You’ve no doubt seen Victoria Stilwell in action on It’s Me or the Dog, where, using positive reinforcement, she shows wayward pups and their sometimes equally wayward guardians how to get along. Now, Victoria joins our roster of training experts in offering sound and practical advice on a variety of, shall we say, behavior faux pas. Please join us in welcoming Victoria to The Bark.
Q: My dog’s barking is driving me (and my neighbors) crazy. He’s a healthy, two-year-old Sheltie mix, and I’ve been told that it’s impossible to train him not to bark—that I should have him surgically debarked, something I find completely appalling. Please tell me there’s a way to teach my dog to control his noisy self.
A: Dogs who bark excessively can cause big problems for owners, but even though it may seem completely out of control, this behavior can be modified to a bearable level. Sometimes barking dogs can cause such distress that people resort to having the dog’s vocal chords surgically removed, but I’m glad that you find that idea appalling, because most trainers and veterinarians would advise against taking such a drastic measure. Debarking can cause immense anxiety, as it takes away an important part of the dog’s ability to communicate. I do recommend, however, that you take your dog to the veterinarian for a thorough medical check up, since any extreme behavior can be exacerbated by a medical condition.
Shelties are working dogs and are known to be vocal. These days, most dogs who were once bred to do a certain job find domestic life boring, and barking relieves that boredom. If this is the case, increased exercise and mental stimulation will refocus your dog’s mind onto something more positive and help tire him out.
Dogs bark for many reasons—to get attention, as a warning, in response to other barking dogs, out of anxiety or when excited—and it is important to identify the triggers before training.
If your Sheltie barks to get attention, don’t reward his demands. Telling your dog off is inadvertently rewarding him for barking even if the communication is negative. In this case, it is best to ignore the barking, wait for five seconds of quiet and then reward him with attention. This way, the dog learns that he gets nothing from you when he barks but gets everything when he’s quiet.
A dog who barks when excited (i.e., before going for a walk or being fed) is harder to work with because an owner’s pre-departure or pre-food cues are usually highly ritualized. Again, do not reward your dog with the things he wants until he is calm. For example, if the barking happens as soon as you go for the leash, drop the leash and sit down. Keep repeating this until your dog is quiet. If you successfully attach the leash but he barks as soon as he gets outside, immediately go back inside. This technique requires patience, but if you are diligent, your dog will quickly learn that quiet equals a walk.& Dogs who suffer anxiety when left alone will often bark a lot during the first 30 minutes after departure, while others continue until their person comes home. If this is the case, you must get a trainer in to help, as separation anxiety can be a very difficult behavior to modify.
Shelties tend to be particularly sound-sensitive, responding to noises that the human ear cannot hear. Also, because they were bred for herding, some Shelties have a high chase and/or prey drive and are easily stimulated by fast-moving objects such as squirrels or birds. If your dog barks excitedly in the back yard, for example, immediately take him back into the house and only allow him out again when he is quiet. Keep repeating if necessary and never leave him in the back yard unattended. If your Sheltie reacts and barks at other dogs or people in or outside of the home, it might be because he hasn’t received adequate socialization and feels uncomfortable. In this case, he needs to go on a desensitization program so he can gain the confidence he needs to cope in a social situation.
As you can see, there are many reasons why dogs bark, but please don’t listen to those who say that extreme barking can’t be modified, because there are lots of ways to reduce what is a very normal but sometimes annoying behavior.
This article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 58, 2010