Category Archives for "dog behavior"
Barking is defined as vocal communication, but that communication can have many meanings. Let’s look at some of the types of barking and what causes them. Each type may have a slightly different training plan to decrease it, so knowing your barks can be very helpful.
Alert barking is probably the most common type of barking trainers see. It’s the “Hey! Something is out there!” or “I don’t know what you are but you’re freaking me out! Go away!” It doesn’t always mean aggression, although it can certainly include that. It really is just a “there’s something in the environment,” communication. Alert barking is slightly higher pitched than an aggressive “get out of here” bark, but not quite as high as the excited or attention seeking barking.
Unfortunately, alert barking to make things go away is often unintentionally reinforced. The mailman that comes 6 days a week, gets barked at, and goes away 6 days a week. Dogs don’t know he was going away anyway, they just think that the barking made him go away. The same holds true for people and dogs and bikes going by on the sidewalk. Dog barks, the things go away, and the dog thinks it was all thanks to their nifty barking.
It can be helpful to log alert barks for a week or so to see if there’s some consistency. Did the dog bark at a sound? Or did they wait until they could actually see something to bark at? Is barking more common at a certain time of day? Or, the flip side, is there a time of day that barking is naturally decreased?
Client Story: I had a fun client with a dog that persistently barked at 3am. 3am on the nose the dog would bark and bark at apparently nothing. After keeping a log to show the consistency of it we weren’t any closer to understanding it. One night the client was unable to sleep and at 3am on the nose heard the neighbor’s pool pump kick on. The dog barked and the solution was finally found.
Attention seeking is probably the second most common type of barking trainers see. I really is the “Hey! Pay attention to me!” or “Give me! Give me! Give me!” It’s typically high pitched and the dog is staring directly at the human. The difference between exited barking and attention seeking is context. If you’re already paying attention to your dog and they are anticipating something fun happening, that’s excitement. Attention seeking happens when you aren’t paying attention to your dog or you aren’t doing something with your dog. “Play with me! It’s time to throw the ball!”
Unfortunately, attention seeking and demand barking both get unintentionally reinforced. If the human says, “Quiet” or “No bark!” the dog just got attention and the barking worked. If the barking is so persistent that the human gives in, gets the ball and goes out to play, the barking worked. It can be very difficult to ignore a persistent attention seeker. Humans have a threshold and it’s that one last bark that sends us over the edge and we give in or give attention.
Again, logging the barking can be very helpful. This type very often happens at the same time of day and increases slightly during the work week. As we get tired and start putting off walks and play, the dogs get frustrated. Logging will show where those times are happening and plans can be made to accommodate the dog’s needs or teach a different activity time.
Anything can cause anxiety, but this type of barking is frequently seen with isolation distress or separation anxiety. It isn’t high pitched and playful, and it isn’t deep and aggressive. It’s repetitive vocalizations over and over and over and is a basically plea for help.
Unfortunately, the common thought for this type of barking is to let the dog “bark it out.” This rarely works, and if the human gives in the barking is reinforced. If the human tries to let the dog bark it out and gives in after an hour, the human just taught the dog that barking for an hour gets the human to reappear. Decreasing this type of barking after a few of these lessens can be difficult and costly.
Logging anxiety barking and what you’ve tried to lesson it can be helpful. If it’s separation or isolation distress, getting neighbors to help with the log or getting a video camera in your home to watch will help create the training plan. Distress is complicated and the behavior modification really needs an educated professional to help with it.
This is the barking that stops you in your tracks. You can feel it in your chest. There is a threat to it. Whether the dog is moving foward or moving backward, this bark says “Stay away!” and “Get out of here!” This bark is deep and includes a hard, staring eye and a very stiff body.
Unfortunately, this type of barking is the most frequent type to be punished as are the earlier signs of aggression. On the surface punishment makes sense, humans feel threatened and we want it to stop. Unfortunately, the barking is not something we want to stop right away. We want the dog to stop at a growl. We want the dog to stop at a bark. If the earlier warning signs are punished in order to try to decrease them, the dog will have no option but to bite. Decreasing the vocalization is not decreasing the fear or threat response the dog is feeling. Taking away communication should never be on the table. We need to know what the dog is experiencing in order to effectively modify their behavior.
The lines between defensive aggression, guarding aggression, territorial aggression, and just aggression are subtle. If you are experiencing aggression, whether it’s resulted in a bite or not, you should not attempt to “train” or “modify” the behavior alone without an expert. Doing so could result in a bite and a loss of life, either canine or human. Aggressive barking is a threat. It’s communication that more is possible, so please back up.
Logging aggressive responses can be incredibly helpful, but should include a little more detail. Who was being barked at, what was the environment like, and what did the owner do. This log will help a behavior consultant define the triggers and create the behavior modification plan.
~ Does your dog bark? What’s the most common bark that they do? Tell us in the comments!
Your dog is behaving inappropriately. It’s embarrassing, it’s frustrating, it makes you look like a bad dog mom or dad. You just want the whirling dervish at the end of your leash to stop and behave. So, you pop and pull and yell, “No!” You are trying punishment to fix the problem.
Punishment is defined as anything that decreases a behavior. Obviously, when your dog is barking and lunging and completely out of control, the logical thing to do is to try to decrease the behavior.
Here’s the problem. All that barking and lunging is communication from your dog. What exactly are you punishing? Are you punishing the behavior or the communication?
Punishment decreases communication. Dogs have a large spectrum of body language and vocalizations to communicate with each other and with people. Humans also have a large spectrum of body language and vocalizations to communicate. Unfortunately, the two don’t always translate correctly. While dogs do “correct” other dogs, there are degrees. Some of it is just vocal, body movements, touching, or combinations of the above. Bullying behavior is not “corrective,” but oppressive. (Is your dog a bully?) The problem is that humans cannot replicate that language. We don’t have the vocal capacity or body language to do what dogs do. We just don’t.
Punishment decreases vocalization. We need dogs to communicate, and that includes some of the scary noises. We need the growl that precedes the bite, otherwise, the dog will just go directly for the bite. We need to know what the growl means and why it happened and teach the dog that growling isn’t needed. We don’t want to decrease the growl, we need to change the emotion that made the growl.
What you’re punishing isn’t always apparent. Barking and lunging isn’t always aggression. Can you tell the difference between excited barking and lunging and “I want to hurt you,” barking and lunging? It’s difficult. If you are punishing barking and lunging, are you correcting the excitement or the behavior? If the dog wants to hurt whatever they’re lunging at, is it out of fear? If so, are you correcting the fear or the lunging? Or even worse, are you adding to the fear because now the scary thing comes with punishment?
Punishment only works when the punisher is present. This means that the dog may walk wonderfully on a certain collar, but once that collar is removed the behavior returns. If good behavior is contingent on equipment, what happens when the equipment is off? Punishment doesn’t teach the dog what to do, it teaches them what not to do. Imagine your boss telling you what not to do all day and refusing to telling you what you should be doing. More than likely you’d be sitting in a chair doing nothing. As long as it’s not the wrong thing, you’re okay, right? Except it’s mind numbingly boring. Your boss goes out to lunch, what do you do? The punisher is gone, so now you get to play, relax, and maybe even get some work done.
Punishment can backfire. Grabbing a dog’s muzzle to get them to stop barking can make them afraid of hands. What happens when you need to check teeth or your dog is choking and you need to get into the mouth, but the dog is afraid? Punishment has consequences.
Punishment isn’t always effective. I see a lot of dog owners jerking the leash and yelling at their dogs and the dog is still barking and lunging. If the punishment isn’t decreasing the behavior, then it’s not a good choice. These are the situations when the dog is considered “stubborn.” The dog is not listening to the owner, so the dog is being “vindictive.” What’s really happening is the owner isn’t recognizing that the method they are using is ineffective, (and sometimes the behavior is actually getting worse.) It’s not the dog’s fault the method isn’t working. The owner needs to recognize that a different method is needed.
So, if the punishing isn’t working, now what? The opposite of punishing is reinforcing or rewarding. Rewarding good behavior that you like teaches the dog what to do. Instead of barking and lunging, you’d probably like the dog to walk nicely at your side, right? Give the dog a treat, praise, pets, or a toy when they are walking where you’d like. If they’re barking and lunging at other dogs or strangers or trash cans, increase the distance to those things until they are walking where you’d like and reward again. Make a mental note how far away you had to move to get good behavior and start moving closer in small steps. Training your dog doesn’t need to be confusing and overwhelming, a good reinforcement trainer will help.
Photo Credit: Anton Novoselov http://www.flickr.com/photos/antonnovoselov/
Television has ruined our expectations. Bad guys get caught in the 46 minutes between commercials, houses get torn down and rebuilt, animals get rescued and make a complete recovery, and dogs get amazingly “cured,” all in between selling us insurance, soda and toilet paper. If you’ve ever tried to do any of the above, you know it takes much longer. It’s not just the time to physically do the task, but there’s planning, purchasing, and clean up as well; and that’s if everything goes right! Imagine my surprise when I planned an hour to replace a broken window and wound up with 7 stitches in my thumb. Change is messy and it takes time.
When it comes to our dogs, there isn’t a magic pill to fix behavior problems. A dog trainer can’t take your dog and magically transform it into the perfect specimen of doggyness in 30 minutes, no matter what you see on TV. Part of the problem is we all had different visions of what the perfect dog is. Some people like dogs that jump because it makes them feel wanted, some like dogs that bark because it makes them feel safe, and some like dogs that just hang out and leave them alone. When someone goes to a trainer and says “I just want (fill in the blank) fixed,” that’s really not all they want, it’s just the most pressing issue in the whole owning a dog thing. There are probably more problems to be fixed, but there’s a top one that’s driving them nuts. The first expectation solution is to think big. What else do you want? After the problem is fixed, what else do you want to do with your dog?
There’s usually an underlying issue. Most dog problems are annoying symptoms of an underlying problem. Lunging and barking on leash is usually a symptom of fear or over-stimulation or aggression. Growling at people is usually fear based. Failing to learn to sit or down may actually be a medical issue. A good trainer wants to help with the real problem because once that gets better, so does everything else. Helping with the real problem may mean spending some time teaching the dog to learn to relax, or learn to trust, along with helping the human with their frustration and expectations.
Dealing with an underlying issue. As an example of dealing with an underlying issue, Olivia would attempt to bolt when she heard noises out on walks. The fear response wasn’t just to really loud noises like cars backfiring, but stepping on leaves and acorns, cars passing, and garage doors closing. This made walking frustrating with a dog pulling in all directions. Fixing the underlying issue meant giving Olivia a safe space to relax while she learned that noises aren’t so scary.
To clarify, it took months to get to the level of relaxation seen in the video. It took a solid plan, reading the dog to know when it was time to stop or take a step back or make things easier or try a new challenge, and lots and lots of patience. It also took the long view that a few months spent on dealing with the underlying issue meant a lifetime of success in other areas. Learning other skills will go faster. Trust has been built, so facing scary things together means the dog can look to the human for direction when she’s confused about what to do.
Frustration is the underlying issue. Just like on TV, most people wait until things are really bad before asking for help. We get frustrated, lose patience, and hit the point where we’ll do or try anything to get a problem fixed. Or, we’ve had some success with the problem, but it keeps coming back. Once we hit this point, we stomp and yell, jerk the leash, or decide throwing noisy things will stop the problem. Unfortunately, most of these natural frustration responses make the problems worse. If the real problem is fear, terrifying a dog into better behavior isn’t really going to work. The rational mind knows this, but the frustrated mind just needs the problem to stop. Take a breath and realize the problem probably isn’t as bad, or as often, as you imagine.
Where the real expectations should be. The real expectations shouldn’t be about how your dog behaves or how fast behavior gets better, but in the abilities of a trainer to help you. It may seem really weird to spend quite a lot of time working on relaxing on a mat, but check out Olivia’s progress above. Modern dog training works more with the underlying emotions than the visible behaviors. Along with relaxing, we also work with arousal, particularly in dog sports. It may seem weird to spend time teaching your dog to play with you, but the foundation of play will make learning sports skills go much faster.
We can all learn to relax and play. Getting past the expectation of, “My dog should know what to do and do it because I asked,” is actually the first step toward getting better behavior. At it’s core, modern dog training is about teaching both dogs and humans to play and relax, hopefully together. The ability to play is the highest sign of well-being. For the human, this requires letting go of frustrations and expectations of how our dog should be and see them for who they are. For the dog, this requires letting go of fear and uncertainty, and building trust and relaxation.
Play and relaxation are learned skills. Isn’t it time to let go of our expectations and just learn to relax and play? How do you relax and/ or play with your dog?
This week I started with a new client who has a goal to do Therapy Dog work with her young dog. She’d like to train a lot of calm behaviors so the dog can go into hospitals and schools and not knock things over, which is a wonderful goal! Unfortunately, she’s been berated by a few friends for training her dog. Her friends think “dogs should be dogs,” and to train them turns them into “robots” who just live to do the bidding of their owners. It took me a few days to really ponder this line of thinking. This is by no means a full list of my thoughts, but is a starting point for discussion. How much is too much training, and is there such a thing?
A lot of natural doggy behavior doesn’t mesh with our current modes of living. When dogs first started hanging out with humans there were camp fires and bows and arrows and hunting and things. Dogs now live in our homes, sometimes being left alone for hours at a time, and there is very little hunting or scavenging involved in their daily activities. In fact, hunting and scavenging, such as counter surfing, getting in the trash, and stealing food, is one of the things humans usually like to curb. Are we to allow dogs to just help themselves to any food? What if the food may harm them? Most of us would agree that having good household manners is an area that should be trained for the health and safety of both dogs and humans. If nothing else, at least potty training solves a very big health hazard.
Consistent rules lessens stress. This goes for both ends of the leash. Humans need to learn about being consistent with their dogs, and dogs need to learn to have a certain amount of conditional freedom. Having to endure inconsistent rules is frustrating and stressful. Imagine traffic laws changed every day. On Tuesdays green means go, but on Wednesdays yellow means go. Stop signs are applicable on weekends, and left hand turn lanes are only legal on weekdays. Head lights are required on Mondays and Fridays all day, and blinker signals are illegal on the freeway. I guarantee you, road rage would skyrocket. Teaching dogs that following the rules leads to fun rewards is one thing, but being consistent about the rules is another. Can they bark at the mailman without getting yelled at on weekdays when you’re not home, but get yelled at and “corrected” on weekends when you are home? What do dogs learn from that kind of inconsistency? Their human being home means they get in trouble. No wonder some dogs go a little bonkers.
Well trained dogs get to go places. Like my new client whose dog loves meeting people, her trained dog will get to go to hospitals and schools and meet adults and kids and get pets and treats and attention for something she likes to do already. My dogs have been on a wine tasting tour in Paso Robles, camped at the Grand Canyon, toured Monument Valley on the tram, run around on a beach, and gone boating in Colorado, as well as going to street fairs, local parks and just walking down the street. Rude dogs stay home. How much training is needed to go galavanting around the country? Dogs need to be calm, walk nicely, be able to sit and stay, not chew on things like hotel room linens, be able ignore things that look like fun like dead squirrels, not bark at weird sounds in campgrounds, and settle nicely in the bottom of a moving boat.
That’s hardly a “robot” dog scenario.
People’s previous experience with trained dogs includes dogs trained with a lot of “corrections.” I can totally understand a distaste for trained dogs when what you see is a human forcing, yanking, popping, and yelling at a dog for failing to comply. That kind of training is still around, but scientific studies have proven it’s not effective, adds stress, and can lead to a “shut down” dog, (a dog that stays still because they’re afraid to move in case they’re “corrected.”) Positive training integrates play, rewards highly for dogs choosing the correct behavior, gives dogs control over their environment, and creates a communication of give and take between dog and human. “If you are calm, we will go play,” means the human gets what they want, (calm,) and the dog gets what they want, (play,) so it’s a win-win. A human-dog team working and communicating well to get through life peacefully and with fun is a beautiful thing to see.
What about Competitive Obedience, Agility, Schutzhund and other dog sports? Competition can be fun for both the dog and the human. If nothing else, deciding to compete with dogs creates a clear list of defined training goals. Instead of being stuck at “sit” and “stay,” there is jumping, retrieving, and scent discrimination along with the fancy heeling. Using competition as a reason to train gives the human a road map for building better skills, creating more complex skills, and working with distractions, all of which are good things. That said, if a dog really dislikes one sport, instead of trying to force the issue, it would be better to move to another. Due to the intensity of competitive training, sports dogs tend to get more down time. Remembering a lot of different cues and their associated behaviors is hard work, so dogs relax more and usually don’t have the energy to be reactive to novel environmental movements and sounds.
In the end, it really bothers me that people would berate responsible dog owners for training their dogs. The number one killer of dogs in the United States is having a behavior problem. That’s right, 96% of dogs in shelters haven’t had any training, and of those, 40% have at least one “perceived” behavior problem. With an estimated euthanasia rate of 3.7 million dogs annually, that’s about 1.5 million dogs dying every year due to behavioral issues. While the question at the head is, “Is it unfair to train your dog,” isn’t the real question, “Is it fair not to train your dog?”
Do dogs need free reign to be dogs? I look forward to your thoughts and comments.