By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP
In Partnership With Dogs
At the end of March, my husband and I adopted a new dog into our family. We weren’t looking for a dog, but an opportunity came up and we decided that it was good timing for us. I always hope that people will choose to adopt a local dog from a rescue group or shelter – there are just depressingly large numbers of dogs needing homes in our own communities. As a dog trainer, I feel that it’s particularly important that I choose to adopt and use my expertise to give a “do-over dog” another chance.
Whenever I get a new dog, I’m reminded of the poem “I Adopted Your Dog Today”* that has always struck a chord with me. There are just so many fantastic dogs waiting in shelters that have been abandoned by their original owners. People who never saw or cared about their potential and for some reason didn’t take seriously the responsibility of taking another living being into their lives.
We’ve always had our lives enriched by the animals we’ve adopted. I thought I would share our training journey over a series of articles as we take on the challenge of training and living with “Quincy”.
Quincy is a 10-month old female adolescent dog who was originally dumped at a vet’s office, critically ill, at approximately 6 months of age. She was fortunate to end up in rescue and in the care of an experienced and caring foster home who, along with the vet clinic, nursed her back to health and gave her some much-needed early socialization and training. Remarkably, despite her early dire straits, she is a sweet tempered, curious little dog with a fun sense of humour. More remarkably still, she is quite respectful of our older dog, gentle yet playful with our 3 cats and and even playful with the crows who land in our yard.
Due to her lack of early positive experiences, Quincy has many things she is afraid of: new people, strange noises, “invisible” dogs barking, door knocks, squirrels, animals she sees on TV, sirens, humans sneezing (loudly), children playing, car doors slamming – and I’m sure we will discover others. Because Quincy’s behavior of choice is barking hysterically, this is something we need to address as our first challenge. By the end of her first week with us, Quincy was already anticipating that there would be something to bark at outside and she would start barking as soon as the door opened – even if there was nothing there. We needed to get working on this right away!
The easiest way for us to start is to choose items that we can most easily control and manage. When modifying behavior, you can be most successful if you can control the threshold of what your dog is afraid of. For example, in order to work on invisible dogs barking, I am going to record the sound of a dog barking on my phone and then work on it by playing the recording back at a low enough level that Quincy is aware of it and visibly alerts to it, but doesn’t yet feel the need to bark. Even the sound of her own recorded barking causes Quincy to bark!
Management comes into play when I’m not actively working on her issues. In this case, I want to ensure that she isn’t barking hysterically at invisible dogs (or other random noises) when we aren’t home. So, when we leave the house, Quincy is in her crate with a stuffed kong and I leave the bathroom and kitchen fans on as well as a radio talk show playing to muffle outside sounds and prevent any accidental reinforcement for barking.
There are two goals I have in mind. One is to change her emotional response (concern or fear) to the sound of dogs barking (and all of her other fears) – “It’s no big deal, never mind”. The second goal is to teach her a cue to be “Quiet” when asked.
Fear – Sight, Sound or Smell of Something:
One of the most useful tools I have found is the “Look At That” game developed by Leslie McDevitt who wrote the “Control Unleashed” books and DVDs. It’s perfect for anything your dog is afraid of or overly reactive to – sights, sounds or even smells (I’ve even used it with reactivity to skunk odors). As soon as your dog alerts to the object of his fear (or reactivity), Click or Mark and treat. Ideally, the “game” is played under threshold – when your dog notices but isn’t yet over-reacting to the trigger. That’s why I’m using a recording – I can control the level of sound and work up to the “real-life” level of the sound of invisible dogs in our neighborhood. I have used this technique in many, many client situations (as well as my own) and it has worked reliably every single time.
The sequence goes like this:
- Play the sound of a dog barking at a low level.
- Quincy turns toward the sound (or pricks an ear or purses a lip as a pre-cursor to growling/barking).
- Immediately Click, Treat.
- Repeat at the speed the dog is playing (alerting to the “thing”) – this might involve some very fast Clicking/Treating.
Ultimately, Quincy will hear a bark and immediately turn to me for her treat before I even have a chance to Click for alerting to the sound (“did you see that I noticed that?”); or she may just ignore it altogether. The association of invisible dog barking will have now changed from a “scary thing” to “a way to get treats” and/or “no big deal”. Either outcome involves no barking!
Once she is feeling less worried about things, I also want a way to silence her barking when she starts. I don’t mind her barking when someone knocks at the door but I would like her to stop when I ask. It’s easiest to teach this skill – “Quiet” – when she is already pre-disposed to bark. Once her intensity of barking at invisible dogs decreases a bit, I will vary our training sessions with “Quiet” training.
- Barking starts.
- Cue “Quiet”, offer a very high value treat, “Good Girl” while she chews quietly.
- Repeat as soon as barking starts again.
- It’s that simple – as long as she is under threshold enough to be able to stop barking and eat her treat, this should work.
Very soon, I should notice Quincy turn to me anticipating her treat when I cue “Quiet”. Again, the threshold of the trigger is important – your dog needs to be interested in eating and able and willing to stop the behavior in order to eat. Believe it or not, some dogs can bark (sort of) and eat at the same time!
An important point is that the emotional response surrounding fear-based behaviours should only be successfully solved with positive methods. Any attempt to “punish” barking will ultimately be unsuccessful and result in worse problems in some way. Positive works – every time!
Follow In Partnership With Dogs on Facebook for more reports and photos on Quincy as we progress in our training! Stay tuned for more training reports . . .