We went to the animal shelter last weekend to visit with the shelter pets and give them some one-on-one attention. We do this fairly often and it always pulls on my heart strings; I want to bring carloads of the sweet, homeless animals home with us, but I know it’s not feasible so I stay strong and do what we’re there to do.
On this visit, however, my heart strings were nearly ripped out of my chest. The puppies! Our local shelters are bursting with loveable little puppies. When I got over the initial cuteness-overload response, this made perfect sense. One of the most common reasons dogs are taken to animal shelters is because of excessive barking. This time of year, many puppies that were given as gifts over the holidays are now being relinquished to shelters for things like barking and biting and generally being a puppy. It’s reported that one-fifth of all the dogs adopted from shelters are returned within a few months. What a sad statistic.
Our recent shelter visit compelled me to review my previous article on Tips to Curb Puppy Biting and Aggression and expand the subject to include excessive puppy barking. My goal is to educate new puppy owners on what to expect from young, precocious pups and offer suggestions to curb or even prevent these unwanted behaviors.
Why does my puppy bark so much?
Dogs bark for a variety of reasons, but it usually boils down to some form of communication, boredom, a request for attention, or a response to a perceived threat. Your dog wants to be a contributing member of the family and they often assign themselves the role of the protector. Everything is new to a puppy, so his barking may be a warning that a garbage truck is nearby or a neighbor is walking past the house or your hat is on crooked.
Working with your dog to teach him how you want him to behave is a fun and exciting part of dog ownership. It helps to build a tighter bond while you spend quality time with your pet. However, some dogs are grabbers and the fun ends when you offer him a treat as a reward. For most dogs a treat is the best motivator, but you don’t want to have to count your fingers each time you offer a treat. It is possible – and not that difficult – to teach your furry friend to be gentle and not grab treats.
There are various reasons why a dog will grab treats or toys from your hand, and it’s important to figure out if the behavior is due to fear, frustration, anxiety or aggression. Anytime a dog that is usually good about not grabbing treats suddenly begins to snatch a treat from your hand, it’s a sign something could be bothering him. You may need to figure out what’s causing him to be anxious or fearful. Any sudden change in a dog’s behavior indicates you may need to talk to your vet or get help from a professional trainer or animal behaviorist. Some dogs may grab the treats because they’re afraid that another dog, or even the cat, will take it first. A dog that’s overly excited is also more apt to snatch a treat.
As with all training, you need to stay calm, be patient and use positive reinforcement. It’s important to be consistent and keep reinforcing a “gentle” command each time you give a treat. Understanding who your dog is as an individual is also a plus. Don’t give your dog a treat if he’s pawing at your hand, mouthing or trying to snatch it.
Although we often credit our dogs with capabilities far beyond their actual mental abilities, they do often seem as if they understand and respond to specific things we say. For example, when we spell words the same way we would in front of a small child in order to hide our meanings from them. Eventually a child grows old enough to understand what we are spelling, but a dog learns those words in very specific ways.
Dogs are not actually learning to spell the same way, even if it seems they suddenly understand and react to specific words spelled out in front of them. They make associations, and with constant repetition begin to associate certain words, sounds and letter sounds with any given situation such as a treat or other reward. They are clever animals and are aware of everything going on around them, but they process it differently than we do.
Take my dog Kira, for instance. One of her favorite games was chasing bubbles. If my daughter or I said the word “bubbles” Kira immediately went into an excited frenzy and raced to the door of the pantry where we stored our bottles of bubble liquid and the battery operated bubble blower that blew dozens of bubbles at a time for her to chase all over the yard until she was happily exhausted. Her tail would wag and all 100 pounds of her would bounce up and down impatiently waiting for us to get out the bubbles and go outside to play with her.
There is a funky little strip of shops near our house. A popular local coffee shop, a Mexican taqueria, and an artisanal bakery are in this strip along with many other laid-back destinations. The area also houses one of the most well-respected boutique pet shops in town, which is the place my friends and I buy our CANIDAE PURE dog food.
I don’t know if it’s because of the pet shop, because of the bistro tables and chairs lining the fronts of the shops, or because of the relaxed nature of the patrons, but I’d guess one out of every three people that hangs out in the area has a dog with them. I always marvel at these dogs; how they’ll sit quietly under a table while their humans sip a coffee or enjoy a taco, how they’ll walk, unbothered, right past other dogs or children or skateboarders or runners.
Frankly, I’m jealous. If you have dogs you can do these types of things with, kudos to you. We don’t, not by any means. We are working on it, though. It all starts with learning how to desensitize your dog and maintain his attention in any situation.
Some dogs are raised in bustling cities and gradually become accustomed to loud sounds, people milling around and general commotion. Their composure develops via a steady, deliberate exposure to the chaos often found on urban streets. We don’t believe our dogs were raised that way. In fact, we have no idea how our dogs were raised since we rescued them when they were well past puppyhood. Once they were safely in our care, we made the mistake of doing all of their training in our house and in our yard; places that were familiar to them and didn’t hold many distractions.
We train our dogs to help them fit in, to learn acceptable ways of behavior within our parameters, to make living with each other a smoother existence together, and simply because that is what a responsible pet owner does. You are teaching them new survival skills that fit in the human environment. Like a child, if a dog knows what it can or cannot do, it learns to act within those boundaries, but sometimes what they do makes us wonder who is actually doing the training!
A dog will test the boundaries they are given, which is a normal part of the learning process. It doesn’t stop once they are trained to an acceptable level either. It is an ongoing process at every stage of your dog’s life.
We start out with very clear goals in mind when we are training our dogs, but often find ourselves bending the rules in order to fit their individual personalities or specific needs. We don’t always do it consciously either. We see a cute or endearing behavior that isn’t quite what we wanted them to do – for instance, coming up on the couch to cuddle against you after you had decided that climbing up on the furniture was an absolute “no no” in your house. Pretty soon that becomes an altered acceptable behavior that your dog has basically manipulated you into allowing.
It’s always easier to see what someone does wrong and miss what they do right. The same is true when it comes to dogs. We train canines so they can learn how we expect them to behave, but so often we miss teachable moments that can reinforce and enhance what we want our dogs to learn. Sometimes distractions can cause you to miss when your dog is being good and pay attention when you suddenly notice he’s doing something that’s unacceptable.
Most dogs want to please their owner, but it’s not always easy for them to understand what we want because we have a tendency to send conflicting messages. Our body language doesn’t always match the words we use when communicating with our furry friends, and many dog owners aren’t as fluent as they could be in the “language” that dogs use. Understanding how to tell what a dog may be thinking helps prevent unnecessary confrontations between humans and dogs. So often, we miss opportunities to teach because we don’t notice obvious and subtle signs our dogs give us.
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