easy, they take time, but they are worth it. Getting this high-energy dog the exercise it needs is going to be key to a successful rehabilitation; I'm not seeing much progress in that area. – rlb.usa Oct 21 '15 at 16:00
  • @rlb.usa the reason I'm defeatist is because he's not my dog, he's just being kept on my land. And we are getting closer. I don't go to my land to play with the dog, I go to work. He spends all day running. He now lets me pet him, but I know he wants me to run with him. I'd like to do more for him, but it's out of my hands so not a priority. The owner will move him when he feels it's safe to do so (his sister in law has land but it has 2 rottweilers on it and he's worried how Chico would fit in with them.) Also I'll be spending a lot of time in another country soon, so I won't be seeing him. – Level River St Oct 21 '15 at 19:03

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