Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

Stop The Barking AND Lower Your Blood Pressure

small black dog with cottage cheese container in his mouthThis is a post about how to stop a dog’s barking. It’s not about how to eliminate barking in dogs. Let’s be real. Dogs bark and somewhere along the way toward domestication we must have liked that and selected for it. It’s not a dog’s fault that they live in an apartment building or neighborhood where people don’t want to hear a dog bark.

Expecting any dog to stop barking forever isn’t realistic. Most people don’t even want that, they want a dog to shut up when they are asked to. This means that someone has to be there to give the dog instruction as to how to behave. If a dog is barking because they are anxious about being left alone, or bored to death and frustration on a chain, that’s not what I am addressing in this post.

I strive for a variety of things in my life, one is to lower the stress I experience on a daily basis. Living with four dogs, each with their own ‘quirks’ hardly seems to be a recipe for lower stress, but it’s what I’ve got, so I deal with it. When my dogs bark at ‘stuff’ whether it’s people, vehicles going by, or a sound that startles them, I want their barking to end sooner rather than later. Shouting at them to be quiet not only rarely works, I’m sure it raises my blood pressure.

In order to get a dog to do something we find a way to get the dog to perform the behavior and then reward them for it. Sounds easy enough. In practice it can be challenging, but that’s what I enjoy about being a dog trainer, never a dull moment! If I want my dog to bark a couple of times and then be quiet how can I do that?

I start by rewarding my dogs often when I say their name. I know I shouldn’t use their name so much that they begin to tune it out, or use it in connection with anything they might perceive to be a punishment, like getting yelled at, but I’m crummy at that, so I treat them a lot whenever I say their name. I could come up with a word, ‘HEY!’ or ‘THANK YOU!’ and reward them for that and leave their name out of it completely. What this does is make it more likely that when I say their name (or ‘HEY’), while thinking to myself, “Shut the heck up already,” s/he will turn around and come to me for a treat. I am also rewarding the ‘not as much barking’ behavior.

Rather than wait until my dogs offer me quiet behavior (which could take awhile with four dogs egging each other on) I interrupt their barking and feed them treats. Instead of barking 20 times I might be able to get them down to 10 times, then 5 times and ultimately maybe just once or not at all. How that works is that brains are very good at predicting outcomes. Our brains do it well and dogs’ brains do it well. If something makes my dogs bark and I consistently interrupt them and offer them treats they soon come to understand that whatever it was that made them bark predicts me doling out treats. Most of my dogs prefer to get their treats sooner rather than later.

Worried about creating a dog who barks to get a reward? It can happen, but it’s usually obvious when a dog is playing that card. I find it clever on their part. It ‘looks’ different than a dog barking because of arousal. If this is happening, stop rewarding after the barking and start rewarding (A LOT!) the dog for being quiet. A clever dog will sort this out. I praise or treat my dogs when they hear something that ‘might’ be worthy of a bark or two, and they don’t bark, or haven’t barked yet.

I am busy with this process as I spend time at my mum’s house where there is more foot and vehicle traffic than at our house. It’s working to our advantage. Since it happens more often it gives me more opportunities to interrupt and treat them and it contributes toward them becoming habituated to the sights and sounds. Now when Nibbles goes racing to the fence to yap at someone going by (something he really seems to enjoy doing) I can shout out “THANK YOU!” and he turns in his tracks to come get his reward. I have set out a plate of treats so my mum, who also needs to keep her blood pressure down, can do the same thing. Not to miss out the other dogs join him. The burden on me is simply to have super good treats at the ready while we work the process. In the scheme of things, it’s one of the easier things I end up having to do to lower stress levels in my life.


Adding Accountability

I have been involved in ‘rescuing’ and finding home for dogs. I have worked with shelters and on my own. I have been negligent in performing the things I am going to address in this blog post so my high horse is not quite as tall as it sounds. I acknowledge the good intentions, hard work and struggles that most people involved in animal rescue experience. I am aware of the argument that it’s better to save some, even if others suffer. I happen not to accept that this is as good as it can get. There are plenty of reasons and excuses for turning a blind eye toward the practices and outcomes of rescue operations. We can do better and making excuses isn’t the way to get there. It won’t happen overnight but we need to start kicking the bar up a notch when it comes to what we call ‘rescue’.

When I buy a car one of the criteria I have for choosing the make and model is how long I can expect it to last and its resale value. A good car will be a good car longer and the company that makes it gets my business. I am not likely to buy a car from a company which cannot demonstrate that their vehicles are still road worthy 5 years down the line, or from a company which sells cars with brakes that routinely fail. If I am buying a car from an individual I take it to my mechanic to check it out before I make the decision to buy it. No one is likely to tell me I am expecting too much from car manufacturers or dealers.

When a rescue group waves the banner and is cheered for the number of pets they have found homes for I wonder why they are not also sharing information on how many of those pets are still happily living in the original homes they were placed in. Or how many did not survive the ‘rescue’ process. I know the reasons they could give for not doing this, but I am going to suggest that the main reason the data isn’t shared is because no one is doing it routinely, and that we need to expect it.

If we are serious about our love for animals and respect them for their unique abilities and personalities we should be serious about adding accountability to the ‘rescue’ process. We need to put as much effort into finding out how well someone is doing their ‘job’, unpaid or otherwise, when it comes to finding homes for animals as we do when buying a car. How can we know how well our protocols are working unless we follow up and track results? Not only will we gain insight and knowledge but we’ll improve the service we are providing both the animals and the people taking them home. As trendy and politically correct ‘rescuing’ a shelter dog is there are still people who because of a bad experience with a dog, will head to the pet shop or mill breeder in the belief that they are more likely to get a ‘better’ pet out of the deal.

When we buy an unsafe car we might be killed, when an animal is rehomed inappropriately they’re the who is less likely to survive the experience.

It’s So Not About The Food

The resistance to use food to train dogs is among one of the challenges reward based trainers face with pet owners. Nevermind that state of the art, modern animal sanctuaries, zoos, research labs and amusement parks use food rewards to train animals, dog owners find the idea of giving their dog something other than a pat on the head, to get behaviors, aversive. Their reticence is an indication of their naivete (I’d say ignorance but I don’t want to offend anyone).

Recently I had the opportunity to meet with the devoted owner of young dog. As a pup the dog was rescued off the street where she was not likely to survive for long. On her own and suffering from a nasty case of mange she was nursed back to health and has a life many humans would envy. Her owner has very clear requirements for the dog’s behavior and his clarity has helped create a dog who understands what is expected of her in many situations.

When people know you are a dog trainer it’s not long before they show off all the ‘tricks’ their dog has learned. What I see is often the same, a dog who has been able to ‘figure out’ most of what their owner is trying to get them to do, but it involves lots of repetition and escalating voices. I respond by breaking out the treats. By rewarding the dog quickly during or immediately after the requested behavior we can get faster, cleaner, more reliable responses from the dog. Unconvinced the owner commented, “Of course she’s doing what you ask, you have food.” For an inexplicable reason the shouting and repeated requests were preferable to handing the dog bits of cheese.

It is true that food is a powerful motivator of behavior. If it wasn’t we’d all still fit into our the jeans we wore in high school. Initially it would appear that the only reason the dog was enthusiastically performing ‘tricks’ was for the treats. But to believe that this is the only reason dogs will do what we ask of them, is to be missing important and key elements of the interaction.

Learning is rewarding, it has to be or species survival becomes unlikely. As a child I could spend hours learning how to perform new physical skills, walking on stilts, jumping on a pogo stick, twirling a hoola hoop. These skills might seem irrelevant to my success as a human being, but the motivation to learn how to do something new, and do it proficiently is how cures for diseases, new computer operating systems, and more efficient ways to grow vegetables are born. It ‘feels good’ to learn new skills.

The science of animal behavior has demonstrated that the reward takes second place to the anticipation preceding it. This means that the bigger hit of ‘feel good’ happens before the reward is in their mouth! Making this an even more awesome process the anticipation of a reward increases when there is a degree of uncertainty as to whether it will occur or not.

As or more important than the food treat is the interaction the dog has with its human. That dogs find the engagement in a social relationship with humans rewarding is what makes them unique among animals. Many of us enjoy the companionship of our dogs when we are doing nothing more than lounging on the couch watching television, and observation of our dogs would lead us to think that many of them enjoy it as well. If we can enjoy each other when we are doing ‘nothing’ it’s not a stretch to think that they also enjoy being with us when we are doing ‘something’; walking, tossing balls, chasing and playing, and yes, training! The food is a tool we use to help the dog build new skills and responses.

Of course the idea that it’s not the food can only be true if a dog has enough to eat. Unfortunately this is not the case for many dogs. In the past two years through the “Write a Post, Help a Dog” initiative at BlogPaws, PEDIGREE® and bloggers have united to generate nearly 650 blog posts to raise awareness about commitment to adoption and encourage everyone to help feed shelter dogs in their local communities .

Last year, each participating blog generated one 20 pound food donation to shelters affected by Hurricane Irene for a total of 2,980 pounds of new PEDIGREE® Dry Dog Food . Food donations are delivered to shelter and dog rescue groups in times of need with the help of Rescue Bank, a National Pet Food Distribution Program for Animal Rescue Groups and Organizations. All qualifying shelter and dog rescue groups are encouraged to apply for donations at

This year PEDIGREE® is donating one 17lb bag of dog food to homeless animals for every blog post written (like this one!). Join us in this blog hop and help feed a dog so they can move on to learning about how fabulous it feels to have a home, be cared for and learn new tricks.
Once you’ve written your post visit this page and add your blog to the hop!