Dog barking is often out of anxiety or fear

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 3/23/14
By: Gail T. Fisher

Chinooks are “talkers”—or at least Larry is. I didn’t know this before adopting our almost nine-month-old adolescent. I had never noticed vocalizing in the Chinooks I had met before getting him, but Larry certainly has a lot to say. Some of his “comments” make me laugh, especially when he suddenly developed a surprisingly deep voice. We discovered this one day when he told me off for taking too long fixing his breakfast. “Who was that!?!” asked the man of the house. “That was Larry!” I laughingly replied.

Some of the sounds that emanate from Larry’s vocal chords are extremely expressive and funny. Others are annoying, like when he whimpers in the car, apparently letting me know we haven’t arrived soon enough. Larry doesn’t bark at other dogs, even when the neighbor’s beagle has escaped and is barking through our fence. Even when Larry’s “brother” Kochi barks back at the beagle, or barks hysterically at a squirrel, Larry simply watches with interest—one of the rare times that Larry’s behavior is calmer than Kochi’s.

Barking is not an issue I need to deal with, but many dog owners do. I got this email from a reader: I stopped attending obedience class with my Dachshund because he was barking and the classmates were distracted with this annoying barking. I have two Labrador retrievers and a golden retriever. Obedience training was good with the others, and my Dachshund’s bark is louder than either of them. I have even tried a bark collar. Any suggestions?

It’s not unusual for a dog to bark when he first comes to obedience classes. The dog is in an unfamiliar environment with many unfamiliar dogs and people. Dogs may bark out of nervousness or anxiety, lack of socialization, fear and more. In a class situation, it’s the Instructor’s responsibility to help the owner deal with and train her dog. It doesn’t seem that the reader had such help in the class she attended, and she needed it. Beginner students don’t know how to deal with barking, and feel both helpless and embarrassed—both of which feelings interfere with their ability to learn.

When a dog is barking in one of our classes, we step in to help. It is more than annoying when a student’s dog is barking. No one can hear the Instructor. Further, the barking dog’s owner’s distress and embarrassment—as expressed in the reader’s email—is not conducive to learning. So we have a Class Assistant briefly handle the barking dog, relieving the owner of responsibility so she and the rest of the class can focus on what the Instructor is saying.

The Assistant will begin training an “incompatible behavior”—a behavior that, when the dog is performing it, he cannot be performing the undesirable behavior. What’s incompatible with barking? Being quiet. If the dog is quiet, he is not barking. So while the owner is listening to the Instructor, the Assistant rewards the dog for not barking, reinforcing quiet.

If this isn’t enough to calm the dog, and help the owner learn how to deal with the dog’s behavior, we will recommend that the student have a few lessons with one of our private trainers to properly acclimate and desensitize the dog to the environment that is causing him to bark uncontrollably. Our ultimate goal is that the student and dog can return to class to successfully compete their training.

Barking often fear-based, and is the dog’s attempt to increase the distance between himself and the other dogs. When the barking dog is pulled away, or other owners move their dog away, this increased distance reinforces his barking. It’s far better to train the incompatible behavior of quiet, and at the same time, desensitize the dog to whatever is causing his distress so that he will learn to be both comfortable, and quiet. This may take working privately with a trainer rather than in a class environment, but ultimately results in a dog that is comfortable and responsive around other dogs.

Finally, I don’t recommend using a bark collar—one that emits a shock when the dog barks. We wouldn’t punish a child who’s afraid of the dark by turning off all the lights. Rather, we teach the child that there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s the same with a dog that is barking out of nervousness, anxiety or fear. Teach the dog that there is nothing to be frightened of, and that being quiet is a good thing.

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