Over the next few weeks other visitors tried and were all greeted with the same response. The one exception was T, owner of Molly the Irish Terrier. T came with us when we adopted Noodles and he has always been very fond of her. This gave me a small glimmer of hope as it proved he could like some people, not just J2 and myself.
We consulted two different behaviourists who were both helpful, giving us various strategies to try. These included:
- Thoroughly wear him out before the visitor is due to arrive. Not always practical for the unexpected visitor.
- Stuff a kong with his dinner (avoiding high protein food), freeze it and give it to him when the visitor arrives. This was partially successful but he still found time to bark between licks.
- Remove him from the room using a houseline every time he barks. Wait a few minutes until he stops barking, reward, and then re-enter the room. Repeat as necessary. Not as easy as it sounds. In reality this means walking in and out of the room constantly and it almost becomes a kind of dance routine.
- All visitors are asked to ignore him, no looking, touching, or talking to him. Easier said than done when he is right in your face barking at top volume.
- Ask visitors to throw treats on the floor, still ignoring him. He still continued to bark between mouthfuls!
We discovered that when the doorbell rang, if we took him to the front door on a houseline to see the visitor, he seemed less agitated, although he did still bark. We only invited dog-experienced people to visit during this first phase of training and he was rewarded the minute he stopped barking, but timing was crucial here. Visitors were encouraged to throw treats on the floor for him, still not looking at him. The danger with this is that he stops barking at them as a visitor, but begins barking, demanding treats instead.
Some visitors tried disobeying the rules about ignoring him and giving him commands such as "sit", "down" in exchange for treats. This can work well, if the person is confident and has good timing with giving the reward.
We also found that we reached various plateaus where he was slowly getting better but couldn't seem to progress any further. Then we had to rethink and perhaps try something different. Our most recent change of strategy involved borrowing his pal Molly the Irish Terrier for pre-arranged visitors. Molly loves most people (except postmen) so we were hoping she would have a positive influence on Noodles. On arrival, visitors are again asked to ignore Noodles (who still barks, but less manically) and make a big fuss of Molly. Noodles can't resist investigating and cautiously approaches the visitor, who continues to ignore him. At the moment we are only inviting people that we know Molly particularly likes to avoid any negative reactions. This has had the most immediate response as Noodles calms down much quicker and on our last attempt was able to lay down with Molly in our front room without barking. Obviously we cannot rely on Molly every time we have a visitor, but I think if we try this a few times he may eventually learn that visitors are not to be feared especially if they bring sausages.
I have to say that this has been by far our greatest challenge with Noodles and we went through periods where it was just easier to discourage anyone from visiting at all, as it is such hard work, and the visitor has to be well prepared. It certainly doesn't make for a relaxing evening and it can be difficult to remain calm and focussed. It has been very rewarding to see his behaviour improve since our first few visitors but we still hope to progress further. My guess is that it will only happen with lots of patience and at his own pace.