Wednesday, January 25, 2012

About Barking - Part 2

Two major reasons why dogs bark are because they are under-, or over-stimulated.
Under-stimulation is boredom, in other words. The dog barks to solicit for attention and interaction. The simplest solution is to provide more stimulation, and typically it is exercise of the mental kind they are more in need of. Especially sensory sensitive dogs, often ones belonging to the herding group, can be under-stimulated on one paw if all they ever get are mindless physical activities, and over-stimulated on the other with the many sights and sounds in the environment, and in that case venturing to the park more often can make matters worse.

Exuberant excitement is expressed in barking and jumping - another common nuisance behavior. The dog is so happy that he can’t contain himself and releases his joy in dog typical ways. It is a common scenario when a pooch’s beloved and sorely missed person comes home from work. He hears the key in the lock and promptly freaks out in his crate, or mobs his person at the door.
Now, we’ve been told for years by both traditional and positive reinforcement trainers that we should not reward lack of impulse control or demand barking. We are told not to give in to our dog’s soliciting behavior; his signal that he wants something from us, because then we would reinforce that, and the dog would bark more, and be out-of-control more, and demand more, and may even become – quiver - dominant and challenge us for the steak we have for dinner that night. Okay, that stretch of thought typically only traditional trainers come up with.
In any case, I disagree. For starters, in a functioning relationship each member should be allowed to solicit for what they want. It doesn’t mean they always get it, but they should be able to ask and be acknowledged. And yes, I too prefer a polite gesture to a spit-loaded bark in the face, but that can be taught. In fact, in a good functioning relationship dogs are generally subtler and polite(r). As far as excitement goes, of course dogs should be allowed to get excited. Cesar Millan’s expectation of “calm submission” at all times and in every circumstance is unrealistic, unreasonable and impossible for any organism. Once again, some people demand more from dogs than what we highly-evolved humans are able to do. Have you ever been in a hockey arena or football stadium? So, a dog sometimes being jubilant is normal, and we should neither ignore nor subdue him, but channel the expressions into ones that are less annoying and more acceptable.
There is another problem with ignoring barking when it starts. Rarely does a dog stop right away just because a person doesn’t pay attention to it. To the contrary, he becomes frustrated because nobody listens and turns it up a few notches, and the now more intense vocalization most people find difficult to ignore. In real life, at one point the person does give it attention, perhaps negative one, but attention is attention and maintains behavior, and when that happens the dog learns that “crazing out” is the way to get noticed.
Confined dogs, for example when in a crate, can be especially noisy because there is added restraint frustration. Eager to get out, the pooch quickly charges up when no one opens the door, and he might bark himself into state of extreme agitation. A layperson will be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a minor, passing tantrum and true anxiety that intensifies out-of-control behavior at the moment, but can also contribute to secondary problems. And even if the dog has learned that the door only opens if he stops barking, being quiet is nothing but a trick and not authentic calmness. It is fake, and typically followed by an explosion of unwanted actions as soon as he is freed: bark-bark-whine-bark-bark → quiet tension → you open the crate door → dog pops out and begins to mouth, bark and jump. So, nothing is accomplished.
I suggest opening the crate door immediately and regardless what the dog does, and then direct him into a short, interactive game. You can toss a handful of small treats away from you and tell him to find them, send him to the toy box to fetch a ball and then play for a minute or two, teach him to target your hand or perform a few tricks he likes. That is structured attention right away, gets your dog out of the barking and into the thinking mode, and brings four-paws-to-the-floor in a positive way.
And if you’re of the swift sort and manage to open the crate door after two or three barks, or are able to at least quiet your dog till you reach it, then barking two or three times, followed by patiently waiting till you set him free, becomes a habit. Everyone should be able to tolerate a couple of barks. If you can’t stand any vocalization, don’t get a dog.
The same rules apply when a dog just can’t wait to get out the door to have some fun with you. He might sit quietly, staring at the door for it to open, and perhaps is even trained to let you exit first, but if it’s just a trained trick and he is internally charged up, he will pull the moment he steps on the driveway or sidewalk. Again, you gain nothing. Instead, wait for attention and offered eye contact before you open the door, give the let’s go command when you exit together, and engage your dog right away into a quick game of chase, or find the treats, or target, or whatever you like, and then continue the walk with not only a calmer dog, but also one who is likely more focused on you.
Giving attention and redirecting into a fun and acceptable behavior after 2-3 barks works regardless why the dog is yapping it up. It doesn’t matter if he greets you cheerfully at the door, or sees someone walking by the house. In that case a “Brutus, it’s just aunt Jenny get your ball” can move and keep the dog away from the window. In the beginning, you might have to guide him away, perhaps with a leash, but if you use the same words consistently you’ll eventually be able to direct him from the distance. And if you always redirect into the same activity, at one point the whole sequence of: person passing by, dog barking trice followed by getting a ball, will be automatic.
True, in a technical, operant conditioning sense we reinforce an unwanted behavior – barking - if we pay attention to it and if the dog gets what he wants, but from a relationship point of view I think we should do it anyway. Baby Signs® found that crying and tantrums decreased when what babies and toddlers’ tried to convey was understood. I feel that is the same with dogs. Their frustration outbursts won’t escalate if we respond to the initial bark, instead of snubbing them and their attempt to connect with us.

Barking occurs when a dog perceives an associated cue that announces a fun event and he can’t wait to get on with it. Going for walks turns Will’s crank, and she has learned that me drinking coffee and then using the bathroom happens every morning just before we head out. As soon as the toilette flushes, Will starts barking, impatiently wanting to go outside. Because it annoys me, I ask her in a down position after two barks, and she obeys that because it is well practiced. Down is incompatible with barking – at least with Will, which means that when she follows orders she shuts up as well. Then I fit her harness on, reinforcing the quiet, and open the door. It didn’t take long before Will stopped barking altogether, as if to avoid the extra delay the down position brought on.
Events that the dog connects with another that follows are predictors of fun stuff, but also unpleasantness and discomfort, and that can also trigger barking. For example, putting on a certain kind of shoes, or grabbing the car keys, are precursors to your leaving for work and can provoke barking, jumping and nipping with a dog who has separation anxiety.

I am not discussing outside run or fence barking, and barking at the end of a chain, because I believe that dogs should not be put in situations, often constantly, that cause stress, anxiety and frustration they then release in behaviors nobody wants. It is not the dogs' barking that is the problem here, but peoples' uncaring actions.

Restraint frustration is often the underlying issue why dogs bark at the end of their leash, or flip out when grabbed by the collar. Primarily the root is fear and anxiety, but sometimes it is because the pooch wants to socialize, greet and play, or herd and control, and you and the leash are holding him back. Which one it is can be difficult to discern for the layperson, and I recommend hiring an experienced and positive dog pro to help you sort things out. I will talk about leash reactivity sometime in the near future.
One more reason for barking I want to point out is that a sense of competition towards another animal, commonly referred to as jealousy, can also provoke barking, jumping or general pushiness. In its root it is anxiety. I wrote a blog post about Intraspecific Competition and how to approach it.
And dogs also bark when they are anxious, or ambiguous about a person, including one they live with.

I had canine clients who bark a whole lot because several, sometimes all of the above, reasons apply. They are mentally under-stimulated and demand bark, but also sensory over-stimulated and in a chronically low-level aroused state, caused by where they live, and/or by the activities their humans choose for them to participate in. In addition, often they were given attention to when in a full outburst, when their people couldn’t stand it any longer, but the attention was punitive which created anxiety, or at least ambiguity, and that always compounds the problem. Ceaseless barking sometimes goes on for years and is a well-established behavior, and therefore not an easy task to modify. But I believe that even with those tough cases improvement is possible, but there is no quick fix. Modification requires a lot from people: patience, consistency and sometimes lifestyle and routine changes, at least temporarily.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

All About Barking - Part 1

Last year in November I talked about why many dogs bark when the doorbell rings, and what to do about it. Of course, that is not the only reason why pooches yap it up.

Why do dogs bark? Because it is a normal part of their communication, that’s why. Anatomically, it is impossible for a dog to say: “Heya Bob, can you git over here and open that door? I gotta pee.”
Dogs’ vocalizations, for the longest time in our common history, came in handy. The watchdog let humans sleep restfully at night, and the guard dog deterred two- and four legged intruders from entering home turf. Barking benefitted us, and because we humans are so clever in manipulating environments to our liking, we selectively bred for that. Bred dogs that announce an unfamiliar noise or trespasser, announce that they found game, vermin or the scent of it, and vocally “tell” livestock animals where to go.
Nowadays, the behavior we once desired we don’t want any longer. Many of our modern dogs live in urban and suburban neighborhoods and are bombarded with sounds and motion all the time. Their endless announcing is bothersome at best, and a real problem at worst.
Dog owners and neighbors of dog owners want it stopped, and dog pros and manufacturers, sniffing easy money that can be made, eagerly produced a variety of ways to stop it - most unpleasant or painful for the dog, and typically unsuccessful. Unsuccessful, or counterproductive because constant sound and motion stimulation can make the dog irritable and permanently fired up, and punishing, intimidating or throwing something at him – making more noise - disquiets him even more.
The good news is that, like any other problem, excessive barking too can be modified in a dog friendly fashion.
Barking is dogs' default form of expression, some breeds more than others, and they do it for a variety of reasons, which I’ll discuss. All of them, or at least all I can think of, in this post and the next one.
One common motive is to be let outside, or back into the house. Because people like a housetrained dog, they initially obeyed the vocal request and opened the door, and each time that happened they reinforced the behavior they don’t want. The dog learns that barking works and will do it again, and soon not just when he has to potty, but whenever he is bored and wants your attention, check out a noise, or dig up the flowerbed. The catch is that, especially with a puppy or newly adopted dog, you don’t want to ignore the bark, because if he really has to go and nobody opens the door he’ll piddle on the rug, and thereby learns that there is an “appropriate” inside voiding spot.
There are two solutions to the dilemma: One is timing the dog and giving him ample opportunities to go outside. You decide, and before his bladder is so full that he can’t hold it any longer, you prompt your pooch to follow, then open the door and go out with him and mark “potty” when he does it, thereby putting it under command control. That is how we do it in our home.
The other is to hang bells at the door. A dog can’t say: “Heya Bob…”, but can learn to touch a set of bells with his nose or paw to signal that he wants the door opened. You might wonder what good that does? Instead of barking, he’ll now ring the bell nonstop, which is just as annoying, right? Wrong. You can’t remove the dog’s bark, or at least not without cruel surgery, but you can remove the bells and convey that you are temporarily unavailable. With consistency, you are teaching your dog an acceptable way to signal that gets him the desired result, but at the same puts you in control. Brilliant, eh – like we say in Canada. I wish I had thought of that, but the credit belongs to Suzanne Clothier who shared that, and many such wisdoms, at a seminar I attended a few years ago.
And, by the way, when you are available, it doesn’t matter why your dog wants to go out; if he really has to go pee, or wants catch a whiff of fresh air, bake in the sun, or play. You should open the door because he can’t and needs your help. Said that, I am not a fan of leaving a dog outside unsupervised for long, and also keep in mind that if he continuously pesters you, he might be bored and could benefit from mental and/or physical stimulation.
More about that, over-stimulation, excitement and anxiety in Part 2.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Seven Taproot Behaviors

Hello New Year. Welcome. I am excited. Yes, of course I intellectually comprehend that the difference between December 31 and January 01 is just a day, but I become all chipper with the beginning of each New Year nevertheless. I am thrilled about exploring new ideas and opportunities, meeting new people and dogs, having new experiences.
At the end of each old year I gift myself with a fancy “Windows to the World” calendar with beautiful photos of doors, bridges and windows from around the world taken by John and Debora Scalan, I'll delight in each day, each month.
Who knows what windows and doors will open in 2012 – for you and for me. I will surely keep my eyes peeled and stay alert. That is my nature, not a resolution, but like many people I have some. Although firmly stuck in my mind, experience tells me that most will likely slide in the ditch by the end of February, and that’s okay, because there aren’t any big-deal issues that I need to change. Thankfully, cause I hate pressure.
New Year’s Resolution has such a negative connotation, doesn’t it? It sounds coercive, and the ones we impose on ourselves are often indeed a slog; something that we ought to do but don’t really want to tackle at this point. No wonder a lot of folks conveniently ignore it early on in the year. After all, avoidance is a common side effect of compulsion.
So, how about a resolution that is fun? How about teaching the pooch new things? Training is, should be, quality time spent together, and as a bonus you get better behavior, less stress and an improved relationship. Tricks are great if your dog already knows all the basic stuff. If not, the New Year is the perfect opportunity to make up for what was missed. And yes, even an old dog can learn - new tricks and behaviors.
There are seven behaviors that, if the dog performs them reliably, make life with a pooch really easy and very pleasurable. I like to call them taproot behaviors - taproot as in: the main and deepest root of a plant. It was the fabulous Steve White I heard use that term in regards to dog training a couple of years ago, and he generously granted me written permission to use it too. That makes me happy, because I have not yet found a better analogy to illustrate what every dog should know.
Picture an upside down pyramid with seven poles vertically pointing downward, each one representing one behavior. In case you need a visual, check out Steve White’s graph at If you do, you will notice that he has five taproot behaviors: Attention in the middle, flanked by sit and down on each side, and then heel and come. I have seven - the middle pole, the longest, stands for unprompted attention like Steve White’s, the two next to it, name attention and come, are not quite as long and although still super important, not as much as offered attention. The behaviors next to those, the off-switch “all-done” and one position, either sit or down, are a little shorter still, and on each end we have the shortest ones: leave and give, again very important commands, but not quite as much as the all other ones. I believe I addressed all of them in detail in past posts, and because of their importance might do so again sometime in the future. Today, I want to stick with the taproot analogy.
Here is where it makes so much sense: like the taproot keeping the plant alive and healthy, the most important behaviors, when solidly established, keeps the relationship between you and your dog healthy and mutually gratifying. And like the roots that demand nutrients and water, those crucial behaviors you want in your dog require your attention, and must be nurtured and reinforced.
Although I believe, based on my experience, that my seven taproot behaviors are the most important ones, they are not set in stone, and of course there are others as well. You decide which are the principle ones for you, and it is you who best knows your dog and what to practice more - and what less because he might do them naturally. It is common sense that if you own a pooch who is innately very attentive and won’t leave you out of his sight, and is forever soliciting for interaction, that you should emphasize “all-done” more than name attention, and a position stay more than come.
Back to the taproots and how the analogy can help with training. The poles remind you that each time you practice one of the outside behaviors, you need to return to one on the inside. If you’re thinking with me, you understand that the behavior representing the middle pole needs the most work. In other words, the longer the pole, the more repetitions, the more effort and consideration you’d give it. It could look something like: attention-come-attention-sit or down-all done-name attention-come-attention -leave it- attention-give and so on. To stay on target, make yourself a taproot graph with the seven behavior poles, and then create a separate chart with horizontal and vertical lines to checkmark each behavior as you practice it.
Once you get into the swing of things, you likely won’t need the visual reminders any longer, and you can have some real fun and take the show on the road. Practice randomly wherever you go, and your dog will be attentive and listen anytime and anywhere. If you start now and stick to it all year long, by 2013 you will have the best mannered pooch ever. You’ll be the envy of the neighborhood.
Our Will knows all the basic stuff. Congratulations if your dog does too. Then your New Year Resolution, like mine, could be to teach new tricks. Because I am not very imaginative, I ordered a trick book I am determined to tackle. Here, another fun resolution: reading more books.