Lily needs a stable and predictable lifeIf the humans a dog lives with are not calm, stable and predictable, how can their dog be these things?

If their human is erratic, then one might expect their dog to be the same.

Unhappy lady

The situation German Shepherd Lily has lived in for the first four years of her life has not been happy for her young lady, nor really for Lily either. The lady has now moved back home to her family and after just four months Lily is happier too.

During this time they have had two different trainers to advise them. The trainers had totally opposing methods, one believing in punishment and dominance and the other reward-based more like myself.

A muddling mix of input for Lily.

The problem that has most impact on the family is her excessive barking at people who come to the house.

I had asked them to ignore her so I could see what she did with myself. The barking went on and on and on!

Indirectly being taught to bark

The the young lady showed me what she normally did and the picture started to become clear.  She had been taught a routine to get Lily to settle, involving a mix of actions, tricks and rewards until she lies down and is quiet. She doesn’t stay down, though. So, she gets scolded and told NO until the routine is started over again in order to make her quiet again.

I found Lily’s barking different from most dogs that do this. Although it was doubtless fear-based to some extent, she wasn’t that fearful.

We tried various things until I worked it out that the dog was actually barking for the attention she gets in terms of the routine. The routine of attention, commands and rewards! Indirectly she is being taught to bark!

An alternative, incompatible behaviour

It is always a good idea to give a dog an alternative behaviour that is incompatible with the behaviour you want to eradicate. In this case the alternative behaviour itself has gradually become the reinforcer for barking.

The alternative needs to end up being something the dog will do of her own accord and not dependent upon all that owner input. To lie down quietly.

The actual reinforcers

They have tried everything they can think of – except recognising the things that are really reinforcing the barking – and removing them.

It’s also essential that Lily has confidence and respect in her humans in terms of their responsibility for comings and goings. This confidence is not earned by a confusing mix of fussing her, excited play and then harsh commands along with negatives like LEAVE and NO.

We have a new plan, taking it one small increment at a time – gradually cutting down the ‘routine’ until she can simply be left to settle without commands. They will reinforce only quiet behaviour until she learns what is required and finds that rewarding.

Now they have a tool for stopping the barking. It can be a starting point to build upon.

Like all dogs who are reactive to people coming into the house, they need to have plenty of well-trained visitors to practise on!

About six weeks have gone by and this is the latest input from Layla’s young lady owner: She’s made really good progress with visitors.  She no longer needs the full ‘tricks’ routine. I just say ‘down’ followed by ‘settle’ and she remains quite calm for the rest of the time… I’m very happy about that. Walks are going well, she now also sits down calmly when I pick up the lead to go on a walk. We’re also working on exchanging sticks/balls for treats, which is going well, she’s happier to ‘give’ now and less possessive. She also had a very polite nose touch with another dog that appeared which was lovely to see and then she simply followed me. And again many thanks for all your help, I’m really happy with how Lily has been doing. 

This is the message I received exactly four months after my visit, and shows just what can be done with time and patience when the owners really apply themselves: “Everything is going well here, we’ve been going on weekly walks with other dogs and Layla is really enjoying socialising with them. House visits are constantly improving, I had a visitor come (that Layla had never met) on Tuesday and she let herself me stroked and cuddled, which was amazing”!