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Blogs About Dogs

Get Between The Barking Dog and The Moose

If you don’t like barking it is probably best not to have four dogs. My dogs are from a couple of vocal breeds: two shelties and two German Spitz. A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about their explosive bursts of barking, their frantic response to the doorbell and the possibility that they are barking a perfectly normal amount of time and that the real problem is me. I may have unrealistic expectations of this troop of benevolent noise-makers.

I study pet behaviour but I make a living as a writer. I write mornings in a quiet kitchen, the only noises being the hum of the fridge or the slow, hypnotic rhythm of the washing machine. The dogs lie in great clumps of fur at my feet, resting.

Everything is still and peaceful as I tap the keyboard until—oh heavens!— a car outside crunches over the pebbled driveway. Suddenly, an explosive bark from Winston and a shuddering stream of yaps from Tessa (who looks genuinely distressed). George thinks he might bark once and then go to sleep again. Pookey, aged thirteen and a half, throws in a couple barks to make sure we know she is still alive.

I say, “Shh” and they go silent. This looks so impressive—instant silence at a command. Except it isn’t clever at all. The same repeated blast of barking can occur four times an hour or more. The dog that always parks herself by the front door is probably anticipating the postman. Should I make sure they are never home when the postman arrives? Is that even possible? Turid Rugaas, an internationally renowned dog trainer and behaviourist, has a short book on barking in which she advises me to keep a record of my dogs barking. I’ve made a few casual notes since keeping this record and think it is correct to say the following:

  • Two of my dogs almost never bark outside the home.
  • One of my dogs will bark in excitement outside the home if we are playing.
  • One of my dogs barks in the car, though she can trigger the others to bark for a second before giving up.
  • My dogs bark far more often in the mornings than in the afternoons. They do not bark at night.
  • I can control their barking very easily if I am paying attention. For example, on Halloween night, groups of trick-or-treaters rang the doorbell, received sweets and left without hearing a dog bark even once. Why? Because my son gave them the sweets while I gave my dogs their own sweets.


Turid categorises barking into six types:

• excitement barking
• warning barking
• fear barking
• guarding barking
• frustration barking
• learned barking


I’ll return to this list in a future blog, but for now I want to look at excitement and guarding as an explanation for my dogs’ noise levels.

It is possible my dogs feel stress and therefore are barking in excitement. Admittedly, there isn’t much to stress about in my home. The dogs get walked at least an hour a day off the property and a can follow me down to the barn and fields anytime they wish. They have free access to the house, a great deal of attention from me, plenty of chews and play time—it appears to be a great life.

But maybe they’d tell a doggy shrink a different story. Maybe they are secretly stressed little dogs who need a way of calming down.

I seriously doubted they were stressed, but I increased their “hedonic budget”, a term used at COAPE to mean all the stuff dogs love to do: run, dig, chase, explore, play, eat. I also bought a thing called Adaptil, a device that plugs into the wall and emits comforting dog pheromones into the air. It’s a synthetic version of the smell of their puppyhood when they cozied up to their mother and felt safe. Would these measures make a difference?

Not. One. Bit.

Time to examine whether I am actually rewarding my dogs for barking—not that barking isn’t fun on its own. Barking can be a self-rewarding behaviour, a little like sniffing for rabbits. Even when no rabbit is caught, dogs feel good looking for one.

Turid makes the very good point that talking to, looking at, or touching the dog when it is barking can cause an increase in barking behaviour. I think I may be guilty on that score. When I say “shh”, they go quiet. But the point is, first I said shh.

Would ignoring the barking altogether be better?

Perhaps. But sometimes my dogs give a “warning bark” in which ignoring is the last thing I should do, according to Turid. The warning bark is a short sharp bark. My ten-year old sheltie is usually the one who give this singular, very loud bark. The book recommends that in these cases I stand up casually, get myself between the barking dog and the scary object (usually at the front door or windows), and give a casual hand signal to indicate that I’m dealing with the situation so there is no need to continue barking.

I got this, I say in body language. No need for you to defend us.

Turid lives in Norway and she tells a wonderful story about her own dogs troublesome barking.

Some time ago, her forest home was being visited nightly by a neighbouring moose. Several times a night she was woken by her dogs issuing warning barks as the moose got closer. Finally, she decided to get up and show them she was dealing with the problem. She stood in front of the dogs, facing the place they were indicating was a moose, and gave a casual hand signal to show she was aware of the situation.


She did this for three nights and they stopped barking at the moose. Peace was restored, though her apple tree suffered accordingly. The moose had denuded it of its fruit. The dogs must have come to the conclusion that their eccentric owner did not mind such thievery.

A moose sounds so much more fun than the mundane outdoor sounds that trigger my dogs. It doesn’t make such a great story to say I got up three times a morning to put myself between my dogs and an out-of-sight car door slamming, but let’s hope the technique works anyway.

Meanwhile, back to my barking chart…


Blogs About Dogs

Dog Food Fights


Dog food is a highly-charged topic among dog owners. Dog food is downright political. You get factions; you get tribes. There are those who only feed their dog a single, carefully selected brand of dry dog food (or “kibble” as it is known here in England) because their vets have told them that dogs have to eat the same food every day.


If you tell these owners they do not have to feed their dogs the very same thing everyday, they insist that the delicate canine intestine becomes inflamed by even small changes in diet. And guess what? These dog owners really do experience this problem. After years of only eating Iams or Simply or Wagg, any alternative to the same kibble, day and night, night and day, makes their dogs sick.


You get those who buy the cheapest dog food at the grocery store.  If you tell these owners that the food was made from condemned meat or that the fat is rancid or that the “poultry meal” was made by putting cage-born baby chicks through a giant shredder, they shrug their shoulders. “He likes it,” they say. “Look how fat he is.”


Then there are the people who cook for their dogs. I had a friend who made rice with peas, carrots and strips of chicken breast for her three dogs, keeping the food in Tuperware in the freezer, then microwaving it to a nice warm temperature at mealtimes.  This wasn’t such a bad idea—homemade meals are as good for dogs as they are for the rest of us—but the meals were nutritionally unbalanced and I am not sure she even added a vitamin pill to make up for it. But guess what? Her dogs lived.


There are people who feed table scraps, believing rightly that dogs evolved as scavengers. There are people who feed their dog Royal Canin because their vets stock it. There are people who insanely feed their dogs rancid meat, because they have some stupid notion that dogs were meant to eat rancid meat, that they evolved eating rotten food from dumps (not necessarily untrue) and should be fed rotten food now. These people are deluded, but they exist among the rest of us in the dog food debate, so I may as well mention them.


And then there are the whack-Os like me who feed their dogs raw food. We have this idea that dogs should eat raw meat along with a small portion of raw or steamed (and pureed) vegetables and fruit for roughage, and bones. There is a lot of science to why raw meat is good for dogs, how it prolongs their lives and how the bones, if fed carefully, prevent the canine dental decay seen in most dogs by the time they are only five years old. But with some cooked food, like Forthglade, being cooked at low temperatures that retain the goodness, the best cooked foods are giving raw a run for their money.


We take this raw food thing very seriously. Some order “complete” raw food from commercial estalishments like Nature’s Menu. Others buy straight minced chicken or beef or lamb or the smelliest and most disgusting meat in the world called “tripe” which is intestines. Some even insist on throwing their dogs whole prey. That is, they chuck a raw chicken or rabbit, even with fur attached, to their dog and let it rip the carcass to pieces.


I don’t do that.


But I don’t participate in the long, heated fights among the raw-fooders about “whole prey” vs. “Raw and Meaty bones” vs. commercial raw complete diets. That isn’t to say I don’t have opinions about these matters, just that I don’t like to fight with dog owners. After all, in Thailand there is a dog eating festival—that is, dogs themselves are on the menu—so if I am worried about the health of dogs, it would be more useful to focus my efforts there.


I think people can’t stand the idea they haven’t done the right thing for their dog 100% of the time. They’d rather you said they neglected their children’s diets than failed on that of their dogs. If you tell someone that Asda Dog Food isn’t good for their dogs, they tell you the dog is perfectly fine on the Asda food. And maybe it is.


It’s tough here among the raw dog food nutcases. We fight among ourselves in our strange little enclave that no one cares about, not even the dogs, who will apparently eat anything. Even shoes. We worry about the sizes of bones, the fat and marrow content, the threat of pancreatitis. We talk about whether there is a salmonella risk in our dog’s food (there is, which is why I don’t feed raw poultry) that may not hurt our dogs but will definitely hurt us. We talk about pH of dog saliva and the emptying of anal glands and the acid of dogs’ stomachs…yes we do all that.


I will write more about this, though few people want to know about the raw meat I feed my pets. The weird thing isn’t that I feed them raw meat; it’s that I am a vegan and feed them raw meat. I am a person who asks for the vegan menu at a Thai restaurant, then comes home and feeds her dogs raw beef. I don’t take milk in my coffee but I admire the dehydrated pigs’ lungs my friend made for her dogs with her new food dehydrator. I won’t eat an egg, but I will happily give some pressure-cooked chicken bones to my dogs. They crumble so nicely into the minced lamb.


Yes, I see the cognitive dissonance. I’m a case study in that. Yes, I know that handling raw meat is vile. But my dogs need it…I think they need it.  It’s disgusting. I’m not proud. But the dogs…I got to say…the dogs look fantastic. You should to see the 13 year old’s clean, white, perfect teeth. You should see my friend’s 15-year old, strutting her stuff in the woods.


And the dogs don’t fight—not about food anyway. It’s just us, the owners.


Blogs About Dogs

Good Writing Companions



I am in my office, a rectangle with room only for a desk and some books shelves. A big window overlooks the front garden where messy bushes lead to a tall, blue fir. The office is cluttered with books and boxes of equipment, stacks of paper, a saddle I need to sell. There is a card someone sent me for my birthday last year, too pretty to throw away, my daughts paintings and the glazed tile my son painted in primary school, a mother bird with her chicks beneath a rainbow.


The floor is alive with dogs–at my feet, curled around my chair. They sleep as I type. While I prepare a class for next week they wait and snooze, their paws twitching in their dreams as though they are running. It occurs to me all my life what I’ve really wanted was this: to sit in a in a room not unlike this one, surrounded by books and dogs.


My parents loved dogs and we always had three or four in the house. I grew up with legends about our dogs: the Great Pyrenes who followed my wandering baby brother down the road and protected him from anyone who tried to approach, the fabled labrador who it was said saved my father from drowning as a child, the ugliest puppy in the world taken off the street by my father who was known for saving strays, perhaps because once long ago a dog saved him.IMG_1410


Arriving at an art gallery, I was the child who searched for the King Charles Spaniel at a regent’s feet, or for a Pekinese hidden in the the sleeve of a member of the Chinese Imperial Court. I don’t remember a face, much less a name, but I always remember a dog. I will say to my husband, “You know those people with the Newfoundland?” Or, “you know that lady in your office who brings the Dachshund with her to work…?”


I’m wondering if the real reason I became a writer was so that I could be alone, but not really alone, because I don’t particularly like solitude. I read a biographer’s summary of  another’s life, observe through the poet’s eye, follow the story of another fiction writer, all while not having to actually be with people, at least those outside my family, very often.


It isn’t as though I don’t like people–I do. Meeting me, you’d never know what an introvert I am. I’m funny and quick and deeply interested in everything around me.  But I’m fueled with adrenaline, hyped up on nerves. I dread parties and book launches and anything that involves standing in a room full of people with a drink. Afterwards, I recount all the stupid things I said, the names I forgot, the awkwardness of it all. I really wish I could take Rohypnol after parties, especially publishing parties, so I could forget what happened.


I just adopted two beautiful sheltie dogs. Some people worry greatly over a new pet joining the household, but I take this in my stride, with little concern.  The shelties came to me under sad circumstances but have been received into my home with such joy. My children adore them; my husband is surprised by their soft nature. My resident dogs don’t seem to mind. I love seeing four dog beds spread over the kitchen and hallway, four bowls sitting on the draining board, four leashes by the door. If I am not with them, I am thinking of them: my new pack.


I punctuate my day with the chores we (that is, my dogs and me) do together. There is “the presentation of the morning,” when I open the door and they bound outside to the garden. There is the eagerly awaited breakfast which they eat with such gratitude.  There is the daily bundling into the car to take my son to school, then off onto heathland for a good run among the gorse and pathways. There is the grooming and dinner and treats and chew toys.



Anyway, I’ve deterimined that dogs improve my writing. Writing is about habit. You make it your habit to sit down each day. You make it your habit to dream about the work when you are not actually at your desk. And it is about discipline. The single best tip you can give a budding writer is this: SIT IN THE CHAIR.


And If every time you got up from your desk four dogs got up with you, you’d soon learn to stay seated—which often means stay writing.