In this excerpt from Dr. Megan Maxwell’s pet behavior advice column The Teacher’s Pets, she addresses the case of a Sheltie who circles, nips, and barks when his owners try to leave the yard.
We have a 2-year-old beautiful Sheltie. We have a fenced in yard in which he loves to run and play. The problem is that if we are in the yard and we try to go out the gate or into the house, he comes running toward us at full speed. He lunges at us or tries to nip at our heels. When we turn around toward him, he continues to bark, run and jump. This happens every time that we go out of the yard and he is left. But in a few seconds, he is calm again. It’s as if he is telling us not to go. He does this with me and my husband and displays the same behavior with family and friends when they are getting ready to leave our home or yard. He knows how to “sit” on command but he will not sit if we give the command at this time. He is frantically running, jumping and barking at this point. How can we stop this behavior before summer arrives?
Rebecca’s problem is not uncommon, particularly among herding breeds. Due in large part to their selective breeding over many generations as working dogs with specific herding tasks, some Shelties are easily inclined to chase, circle, and nip at moving things, including our ankles. In some cases, the movement of people’s legs itself can serve as a rewarding visual stimulus for herding dogs (that is, they find it inherently rewarding to watch things move in response to their own chasing, circling, and nipping actions). In other cases, as Rebecca suggests above, dogs of any breed can learn that this behavior causes their departing owners to stop a bit, to attend to them by trying to stop them or redirect them. Because this Sheltie likely prefers that his owners stay in the yard with him, the behavior can be reinforced by any extra moments of contact it might provide before his owners finally get out of the gate or into the house.
To address this behavior, Rebecca could utilize shaping. This involves teaching a response in small increments, rewarding one step at a time during daily training sessions. I would recommend that you work with your Sheltie in the yard, practicing his Sit/Stay first as you move away from him slowly and just one step or two. I reviewed how to teach this Sit/Stay in last month’s column. In your case, practice the Stay as you move toward the gate or door, always returning to him to praise and treat if he remains in a Stay. Use a high-value reinforcer such as a yummy tiny treat for each time you can return all the way to him while he remains in a Sit/Stay position. When you can back up to the gate without him breaking his Stay, then practice jiggling the gate latch before returning to him, then opening the gate, stepping out of the gate and even moving out of sight before returning to him to praise and treat. Increase the distance you move and the level of challenge you present in tiny increments across repetitions, and practice this a few times a day for 5-10 minutes at a time.
While you are teaching this behavior in calm, structured training sessions over several weeks, you can prevent the problem behavior by calling him to you before you leave the yard, bringing him inside for a game of ball (for example) as a reward for coming when called, and leaving from the house rather than from the yard. Once his Stay response is reliable during training sessions, and you can move all the way out of the gate without him breaking his Stay, you will be able to practice the same command when you are actually leaving the yard. At that point, I would recommend tossing a treat over the gate or through the door for a successful Stay for several months before moving treats to a variable schedule (that is, providing them intermittently for successfully staying in place until you get the gate or door closed behind you.)
For some dogs, including many dogs of herding breeds, thrown balls or Frisbees can function as more potent reinforcers than food treats. These can be used in a way similar to that described above although, of course, you must provide time between each trial to allow the dog to chase and catch the toy.