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…