Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Barking Dog

Star is ready to hunt.

We currently have seven dogs: Yellow Boy, Daisy, Sarah, Star, Salt, Pepper & Shakers. Yep, seven. Some of them bark more than others. In fact, if we lived in the city, I'm pretty sure some people would find the barking level to be obnoxious at times.

We didn't want our dogs just barking all the time for no apparent reason. We had a challenge with Star because she was from a breeding operation where she was not really socialized. period. When we first got her, she was people shy, terribly aggressive toward other dogs and quite the barker.

She barked if you looked in her direction. She barked when you came out of the house. She barked when someone came up the driveway. She barked at new people, same old people, other dogs, other animals, and at things we didn't see. And sometimes she just barked. As I write this down, I realize that we assumed she was barking for a reason, not just barking. We just didn't always know what the reason was and sometimes she really didn't need to bark. We figured she was not properly socialized.

Once she became pregnant with her first litter, she had less energy for defense. She even let us pet her and rub her belly. And she didn't bark quite as much. We slowly realized that her barking was defensive. She had six puppies in that first litter and we certainly didn't want them to pick up Star's bad barking habits. We began to browse books stores, book racks, the library and to search the Internet for tips on breaking the barking habit. We even watched an Oprah episode on training dogs to behave.

Here is what we came away with. When your dog starts to bark you have about 30 seconds to correct her/him. Go to the dog and tell it No in a firm voice. When she/he stops barking, reward the dog with some loving attention and praise. The trick is to not yell No or say so often that you are "barking."

When we started going out to Star to tell her to stop barking, she would almost immediately calm down and at least look at us. That is all without us saying anything like No. Sometimes we would say, "What is it? Show me." The point is, she immediately relaxed when one of us came to her while she was barking. We also discovered that she barked a whole lot more when she was on a run or loose on the porch than if she were confined to a pen with a doghouse.

It was clear she felt threatened and that she needed to defend her/our territory. On the porch her territory became anything she could see, smell or hear. On a run, her territory was somewhat smaller and there was still a lot of nighttime barking. My husband took her squirrel hunting a few times and determined that she responded more to visual stimuli than scent or sound. It made sense that she barked more at night. She was less likely to clearly see what she smelt or heard.

By changing her territory to something that was more secure and probably more familiar, we enabled Star to feel less threatened by her environemnt. She also had less territory to defend and thus less reason to bark. By establishing a pattern of responding to her barks, we trained her to bark when she saw something out of the ordinary, not all the time.

It seems counter-intuitive to go to your dog when they start barking. But by saying no and responding to the barking, you establish that barking has a purpose and when it should be used. It does take time and patience, but even an improperly trained dog, like Star, can learn new tricks.
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