Relocation Anxiety

David Goodhand writes about Relocation Anxiety in response to an owner who had a dog stressed by a family move. His advice also applies to rescue dogs being moved (surrendered into foster care, moved from a shelter).

Question: First of all she is much more protective since we moved, and is quite aggressive toward strangers (barking, that protective "on guard" chessie stance) and protective of the yard house. As always, she is very well socialized and spends a lot of time with people and other dogs (she even goes to work with me, so she is seldom alone). She has also developed an intense aggressive dislike of cats for utterly unknown reasons. I think the move was more stressful for your dog than it appears.

Answer: Our rescue dog was well-behaved with us alone, but showed aggression with strangers. Every visitor to the house had to get safely past Ben. After an oh-so-careful greeting, Ben would warm up and everything would be fine. But the growling and snapping at visitors and barking at passers-by was quite trying in the beginning.

We did the usual things -- obedience training, daily activity, a less-rich diet -- and the problem has all but disappeared. However, I think the passage of time contributed to the solution more so than anything we did. I think Ben was very, very stressed by the transition from one family to another (via shelter and foster home, no less!), and it took a good 18 months for him to regain a sense of certainty about his situation. Now he is sweet with all our visitors -- almost too sweet since the growling has been replaced by jumping up.

Here's some things that clued me in to "relocation anxiety" as the problem. You can compare to your dog to see if they are similar.

1. The dog was absolutely fine with us, but aggressive with strangers. But only strangers who rang the bell and came in the front door. Or joggers who overtook us from behind and surprised both of us. And his aggression was terrible with large men, and nonexistent with small women.

2. He was very, very frightened by crates. (Lingering memories of the plane trip or the shelter?)

3. He was very skeptical of the car and would not get in willingly. Now he jumps in eagerly because he knows truck=off-leash-play. (Won't jump in to go home, of course. Damn smart dogs! Needs to have his muddy body picked up by me to go home.)

4. Neither the shelter nor the rescue foster mom reported any aggression in the dog, so there was no known history of this behavior.

5. The dog mixed well with dogs and people outside our home, especially at the off-leash play areas.

The key thing is that you need to distinguish fear aggression from territorial aggression. They are very different and most be treated differently. What I've described in my dog are symptoms of fear-aggression. When a dog snaps at a stranger who moves his hand too quickly, then 30 seconds later rolls over for a belly rub by the same person, that's fear aggression. The dog is snapping out of fright, and when the fear passes, the dog becomes super-nice again.

It sounds to me as if your dog has a similar problem. The relocation has unsettled her, and she is worried about her home and her family. And at moments when fright overwhelms her, she barks or growls or snaps. Do the usual things like activity and training, but understand that you are dealing with fear, not territorial aggression. The normal alpha-dog tricks won't work. Either she already knows you're alpha, so what's the point? Or the sudden dominant voice and behavior by you will scare her even more. Ben, for example, belligerently wilted when we tried tough-love training, but responding eagerly to a kinder, gentler approach.

It's easy to get a false sense of security because she seems so good when she's home alone with you. You think she's settled into the new house just fine. Then, bam, the door-bell rings and here we go again. If you're like us, moving means a lot more visitors at the door with packages, or repairs to do, etc., so it's even harder on her. Dogs can really fool us because they seem so serene that it's hard to see below the surface, but those isolated flashes of aggression are a message to you about her state of mind.

To belabor this already long message (sorry), if you had a 4-year-old child who started defiantly coloring on the walls, the first thing you'd suspect would be stress from the move. Why would your dog be any less susceptible to the same feelings? The dog tricks you by seeming to accept everything, so you only get a clue of her true feelings in those aggressive moments. As I said, it took Ben quite a while to settle in and get past his anxieties.

by David Goodhand

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