I don’t want to alarm you, but your dog is literally watching your every move, and is busy learning something every waking moment of his day. Dogs are extremely perceptive and masters at figuring out our patterns, since we humans are predictable … very predictable.
For example, your dog has learned that each time the doorbell rings, you will get up, open the door and greet someone on the other side. This is an exciting event for the dog, so naturally he’s up and barking every time he hears the doorbell. He’s also figured out that when you get out his leash and collar, it’s indicative of you going on a walk together, so the mere presence or sound of the leash and collar causes him to be excited.
My own dogs are no different. When I put on my work shoes, none of the dogs bother to get up or get excited. But when my ‘yard’ shoes go on, everybody is up and ready to join me out in the garden. When I move the food bowls, even the tiniest of metal clinks are an indicator that breakfast or dinner is on its way, so everybody gets up. But clink any other plates or dishes around, and everybody remains comatose on their individual beds.
I’ve recently seen a new pattern emerge, and I don’t like it, so I’ve begun to address it. My next-door neighbor and I share a passion for yard work, and very often when we see one another, we will exchange greetings, and sometimes stop what we’re doing to have a little conversation. Currently, it goes like this: My neighbor waves and says hello, and I respond with “Hi John, how are ya?” I think he replies, but I don’t know for sure, because my greeting him causes my dogs to jump up from their slumber to bark their heads off.
So instead of enjoying a little chat with the neighbor, I instead must shush my dogs, which takes a few minutes, and has no long-term effect, since it happens again the next time. I find this frustrating and a bit embarrassing. I’m a dog trainer for goodness sake, with well trained dogs that go out in public and compete in a variety of sports. My neighbor knows this too; at least I told him. But with these frequent displays of chaos, I’m not sure he believes me. Sigh.
So, after dissecting this chain of events, I’ve concluded that my greeting to my neighbor is a trigger for my dogs to explosively bark, and it’s got to be fixed. I am armed with knowledge of canine behavior, learning theory and treats. I have two goals – to habituate my dogs to my greeting process, and to coax them into a behavior that is incompatible with barking when they hear it.
So now when the dogs and I are out in the garden, they hear me say, “Hi John, how are ya?” roughly 20 times an hour. When I started this process, they all fell for it and barked their heads off each time I said it. But after two sessions of this, the barking had decreased by about 50 percent. Great, but I want it gone completely.
So now, before I shout out my greeting to an invisible neighbor, I first toss a handful of kibble, combined with a few small pieces of cheese, at each dog. While they get busy snarfing up all of those goodies, I give my best neighbor greeting impression, with another loud, “Hi John, how are ya?” Not a peep from my dogs, as they are too busy snuffling around on the lawn trying to locate and consume every piece of kibble I’ve tossed in their direction. Success! Foraging for treats is incompatible with jumping up and barking – they simply can’t do both at the same time. Put another point in the win column for having the brains and treats to alter my dog’s behavior without punishment.
If your dog gets overly excited when the leash comes out, try putting the leash on, followed by ignoring him while he drags it around the house for 20 minutes. You can pick up the leash and take your dog for a walk when he’s become calm once again. With repetition, he will work hard to remain calm when the leash comes out, as he’s learned that calm is the fastest way to get the walk to happen. Or place your dog’s food in his bowl but leave it on the counter until he settles back down, and only then offer him his meal. When undesirable behavior results from certain routines you’ve established, outsmart your dog and change the pattern.
With a bit more repetition, I’ll be able to fade out the treats, and just maintain the calm that I’m looking for with occasional tune-ups of repeating the “Hi John, how are ya?” phrase. And then John and I can actually have a conversation again, without the embarrassing side effects.
Lisa Moore’s pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.