20-month old Poodles Squirrel and Teddy were joined a couple of months ago by little Westie/Bichon cross Lily who is now 5 months old.
Their family runs a children’s nursery. As our meeting progressed, they kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this is just the same as we would do with the children. Why didn’t we think of that’?
Instead, they had been reading books and stuff on the internet. With so much conflicting information it’s not surprising that some of it was a bit unwise – stuff to do with dominance and trying to stop behaviours they DON’T want, rather than positive reinforcement for behaviours that they DO want.
Too much barking
The problem manifests as much too much barking. The Poodles were not too bad until Lily joined them. Lily barks and reacts to everything. Little sounds outside, birds in trees, animals on TV, other dogs and nearly everything when out on walks, and in the middle of the night the sound of one of the cats walking over the floorboards outside the room.
All three dogs charge down the stairs barking, they charge out into the garden barking, they suddenly rush around the house barking at a sound. Teddy barked persistently at me when I came, obviously fearful. The two Poodles had a little spat as a result of built-up stress. We worked out a strategy for Teddy’s lady owner to take control of the situation and then we tackled his fear using food.
There are quite a few ways that the barking opportunities can be reduced through simple management and then they need to approach the problem differently. If more doors are kept shut the dogs can’t charge around the house like a noisy doggy whirlwind. They agreed that their usual ‘Be Quiet’, ‘Shh’ and getting cross simply haven’t worked. In fact, saying ‘Shh’ while the dogs are actually barking is probably labelling the noise with ‘Shh’, in effect telling them to bark and not to be quiet! ‘Shh’ needs to label NO barking for a long time before it can be effectively used to mean ‘be quiet’.
Each time the dogs start barking they need reassurance that there is nothing to be alarmed about because the owners take charge of the situation.
The humans are missing big opportunties by not using food. Jean Donaldson in The Culture Clash says this:
‘Exploit the most potent motivator in animal training. If you have puritanical misgivings about food as a reinforcer, get over them and fast. He has to eat anyway. ….it is like saying, “Yeah, but if your employer pays you for working, won’t you always expect it?” ….. Suffice to say that you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you deprive yourself of food training and expect to compete with the rest of the environment using your personal charm only. (Food training) enhances your bond by associating you with one of the most potent reinforcers on the planet. The alternative to training with positive reinforcement is training with aversives (punishment). Choose and stop agonizing”.
So now the family will be concentrating on reinforcing the behaviour that they want and on dealing with unruliness, and Lily and Teddy’s fears in the same sort of way they they would children in their care.