Jester suddenly barks at inanimate objects. Why?
Something tips him over.
He looks about and he looks up. He spots a burglar alarm box high on the wall of a house or a security camera, a clock, a satellite dish, a street light or even the moon.
He is a twelve-month-old Labrador Border Collie mix. He’s friendly, gentle and cooperative. His young owners have been very keen to do the best for him right from the start and in so many ways their love, training and hard work has paid off.
They give him plenty of brain games and enrichment in the house.
The problems started a couple of months ago when out. Jester began to bark at (silent) burglar alarm boxes on houses. Yellow ones and blue ones initially. This is interesting, as yellow and blue are the two colours dogs can see clearly.
Gradually the barking has spread from alarm boxes to other things.
He barks at inanimate objects; what triggers it?
The behaviour is often triggered by something sudden. A sound or sight that alarms or arouses him. A distant dog may bark, for instance.
He then immediately starts looking upwards like he’s searching for something to redirect his arousal onto. Where he first used to latch onto burglar alarms (blue or yellow), it can now be other things like street lights, fire alarms, lampshades and even the moon when he was particularly worked up.
We first need to deal with this at source by reducing Jester’s arousal and stress levels in every way possible. There are a few things to put in place that, when added together, should bring results.
Football in the park.
One key thing they are doing, with the best of intentions and because Jester loves it, is to kick a football for him in the park for about an hour a day. Instead of walks being something he’d be doing if alone – sniffing, exploring, meeting dog friends and mental activities – he is being pumped up. He loves it. Like any other addict, an adrenaline junkie can never get enough.
They will also work directly on what they themselves do when he barks at inanimate objects. As soon as something triggers the ‘looking upwards’ behaviour they will give him something else to do that is incompatible with looking up and barking frantically. He can’t, for instance, sit and look at them, forage for food or perhaps catch a ball, at the same time as looking up high and barking at something.
If they leave it too late and he does begin to bark, they should immediately redirect his energy onto a different activity like running in the opposite direction and then go home to calm down. That walk is now doomed.
This kind of ritual can easily become a learned behaviour, a default in response to arousal. It gives him some sort of relief.
When he’s out on walks and more relaxed, they will encourage him to look at these things calmly, whether alarm boxes or a particular street lamp that gets him going – then to look away again, using food. The Labrador in Jester means he is very motivated by food!
Every day his arousal/excitement/stress levels are being topped up with human-generated excitement.
It’s like when he can’t cope with over-arousal he has to find something to redirect it onto. It can be general build up of arousal simply overflowing or something identifiable that sends him over. His ‘stress bucket‘ overflows.
Walks and play should be such that they reduce Jester’s arousal levels rather than increase them. I suggest putting an end to the football and instead allow him lots of sniffing and exploring time. Let him choose what he wants to do. He will need to go cold turkey on the football and so will they! This will mean sacrificing some of their own fun unfortunately.
It’s outside the house where the behaviour occurs. But then, most of the stressors happen outside the house. There are a number of things to work on or avoid altogether when out in order to help Jasper overcome this.