Tyson is a very reactive dog. His go-to reaction is barking, whether he’s excited, anxious, or frustrated. When we started competing in Freestyle in the late summer of 2009, I didn’t see it as a big issue, though. The many distractions at competitions meant that Tyson was a lot more excited than during training, and this in turn meant barking. I was warned by the judges to keep it under control, but I didn’t find it excessive.
In the fall of 2009 Tyson’s barking escalated. Not only did he now bark throughout most of our routine, he worked himself into a sort of frenzy that made him unfocused and meant that he didn’t work very well. We entered several competitions without getting a qualifying score, and the barking started creeping into our training as well. I asked instructors for advice and tried several different methods to stop the barking. Some things seemed to somewhat work, but only for a short while. We had started entering in HTM as well as in Freestyle as heelwork didn’t get Tyson excited the same way, and so he wouldn’t bark when doing HTM.
In the summer of 2010 I was preparing a new Freestyle routine. Tyson would still sometimes bark during training, but not to the extent where he wouldn’t stay focused. I loved our new routine and couldn’t wait to show everyone how clever Tyson had become. In late summer we entered a competition. It was a disaster. Tyson was unfocused and started barking almost the second we entered the ring and very quickly stopped working altogether; he just stood there barking at me. The next competition was a few weeks later. The same thing happened, but this time not only in the Freestyle routine, but in the HTM routine as well! I went home in a depressed state of mind. Even though I love this sport, I was about to give up.
Finally: A method that worked
Then Emmy Simonsen came to my rescue. She offered to do a training session with us where she would try and help me find a solution. And she did. We would perform our Freestyle routine, and every time Tyson barked, I would immediately put him on a short leash and give him a time-out for two minutes. The leash was necessary, as he would otherwise reward himself by sniffing the ground. I had tried time-outs before, but not for that long and not on a leash. Once the two minutes were up, we pick up again about three tricks before the barking had started. If he then performed the trick that had previously set him off without barking, he would get a huge reward with lots of treats and praise before we continued the routine.
During the training session with Emmy it took us almost an hour to get through the whole routine, as we had to stop again and again. Some tricks we had to repeat four or five times before Tyson performed them without barking. But I felt that this would work. The criterion was very black and white: Make even one bark and you lose the privilege of working and getting a reward. Work without barking and you will be rewarded.
I was to practice our routine in this way at least twice a week, and preferably in as many different settings as possible. And so pretty soon you could see us practicing in parks and on sidewalks around our neighborhood. We also practiced indoors with a couple of training buddies. They and their dog served as distractions, and they would pause the music when necessary. The first time we practiced the routine after our training session with Emmy it took us 35 minutes to get through it. The next time 20 minutes, the next time 15, and the next time 10. We were definitely progressing, and very soon I would only have to give Tyson a time-out once or twice during the routine. Thank God! Two minutes feel like FOREVER when you’re just standing still, and it’s very demotivating having to stop just when the training is going really well.
All throughout the fall we trained this way, and Tyson did better and better. A lot of times he wouldn’t bark at all. I had to make sure to keep up his motivation, as he is easily discouraged. I worked a lot with distance rewards (always extremely yummy treats). When he was working nicely without barking, we run out to get the treats. We would do that several times during the routine. I had to make sure to vary the intervals between rewarding and how many times he would be rewarded during the routine, as he would otherwise quickly pick up on a pattern, and that in itself could set off the barking. I would never practice the routine with treats in my hands or pockets, as that wouldn’t create the competition-like situation I needed for our training.
Back in the ring
In late November 2010 we entered our first competition in months. It was a double competition, with competitions two days in a row. I was very nervous when entering the ring on the first day to do our HTM routine. But Tyson didn’t give a single bark! It was a huge relief. In Freestyle it didn’t go quite as well. A little way into the routine Tyson barked, and so I stopped and put him on a leash. After two minutes I made him repeat the last couple of tricks, and this time he continued without barking. I ran out of the ring with him, rewarded, and finished the routine outside the ring. I had also entered us in the Fun class, and in this class Tyson performed the whole routine without barking, with just one reward break in the middle.
On the second competition day Tyson once more performed his HTM routine without barking (earning us the last qualification points we needed to move up into class 3, the advanced class). In the Freestyle routine he barked, and so I did the same as the day before. In the Fun class we were once more able to finish the routine without any barking. The other competitors were commending me on the great work I’d done to stop Tyson’s barking. Several people asked me why I wouldn’t allow even one small bark. “He was doing so well, it was such a shame that you stopped, couldn’t you just let him give a few barks?”, they would ask, meaning well, of course. But no, I couldn’t. Being allowed a few barks would set him back into his old pattern.
In February 2011 we entered our next competition. I didn’t have a class 3 HTM routine prepared, so we just entered Freestyle and the Fun class. Tyson rarely barked when training anymore, so I was slightly optimistic. Our performance started out great, and we got further into the routine than we had at the last competition. I was just starting to think “YAY”, when Tyson said “WOOF”. It was extremely hard for me to stop and put the leash on him, but I did. Afterwards I got the judges’ comments saying that I did a good job being so consistent. That at least was something. And we performed our routine in the Fun class without any barking.
More training followed, and in April we were once more ready for competition. In our last training session before the competition, Tyson barked! How discouraging! At the competition Tyson worked very well, though, and we got further and further into the routine without any barking. When we were halfway through, I knew that we would finish without any barking. A feeling of pure joy spread through me, and for once I could enjoy our time in the ring without worrying about barking. When we finished we were met with a roar of applause from the audience – everyone had been holding their breath until the very last minute. We won the class with the highest score we’d ever gotten, but even if we had finished last, it would have felt like a huge success.
I didn’t dare hope that the success would continue, but for the next two competitions Tyson stayed quiet, both in Freestyle and in our new HTM routine, and we got enough qualifying points in Freestyle to move up into class 3. People would say things like “he’s been good for so long, you can probably allow a few barks in competition now.” It was tempting. But once in awhile Tyson would still bark during training, and I felt that if I allowed a bark in the ring, he would quickly figure out that the non-barking rule only applied to training.
In the summer of 2011 we competed in Freestyle class 3 for the first time. We weren’t that far into the routine when Tyson gave a small bark. I stopped and put him on leash. Shoot. But now I KNEW that Tyson could compete without barking. And sure enough, at the next competition he performed beautifully and quietly, earning us our first Freestyle certificate. He didn’t bark at the last competition of the summer either.
In late summer I got an email inviting us to be a part of the Danish Freestyle team and the reserve for the HTM team at the Open European Championship in October 2011. I was thrilled! My noisy little dog had actually become not only skilled enough but also quiet enough to compete at an international level! What a great reward for all our hard work. I used the only competition that fall as a training session where I rewarded Tyson several times during our routine to keep his motivation high.
At the OEC I obviously couldn’t stop in the middle of our routine if Tyson decided to bark. I would have to continue no matter what. The night before the HTM competition I was told that one of the dogs on the Danish HTM team was sick and that Tyson and I would have to step in. That did a number in my nerves, and I hardly slept that night. Tyson was affected by my nervousness and didn’t perform very well. But he didn’t bark.
The next day was the Freestyle competition. I felt a lot calmer. Of course I was a little nervous, but more so excited and looking forward to showing people what we could do. And our time in the ring was absolutely fantastic! Tyson was happy and worked energetically throughout the performance, and I had a bubbly feeling of joy inside me. Tyson did bark three times during the routine – a single woof each time. But he immediately stopped and continued working quietly. We placed 12th and I was overjoyed.
A small setback
Lately we have been working on a new Freestyle routine. In February we entered the first competition since the OEC. Tyson had been quiet during training for months, but in the last couple of weeks before the competition he barked a few times. I wasn’t sure what to do if he barked during the competition. Deep down I knew that I should stop, but I really wanted to show off our new routine and get the judges’ assessment of it. A training buddy suggested that if he just barked once, I should continue and wait and see whether it escalated. Because I badly wanted to be able to do the whole routine, I was tempted to do just that.
Competition night rolled around, and I still wasn’t quite sure what I would do if Tyson barked. Our performance started out okay, Tyson was a bit overexcited and messed up some tricks, but he worked quietly. But then, more than halfway through the routine, he gave a single bark. I felt in my gut that I should stop – but I just couldn’t do it. So I let him continue, and a few seconds later he gave a second bark, looking the way he does when he’s about to get too frenzied. I stopped and put the leash on.
The next competition is in April, and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to complete that one without any barking. I think that it will always be an issue for us, something we’ll always have to keep working on. But hopefully we’ll be able to complete most competitions without any barking, only having to throw the odd competition when Tyson has a relapse. It does feel like a shame having to stop during an otherwise good performance – but it would feel even worse not being able to compete at all because of Tyson barking excessively and being out of control. And that could quickly happen again if I allowed him to continue working while barking. We’ve had small and big victories along the way, and I hope and believe that we will have more in the future.
By Sonja Ordell Johannessen, Denmark