Of Chesapeake Bay  
 
 

The Civilized Dog:

To Bark Or Not to Bark

By Lynn Franklin
Copyright 2008 by Lynn Franklin

Originally published in the International Parti Poodle Gazette

            "Highland Security."
            The gruff voice on the other end of the phone conjured images of a stocky drill sergeant.  In reality, he was probably a banty rooster who expected females to fall at his feet.  But I needed his help, so I kept my voice level, professional.
            "I understand you train dogs to guard.  Can you teach my dog to bark at intruders? . . . Good.  How does that work?"
            I could hear him fluff his feathers.
            "Well, I bring my Rottweilers to your house and place them on either side of your dog.  My helper knocks on the door or sneaks around the yard.  When my dogs bark, yours will join in."
            "Of course," he hastened to add, "it's not as simple as that."  Heaven forbid I should think he wasn't earning whatever he intended to charge.  "What kind of dog do you have?"
            "Standard poodle."
            "Very funny."  Click.
            And so it went, phone call after phone call.  Though the breed of instructor dogs varied from Rottweilers to Dobermans to German shepherds, the technique of training a dog to bark at intruders remained consistent.  So did the hang-ups when I told them the breed of dog I was trying to train.
            There were only five guard-dog training companies in the yellow pages, and I was on the last one.  This guy sounded older.  Maybe a retired drill sergeant.  He gave me the standard answers to my questions, then asked "What kind of dog do you have?"
            By this time, my answer was high and squeaky.  "Standard poodle."
            I waited for the click.
            Instead, he said, "When do you want to start?"
            "Uh, depends on how much you charge."
            "For a poodle?  Two thousand dollars."
            It was my turn to hang up.
            As I assessed my situation, I resisted the urge to pound my head against the wall.
            It was my own fault my poodle didn't bark.
            A year earlier, when I brought Charlie home, the breeder had jokingly warned me "Don't expect him to be a watch dog."  No problem.  We lived in a small university community with houses packed so tightly together I could hear the neighbor's toilets flush -- or would-be thieves tip-toeing across the creaky wooden floors.
            Which is why, a few weeks later when Charlie found his puppy voice, I sternly ordered him to cease and desist.   We already had neighbors whose dogs barked constantly.  I didn't want anyone complaining about my charming new puppy.
            To my surprise, Charlie stopped barking.  Over the course of the next week, after a few more yips and a few more "no"s, he no longer barked at everything that moved.  What an amazing puppy.  And not bad for a first-time dog trainer.  Charlie never gave the neighbors cause to complain.
            Now, however . . . now we were moving into my dream home, a rustic affair nestled in the middle of 50 acres of hills, forest, and streams.  No sirens, no squealing brakes, no honking horns.  No neighbor's toilets flushing.  No barking dogs . . .
            Oh.
            I was moving into the wilderness with a dog who didn't bark.  Ever.

            My friends told me teaching a dog to bark shouldn't be hard.  Barking is natural.  Here, let me show you.
            And so a successive stream of well-meaning friends sat in our kitchen, trying to convince Charlie to bark.  The theory seemed to be that if you barked at the dog long enough he'd bark back.  With Charlie sitting in front of them, my friends woofed in soprano, tenor and bass.  They barked, they yapped, they yipped, they growled, they arfed.
            Even my husband's dean got into the act.  As the setting sun washed the kitchen floor in reds, yellows and oranges, the white-haired Southern gentlemen sat before Charlie and woofed softly.  For his part, Charlie sat politely, head tilted to indicate he was paying attention.
            Eventually, everyone including the distinguished dean, shrugged and said the same thing.  "Be grateful he's not a trouble maker.  Usually the problem is stopping the barking."
            But I knew I'd never feel safe stuck in the country with a mute dog while my husband was away.  So I continued to seek help.
            As I pursued a solution, headlines in the local paper took on new meaning.  "City Councilmen Seek Solution to Dog Problem."  "Commissioners Propose Ordinances Prohibiting Recreational Barking."  "Neighbors Battle Over Fido's Vocal Chords."   Day after day, week after week, conflicts over barking dogs appeared in the paper.
            While I understood people's frustration, I couldn't help feeling sorry for the dogs.  How were they supposed to know their barking was excessive?  Not only is barking a totally natural behavior, but our ancestors actually rewarded the impulse.  A wolf-dog who could alert the sleeping tribe of approaching danger received extra, er, table scraps. 
            But barking wolf-dogs were rare.
            Adult wolves apparently never feel the need to bray like a pack of beagles, perhaps because a wolf hunt is a life-and-death situation rather than sport.  So they do their stalking silently. 
            Wolf cubs, however, are free to express their thoughts and emotions to one another.  They freely exchange yips and woofs and growls.  As they mature, though, they grow increasingly quiet until finally, like Charlie, they don't say much.
            That all changed when wolves started hanging around with people.  My husband swears it was a woman who brought the first wolf cub home to play.  But it sure didn't take the men long to see the value in a creature that yipped whenever another human or animal crept into their territory.  Over time and a lot of natural selection, the wolves that associated with humans evolved into dogs who played and snuggled and barked at intruders.  While Fang and Fido kept watch, their human associates were free to do more important things.  Like sleep through the night.
            As I thought about Charlie's ancestors, I realized that their world was much more black and white.  Sure, they had to deal with mountain lions, wolf packs and dangerous humans.  But they lived in a sparsely populated environment, which made it reasonably easy to tell friend from foe.  Friends were everyone in the dogs' pack; enemies were everyone else.
            Charlie and his kin live side-by-side in neighborhoods of total strangers.  When a modern dog looks out his window, he sees children riding bicycles and skateboards,  adults walking the sidewalks, cars cruising the streets, workmen loitering beside telephone poles.  Every one of these people represent a possible threat to the family.  No wonder the dog barks a warning.
            Dangers still existed in the modern world.  So while I didn't want Charlie to bark at every little twitch in his environment, I did need to know when someone was approaching the house.
            As I read through the dog training books, I realized I'd made an enormous mistake training my brilliant poodle.  Instead of trying to teach Charlie the difference between the mailman (don't bark) and an actual thief (for heaven's sake, bark louder), I squelched his barking completely.
            There was only one solution I could see:  First teach Charlie to bark.  Then teach him when to bark.
            The method is one that should work for most dogs.  Here is how I did it.

            Important:  Before you can teach this, your dog needs to know what you mean when you say "settle," "leave it," or "that's enough."  These are basic commands taught at all puppy classes.  If you haven't taught this yet, you'll need to sign up for a CGC class or buy a basic dog training book.  A good CGC class is best because they'll have you doing exercises right there in class.

            Okay, back to the barking problem.  The process that worked with Charlie and with subsequent poodle puppies is:

            1.  Teach the dog the behavior you want to control, in this case the bark
            2.  Reassure the dog when he's barking correctly
            3.  Communicate when barking isn't necessary or undesirable

            Let's look at these more closely.

Putting the Barking on Cue

            To teach your dog to bark, start in a quiet room with the dog sitting and facing you and a bunch of small treats within your reach.  If you use a clicker, have that available also.  You might also want to clear the house of would-be observers because the next step can be embarrassing.
            Show the dog a treat and softly "woof" at him.  That's right; you're woofing at your dog.  If he responds in kind, click or say "yes" and give him the treat.
            If you get no response, try a louder woof or wave the food in front of his face, anything that will encourage him to say "hey, give me that cookie." 
            In Charlie's case, wiggling my index finger like a snake triggered the bark.  Sam barked whenever I held his favorite toy away from him.  You need to find your own dog's bark trigger.
            When he barks, immediately click or say "yes" and treat him.
            After a few repetitions, put the treats away and say "practice over."  You want your dog to know that the treats are no longer available.
            Later in the day or perhaps the next day repeat the above.  Soon you will find that your dog will respond to your "woof" with one of his own.
            Now you need to decide what command you want to use whenever you show off your dog's ability to bark on command.  I just stuck with "woof," but many people prefer "speak."  If you're one of the latter, here's how you transfer your own barking to the word "speak."
            Use the same set-up as above, but once your dog is responding readily to "woof" change the cue to "speak woof" almost as if it's one word.  Once your dog barks on that cue, give it again, this time allowing a space between the two words so that they are separate words. 
            Like most living creatures dogs are lazy.  Once they learn the woof cue is coming, they'll jump on the word "speak" to get to the treat faster.  Eventually you'll be able to fade the "woof" part and get your dog to bark on the cue "speak."
            Does your dog really know the cue?  To find out, intermittently during the day when you're nowhere near a treat jar but your dog is watching you, say the word you're using.  If he responds with a bark, reward with lots of enthusiasm and a goodie.
            Most dogs, especially poodles, will become fluent in barking on cue within a week or two.  During this time, when your dog barks at the mailman, do not comment
            This is critical to establishing effective control over the barking.  In short, you can't control the barking unless your dog understands what you're saying.  There is one more step to take in this communication process.

Reassure the dog when he's barking correctly

            Okay, a couple of weeks have gone by and you've been impressing your friends with your dog's ability to bark on cue.  Now it's time to teach him when to use his barking.
            This next step is one most people overlook, but I've found it helpful in preventing the dog from recreational barking when no one is home.
            First you need to decide what you want your dog to bark at.  Yep, you can't communicate clearly unless you know exactly what you want.
            Generally, I like to be alerted when someone pulls into the driveway or walks up to the house.  This means I want to know when the mailman is here, when UPS drops off a package, when the electric company guy reads the meter.  But I don't want to know if the neighbors' children are walking home from school or the squirrel is hopping across the lawn.
            Everyone has her own ideas about what she wants to know about.  Some people might want to be alerted when the telephone company is working on the lines.  Others might want to know when a car idles in front of the house.  Some might not care if there are deer in the back yard, while others might want to keep the critters from plundering the tomatoes.
            The bottom line:  You need to be clear in your own mind when you want an alert before you communicate this to your dog.
            Now it's time to talk to your dog.

            Wait for the next time your dog looks out the window or door and barks.  Immediately cross to the window and look out.  You'll see one of two things:

            1.  Something or someone that you'd like your dog to warn you about
            2.  Something or someone you'd like your dog to ignore

When you want the warning:

            If what you see is something you want to know about, tell your dog "Good woof (or speak)."  And bring him away from the window and give him a treat.  Then do something so he forgets about what's outside:  Play with him (my poodles' favorite), offer dinner, ask him to do some tricks.  When you think your dog is now focused inside instead of out, give him a big pet and both of you go about your business.
            Most dogs will happily settle down for a nap.  Some dogs, however, will figure "Aha, if I bark, I'm going to get a cookie" and will go to the window and bark again.
            Return to the window (remember, your dog is just learning this, so be patient).  If what you see is exactly what you've just rewarded your dog to ignore, tell him "Yeah, you've told me that.  Now it's time to settle." 
            Again, bring your dog away from the window.  This time, however, don't give him a cookie.  Just smile, pet him on the head, tell him again to settle and go about your business.  By this time most dogs have figured out "Oh, I guess I don't need to bark any more."
            If you have a dog who immediately makes a third trip to the window, stay where you are (you've already seen what's out there) and tell your dog "leave it."  Most dogs will sigh and lay down.
            Your last resort for the dog who tries a fourth time is "No woof."
            What you're trying to communicate is that you are the one who'll deal with whatever is outside.  The dog's job is to notify you.

When you don't want the warning

            There is no way your dog can instinctively know what's important and what isn't.  So you'll be getting a lot of warnings about things you don't want to know about.
            Always, cross to the window; remember your dog is still learning.  If what you see is something you don't want him barking at, just smile and say "no woof."  Bring him way from the window, pet him and say "good no woof".
            Most dogs will do one of two things:

            1.  Stay away from the window (at least temporarily)
            2.  Return to the window

            If your dog stays away from the window, give him a cookie and say "good no woof."
            If he returns to the window, before he can get out a bark, say "good no woof" and give him a cookie.  You want to catch him before he does the wrong thing so that he knows exactly what you want.
            Most dogs will respond to the above and peace will reign until something outside changes.  If, however, your dog insists on barking at that squirrel (and you don't want that), you'll need to bring your dog away from the window with a firm "no woof, come" or "leave it, come", put him into a down at your feet and wait for the adrenaline to fade.  While the dog is laying at your feet, reward frequently with petting, treats, and "good no woof" or "good leave it."
            Whether you need to supplement "no woof" with "leave it" will depend on how worked up your dog has become.  Generally "no woof" will work for alerts that you don't want and that the dog wasn't interested in much anyway -- the telephone workers, the people walking by.  It's usually the wildlife that will get your dog riled up and will require an additional "leave it" to get through to him.
            Barking is one of those behaviors that can be rewarding in and of itself.  This is why there are so many neighbor complaints about "recreational barking." 
            What you're doing with the treats, the petting, and the occasional "leave its" is making it more rewarding to not bark except when the dog knows it'll please his people.

The Road to Understanding

            As you teach your dog when it's appropriate to bark, you will be using both of the above methods, one for when it's okay to bark, the other for when it's not okay.  This is going to require consistency on your part and on the part of family members.  While dogs are experts at reading body language and unconscious emotional patterns, they are not actual mind readers.  At first they won't be able to tell the difference between the mailman and the neighbor who's going past.  Ditto the marauding deer and the teasing squirrel.  This whole concept requires patience and understanding. 
            Think of it as teaching your child to talk.  You would never yell at your daughter for saying a lemon is green.  You would gently correct her, then pull out a lime, place it by the lemon, and explain the difference in colors. 
            You'll need to use the same thoughtfulness in explaining this complicated new world to your dog.  Like a child, your dog will not learn this over night.  You'll have to spend time repeating lessons and rewarding correct decisions -- both the decision to bark and the decision to not bark.
            If you use patience and understanding, you'll find a few surprising changes in your dog.

            1.  He'll woof to please you instead of himself.  This will go a long way to solving that recreational barking problem.
            2.  He'll understand that his job is to give you the proper alert.  Your job is to deal with any danger if there is one.
            3.  If you say there's nothing to worry about, then the dog can relax. 
            4.  Your dog's confidence will grow because he'll know exactly what his loved ones expect of him.  A relaxed, confident dog is less likely to bark constantly when the owner is not around.

            You'll be surprised at how perceptive dogs can be.  Sam, our current standard poodle, understands that it's okay to bark at the squirrels when they're raiding the bird feeder.  But not when they're just hopping around the yard.  And he's become an accomplished birdwatcher.  He can tell the difference between a dove ("woof") and a similarly shaped red-bellied woodpecker ("no woof"). 

Barking When No One is Home

            If you follow the above procedure patiently, your dog won't be inclined to bark continually when no one is home.  After all, his loved ones aren't there to reward him.
            But if your dog does well when you're home, but the neighbors complain about constant barking when you're not home, you may need to try another method outlined in the various books or, if it's serious, hire an expert.  An expert will be able to tell you if there's something else going on besides barking.  For example, the dog may feel insecure when alone.  You'll need to deal with that as a training issue separate from the barking.
            Even if you need to address other issues, however, teaching your dog to bark on command will reduce the amount of unnecessary barking.  Plus it can improve your relations with your neighbors.  You can explain to them that you're taking active steps to solve the problem.  You can tell them that the dog now has a command to stop barking -- "no woof" -- and encourage them to give this command if you're away and the dog is driving them nuts.   This gives your neighbor an alternative to sitting around fuming or calling animal control and makes them feel less helpless.  In addition, most dogs are so startled to hear their "no woof" command from outside that they do stop barking.

Beyond Barking

            What you've essentially done by following the above instructions is taught your dog a behavior so you can control when he uses it.  You can repeat this procedure for other potentially uncivilized behaviors.
            In the last issue, for example, I talked about teaching your dog not to jump on people.  Most dogs are happy to forgo the face-to-face leap once they understand that they'll get more love and petting by keeping all of their paws on the floor.   The problem is at some point on your walks you will run into some joker who'll encourage your dog to jump on them, saying "It's okay; I love dogs."
            Now your poor dog doesn't know what to do.  You will be unhappy if he jumps.  But this new friendly fella (it's almost always a young man who wants the dog to jump up) clearly wants to have his face licked.  Decisions, decisions.
            The most direct approach is to square off against this misguided soul, look them in the eyes, pitch your voice low, and emit a firm "no."  Your dog will understand that this human has done something wrong.  The human will back off and avoid you in the future.  This method is also effective in sending in-laws packing.
            If you're not yet ready to retrain the whole human race, you can teach your dog that sometimes it's okay to jump on people.  But only when you give them the cue.
            Teach your dog a word meaning put your paws on me.  "Paws up" or "Feet up."  If you've got a jumper, this will be one of the easiest behaviors to teach.  Reach down, grab his two front feet, lift him up so that he's leaning against you and say "Feet up.  Good feet up" while petting him.  It won't be long before you can look at your dog, say "feet up" and he'll fly into your arms.
            Now's the time to introduce the "no feet up."  And believe me, you'll have plenty of opportunities.  Touching their loved ones is self-rewarding and no matter how well you've trained a dog to keep four on the floor, once you've taught them the cue "feet up" they'll try to use it.  If you haven't told them "feet up" and they leap on you, gently take their paws and return them to the floor while saying "no feet up."
            You'll essentially follow the controlled barking procedure above, rewarding when you ask for a feet up, telling them "no feet up" when they offer it to you without instructions.
            If you choose to teach "feet up" please be aware that this one will require more patience than "no woof."  You will have to consistently tell them "no feet up" when they offer the behavior without being given permission.  It's a long, long process.  Much easier to teach them to always greet someone with four feet on the floor.  The only reason I taught Sam "feet up" was because I needed it for his dance routines.
            Otherwise, I'd have dealt with the "It's okay if he jumps on me" people with a firm "no."
            Still, the idea of putting a natural behavior on cue so you can control it has a lot of appeal.  I've got a friend who taught her miniature poodle to "dig" and "no dig."  She allows special friends to borrow the dog during gardening season.

Teaching Charlie to Bark

            So what about Charlie, my first loving poodle?  Despite my early faux pas, he grew into the perfect civilized dog.  Once he understood it was okay to vocalize, he learned to vary the pitch and intensity of his woofs.  A deep woof announced people or cars in the long driveway.  A light, soft woof drew our attention to the red foxes passing through the woods or the quail coming to the bird feeder; once we saw them, he'd then remain silent, leaning against me while we watched the scene unfold.  And he learned to sing, to howl in different pitches, tempos and intensity to suit whatever I played on the piano.  
            The dog who never barked became locally famous for his singing.

 

 
 
Charlie learns to guard and sing