Barking: when it’s a problem

Barking has been cropping up recently, so I thought I’d give it a go here.

There are three general types of barking: alarm barking, annoyance or nuisance barking, and play barking.

Alarm barking is what your dog does to let you know something’s wrong. Ideally, this is the type of barking we want. When someone comes to my door, Cash gives out several big, booming barks. He does this until I tell him I’ve heard him and I’ll take care of it. (I might say, “Enough,” or “it’s fine,” or “I got it,” or “Cash, knock it off,” depending on my mood. In every case, that’s his cue that I heard him and he can stop.) Note that he stops. That’s the big clue that your dog is alarm barking.

Alarm barking is really handy. It lets you know when someone’s at the door. It lets you know when a burglar is getting in. It lets you know when something unusual is happening — like a deer in the yard or a stray wandering about. It’s almost impossible to train a dog not to alarm bark, but you can train them that they shouldn’t be alarmed by things like squirrels,  joggers, cars, etc, which they probably see all the time.

The more common type of barking is annoyance or nuisance barking. This is the barking that happens when someone’s at the door, and the dog won’t stop. It also happens for things they shouldn’t be alarmed about: squirrels, cars, joggers, etc. This can be annoying for family, friends, and neighbors, and it stops you from knowing when there is a problem. Remember the boy who cried wolf? Exactly.

Nuisance barking starts typically when a dog is just growing up. Around 8 months to a year of age, dogs would start exploring outside their little living area. They would see something new — “Oh my gosh! Those leaves are blowing!” — and bark to let the other dogs know. The other dogs would look at the leaves, look at the barking pup, and say, “You fool. Those are leaves. Knock it off.” In this way, the pup learns what actually is a problem, and what isn’t a problem.

We can do the same thing. When your dog enters his or her barking phase, there are various things you can do about it.  In no particular order, you can:

  • Let them drag a leash around, and tug on it when they start barking.
  • Call them over and offer them a treat for coming, instead of reprimanding them for barking. (I find this has only limited usefulness.)
  • Put pennies or rocks in a can or bottle (or a chain in a pillowcase) and make a loud noise when they bark, escalating to throwing the bag/bottle/can against the wall near your dog if you need to. (Don’t do this with highly anxious dogs.) (Just because your dog barks doesn’t mean they’re anxious. Most of the time, they aren’t.)
  • Give them a quick poke after you’ve checked out the window.
  • Go to where they are, make sure it’s nothing, then ask them to sit. Give them a treat for sitting. (I find this works much better than calling them, especially for answering the door.)
  • Use a squirt bottle to squirt them when they bark.

Note that in each of these cases, you should see why your dog is barking, then tell them to stop, THEN act out the consequence/distraction.

This will teach them that they should bark at unusual things, but stop when you ask them to. If your dog persists at barking at normal things, then cut out the bit where you look at what they’re barking at, and just start fixing it as soon as they start barking. Interestingly, this makes for calmer dogs: even though they may get in trouble for barking, now they know that all those things in the world are no big deal, and they don’t need to grow into anxiety.

Finally, we have play barking. Play barking is what (mostly young and herding) dogs do when they want to play or want you to engage with them. Some of this is natural; if you’re playing with your dog and they’re barking, try not to worry about it. (If you HAVE to stop it because you live in a condo or something, then stop playing, wait for your dog to settle down, and start again.)

If, however, your dog is barking to get you to play and you can’t, then it’s time to break out the squirt bottle. Very seriously, tell them, “No,” or, “Not right now,” or, “I’m busy,” or, “Get a toy,” or anything you’d like to tell them. When they start barking again, do any of the following:

  • Squirt them with a squirt bottle.
  • Put them in time-out until they calm down in their crate or another room.
  • Ask them to lay down and stay.

In each case, provide a more appropriate toy that they can entertain themselves with. Young dogs especially have to learn how to entertain themselves, and the way they do that is by you re-directing their energy to an appropriate thing.

In all barking situations, make sure you don’t get frustrated or raise your voice: if you do, your dog will think you’re barking back!

Now go, enjoy, and have a quiet household!


Tango is now 13.5 weeks old, and taking his/her time weaning. That’s fine: it means s/he’ll be calm and confident when I do get him/her! These pictures are from last Friday. Tango and Quin, and Tango with his/her sibling!






Welcome to the special edition holiday post! There are two things we’re going to cover today:

1. How much your dog loves turkey, and how to keep them away from it

2. How much your dog loves your family and friends, and how to keep them from leaping on people.

Let’s get started!

1. How Much Your Dog Loves Turkey, and How to Keep Them Away From It

Ahhh, Thanksgiving. That time of year when delicious smells come out of the kitchen and dogs everywhere grab giant legs of turkey off the table and go careening through the house with their kill. When reasonable humans turn into screaming banshees, yelling, “Don’t let him swallow it! That turkey bone’s been cooked!” and “Someone call the vet and see how dangerous this is!”

It’s safe to assume that your dog probably shouldn’t be eating Thanksgiving food (and especially not cooked turkey bones), so let’s just say he shouldn’t grab food off the counter or table and go from there. Now, if your dog doesn’t tend to grab stuff off the counter or table anyway, then your job is much easier. Here is what you do:

a. Get a squirt bottle and put it on stream.

b. Every time your dog gets interested in the counter or table, squirt them.

You can start this Wednesday night while you’re prepping, and they’ll have the idea by Thursday.

If, however, you have a chow hound, the rules needs to be changed a little. First off, start TONIGHT. No, really. If all you’re eating is a TV dinner, set it on the table and turn away. Set it on the FLOOR and turn away. Turning away is key, because most dogs are smart enough not to grab things when you’re looking. (If your dog does grab things while you’re looking, start there.)

Now, the basics are the same: get a squirt bottle and put it on stream. The details change a little. First off, squirt your dog when they look toward the counter/table/plate. Don’t even wait for them to sniff. What you’re doing here is applying consequences to being interested in something inappropriate. If they aren’t interested, they aren’t going to grab it — and let’s face it, for some dogs it’s one quick bound from interested to running away with the whole turkey on their head.

Second off, admit you’re probably going to fail at some point. When your dog manages to grab whatever they shouldn’t have grabbed, chase them down. Now you need a bridge. A bridge is a noise that connects one bad behavior (grabbing food) to the consequence (getting squirted and having the food taken away). You can use a litany of words (“Bad dog no stealing! Dang it, that was my turkey, you bad dog!”) or a noise (“Hiiiisssst!”), but it has to continue THE WHOLE TIME. I can’t stress this enough. Most people say it, stop saying it, and pick it back up again when they find their dog. SAY IT THE WHOLE TIME. Say it while you leap up. Say it while you grab your water bottle. Say it while you run into the back yard, discover your dog isn’t there, run back into the house and search every room. Say it while you’re looking under the bed. Say it while you start squirting your dog.

So you finally find Rosie the Retriever with the other half of your grilled cheese sandwich. Now is when you start squirting again. Hopefully she drops it; in that case you stop squirting and take it back. (Eating it is optional.) If she doesn’t drop it, pry open her mouth and drag it back out. If she’s already swallowed it, pry open her mouth and look. The goal here is to make the experience so miserable for Rosie that it’s not worth the tastiness of the grilled cheese.

Note: If your dog is food aggressive or possessive, don’t approach. Squirt until either they leave it alone, or until it’s eaten. It can be a miserable experience via water bottle.

Now, the argument is over. Let it go, and go back to dinner. Start all over again. Rinse and repeat.

When your dog can leave food alone while you’re sitting there, start walking away a few feet. When they can manage that, walk away a few more feet and turn away (use your ears or glance over your shoulder periodically to see what’s going on.) Then leave the room. Then practice in other rooms (your guests may carry plates to other parts of the house), and so on, until your dog is looking at you like, “Jeez, okay, I won’t steal your food…”

Congratulations! Your dog is no longer a counter surfer.

(This sounds really easy, but once you get to the leave-the-room stage, training slows way, way down. No supervision at all is very difficult for dogs.)

Next step:

2. How Much Your Dog Loves Your Family and Friends, and How to Keep Them From Leaping on People.

First off, if your dog is actually leaping on your company, I’m going to tell you right now you probably don’t have time to fix it before Thanksgiving. Start practicing and hopefully you’ll be ready by Christmas. If your dog isn’t totally determined to leap on people, then you have a shot.

Okay, here we go. There are several ways to solve this problem.

a. Get yourself a squirt bottle. You’re getting the idea already, right? Put it on stream. When your dog starts getting too close or too pushy, squirt.

b. Put your dog on a leash. When they start to move ahead of you or jump, tug sharply sideways to knock them off balance.

c. Teach your dog to go to bed. Start now: toss a treat in their bed and say, “Go to bed!” Repeat until you think your hand will fall off. When they’re leaping at their bed as soon as you say it, withhold the treat until they actually get there, then toss it to them. Then toss them another to encourage them to stay there. Once they’re good at that, withhold the second treat and when they start to come out, physically put them back. When they start to settle down, then give them another. This process takes a while, in part because it’s time consuming to teach a dog to stay put (they don’t remember well that you told them to do something five minutes ago), and in part because when people come over it will be SO EXCITING that your dog will forget everything — so they have to know this really well, and even then assume they won’t be great about it.

You can also combine these techniques to your hearts’ content, and I would strongly suggest that you get a kong or a hollow bone, fill it with peanut butter (or other goodies of your choice, freeze the sucker to make it hard to get at, and then give your dog that in their bed. It will make them much more likely to stay there, chewing on their icky treat, and leave your guests alone!

Finally, practice with your loved ones. If you have a spouse, a partner, a roommate, kids — anyone — tell them not to just walk in the house when they get home. Tell them to call, say they’re coming in, and then knock. They can wait while you practice with your dog. Without practice it won’t work: you need someone to knock at the door!

And now… enjoy your turkey!


Happy Howl-oween!

First off, I want everyone to know that I have a BRILLIANT Halloween costume this year. I’ve worked my butt off on it! I’m going as Black Widow (from The Avengers), and I had every intention of dressing my dogs up as Thor (Cash) and Hawkeye (Lily), but alas, I ran out of time. The Los Gatos Howl-O-Ween festival for dogs will have to go on without me.

None of which is what this post is about. This post is about answering the door for trick or treaters, and getting your dog to be calm!

Halloween is the one night a year where people come to the door over and over JUST so you can practice answering with your dog! (That’s why it happens, right? I’m sure.) So! Prepare!

1. Answering the door

If you have a dog that barks (be it in excitement or aggression), then the first thing you’re going to do is put them on their training collar on a leash, and keep them by your side. Now, hopefully you’ve been practicing Good Dog Walking, such as getting easily through the door and no pull/loose leash walking. (If you haven’t, you still have a week. Go now! Start! The most important thing for this purpose is being able to not get hauled through your door, so just focus on that.) If that’s the case, then you already know important things like keeping the collar high (to effect your dog’s head instead of his body) and keeping your dog’s head right next to your hip (because otherwise they’ll already have pulling leverage and it’ll make your life harder).

So! The doorbell rings. A chorus of angels and demons and the occasional cowboy demand sustenance. First, you pause to pull your collar up where it belongs. Second, you walk to the door. Now, every time your dog starts to surge ahead, you lift up on the leash and put them  back in place. The reversals I talk about in the links are AWESOME, but we also have to get somewhere. If you’ve been doing them, then your dog will realize what’s up quickly even though we’re not quite doing them now.

You get to the door! Ask your dog to sit. If they don’t, pull up gently and steadily on the collar (shifting their weight from the front to the hind, NOT picking their front feet up off the floor). If they don’t get it, reach down and push their butt down. After you’ve done it a few times, they’ll get it!

Reach for the door knob. Make your dog sit again. Open the door. Make your dog sit again. Start to ooh over costumes. Make your dog sit again. You see how this works, right?

“Oh, that sounds easy!” I hear you cry.

HA! This sounds simple, but when I say “Make your dog sit again” it’s because your dog will be trying to leap and twist through the air, nearly taking you out at the knees. Don’t yell at them, don’t scold them, don’t get frustrated. Pick up on the leash (this will also control their head, remember, so they don’t haul you out the door) until they calm, sit them down, and move on.

Here’s the best part: after the first five rings, most dogs improve SIGNIFICANTLY.

2. Oh my God! There are MONSTERS at the door!

Now that you’ve managed to open the door, all those kids are probably going to ask to pet your dog. This is where protection comes in. If your dog is going, “Please please pleeeeeeaaase no one ever pets me letthemletthemletthem!!” Then, sure, they can pet your dog.

If your dog is going “HOLY SHIT THE WORLD IS BEING TAKEN OVER BY MONSTERS” then they can’t pet your dog. You’ll know if this is the case, because your dog will bark and/or try to run away. When this happens, we can use it as the perfect bravery training! You let your dog escape just behind your legs (and/or step in front of him to encourage this), tell them they need to sit and not bolt, and tell the kids “I’m sorry, but my dog’s in training. He can’t be petted right now.”

You’ve just told your dog that you’ll protect him (you hid him and stopped him from getting petted) and that he needs to be relatively brave, as brave as possible, when we say that really there’s nothing wrong (you didn’t let them escape back into the house and you did ask him to sit and be calm). This is how you get dogs who trust that you’ll ask of them what they can give, and who will do their very best trying to do what you want even under stress.

Now, finally, if you have two people in the house you might want to have one person hand out candy, and one person handle the dog, at least until the first five door knocks when your dog starts to figure it out. It just depends on how wild your dog goes with the door opens.

After Halloween, it’s easy for dogs to forget good door manners. You can enforce the same thing just by grabbing their collar and pulling it up under their jaw when you answer the door, and in two-people households the best way to practice is for one person to knock when they get home, instead of just coming right inside. Voila! Practice!

Your dog will be walking calmly to answer the door and sitting to greet folks at the door in no time!