Ok, I admit it: we have not just one, but two, and now three barkers in our house! Why, oh, why? It is sooo frustrating. So, I’m going to share with you my journey to fix this problem, because even though we love all three our dogs, the barking drives us to distraction. I’m only partway through our fix-it journey, so will update my blogs in the future to let you all know the progress we are making. At least there are some signs of progress, so not all is lost. I’ll tell you about one dog at a time, starting with Kira.
Kira is my oldest. Nearly three years of age. She is also my smallest at 21 pounds, and my most vocal baby. She has barked since she was a puppy. At first, she only barked when I was in a different room in the house, but never when I left the house altogether. So, a sort-of in-home separation distress. Her bark is more like a shriek! She would be upset when I left her downstairs whilst I went upstairs, or if I left her in the kitchen whilst I was in the den. I remember very well when my friend Stephanie Kowalewski of Heavenly Hounds Dog Training came to my house for a private coaching session when Kira was about 5 months old. She heard the decibels coming from Kira’s throat and warned me that if I continued to reinforce the barking by returning to Kira, that Kira would never learn to stop the barking behavior. After all, Kira was getting exactly what she wanted: me. Fortunately, Kira only barked at home, and only on those rare occasions when we weren’t in the same room. Over time, she did learn that it was okay if I left the room without her, and her barking episodes lessened in frequency if not in pitch.
Then she and I started agility training classes – in a big horse barn with lots of interesting horsey smells, pigeon poop, dogs and action. And barking became problematic: whilst we would wait our turn standing at one end of the barn, we would either be playing tug together, doing tricks together, or I would stand quietly watching the current dog go through his training exercise. Watching somebody else was not on; Kira demanded my attention. She learnt to emit one single, piercing bark, her pitch so high that she could shatter glass a mile away. She got me every single time, my startle reflex at those high decibels was overwhelming. The advice: ignore her. After all, I was standing right next to her, she was simply demanding my focus on her at all times, and I shouldn’t allow that. Yeah, right! I was in no way able to stop my startle reflex, even though I knew the bark would come, would prepare for the noise, watch her out of the corner of my eye, anything at all to prepare myself to not get startled. Kira one, me zero. Kira reinforced for barking, me irritated with myself for getting startled. How was I going to stop this behavior? As my stress levels went up, so did Kira’s. It was easy enough to teach her a “quiet, shhhh” cue and a “whadd’ya say?” cue, and I used these frequently. She started ground sniffing in the barn, even in the middle of her runs. Eventually we stopped going to agility.
Of course, now I know that I’d effectively taught Kira a behavior chain. Whether we started with “quiet, shhhh” – “whadd’ya say? – “quiet”, or started the other way around “whadd’ya say?” then “quiet”, Kira found the subsequent cues reinforcing the first cue. Yes, of course I built duration for the “quiet” cue, but that just meant that she had bigger control over my startle reflex because she was able to wait me out. The shriek always came, and was always reinforcing.
We’d also started rally classes by then, a sport that I found suited me much better than agility because the levels of arousal (both mine and Kira’s) were much lower. And through which Kira and I have learnt to bond much more closely. But I was having similar barking problems when it wasn’t our turn. I worked hard at the “quiet” cue, and would keep as much focus as possible on Kira. I also had to learn to not allow my own stress levels to rise. The more stressed I was, the poorer my handling of Kira would be, and the more stressed she became. But, we have persisted, thanks to a very patient rally instructor, Valerie Casperite, and some amazing classmates, who have accepted our noise levels with equanimity. Thanks guys, I owe you sooo much.
Don’t get me wrong. Kira and I have a very close relationship. She was my KPA partner dog-in-training, and we’ve explored our relationship at all levels. I love this pretty little girl to bits, and I know that she loves me. We have been training together since she was a puppy and have done (and repeated) basic through advanced manners classes, tricks classes, agility, rally, doga, and, of course, the KPA Professional Dog Training Course.
Of course I have wondered why she does this? What is she trying to tell me? Is she insecure or does she really just get a kick out of watching me jump out of my skin? My thoughts on that are ongoing…
And then it also hit me, a week ago. I may have taught Kira a “quiet” and a “whadd’ya say?” cue, but I’ve never properly put them under stimulus control. What is stimulus control, you may ask?
Karen Pryor, in her book “Don’t shoot the dog” states that four conditions must be met in order to have stimulus control:
- The behavior must occur immediately on cue.
- The behavior must not occur when not cued (at least not within a training session).
- The behavior must not occur in response to some other cue.
- No other behavior should occur in response to this cue.
So I now know what my training plans must achieve: I need to break the behavior chain, and I need to bring the two cues of “quiet” and “whadd’ya say?” under stimulus control. And I also need to figure out the underlying cause of her insecurity (at least, that’s what I’m assuming this is).
I’ll let you know how we get on. This is no doubt a long-term project.