Whisper started HTM long before it was a sport recognized by the Kennel Club and therefore long before we had any competitions. We travelled around the country and completed lots of demonstrations to promote the sport and try to get others interested, in the hope that some day we could have competitions etc. Whisper’s main dog sports were obedience and agility.
Obedience is a rather strict sport and no barking is allowed. Whisper learned to work in a self disciplined manner with no barking. And then we did agility – so exciting! All the jumping and running made Whisper bark, but that was ok… he would still concentrate and work well.
In HTM and Freestyle he would do the same as he had learned through his obedience and agility. When doing heelwork he would be self disciplined and quiet, but all the running and jumping in the freestyle bits would cause him to bark.
Whisper’s barking was not just a behavior transferred from his agility career. He is also a dog that learns to anticipate things quickly. He never barked much when learning/performing a new routine, but as soon as he knew the routine well, he would anticipate his favorite moves and be keen to get to perform them. Having to wait for my cue before he was allowed to do the anticipated moves would frustrate him and make him bark.
Another thing that added to Whisper’s frustration was his early training. Today I believe in ignoring unwanted behaviors and rewarding wanted behaviors, but when Whisper was young, I still believed in marking unwanted behaviors, correcting, insisting and even to some extend punishing. I was never mean to him, but he still learned to try his best to avoid wrong/unwanted behaviors rather than to find out which behaviors that would be rewarded. He learned to try to avoid punishment/correction rather than to try to gain rewards. And since it is impossible to get things 100% right all of the time, he was not successful in his attempts and this created frustration in him when working. -And again – the frustration made him bark. A bit of vicious circle really as barking then would make me mark an unwanted behavior (the bark) and ‘punish’ it with a ‘time-out’.
All these circumstances made Whisper bark, but it did not really matter as we only performed at demonstrations. The audience usually loved that he was so keen and happy and he would still work well and concentrate. Also no one told me that barking was not a good thing in HTM, so how could I know?! Whisper and I just played around and had fun with the sport.
Then suddenly it became a bit more serious. We started competing under judges that had been educated by two English judges and therefore learned that barking is not acceptable. We also started travelling to England to compete. The barking became a problem.
Luckily help was at hand. Some of my English friends visited Denmark regularly and I visited them in England. They taught me a ‘time out’ method – more or less the same as Sonja described in her article. Her version was adapted to fit Tyson and I adapted the method to fit Whisper. It helped. Whisper managed to complete a few barking free freestyle competitions.
But we still did lots of demonstrations – more than ever before. We had just started a new sport in the country and the attention we received was overwhelming. Everyone wanted Freestyle demonstrations and Whisper danced on national TV, in huge country fairs, at big dog shows etc. And when you do a demonstration, you can’t just stop in the middle of your routine because your dog barks. But Whisper still did well at competitions. The barking never disturbed him from working, so it didn’t affect our results that much.
What Whisper learned was – It is not allowed to bark in training, but it is fine when there is an audience.
So when Whisper was 9 years old, Beat came into the family. He was a strange little dog. He was very insecure, not naturally motivated to train, his attention span was very short and he started barking very early in training. I had no idea what to do. Stopping him from working when he barked didn’t seem like a solution. He would probably rather sit for 2 minutes and look at the leaves flying by than concentrate on me, so the ‘time out’ would not have the wanted effect. Instead of trying to handle the symptom as I’d done with Whisper, it felt like I had to understand why he barked and deal with the cause.
When I looked at Beat, I saw a frustrated little dog. A dog that wanted to please me, but found it overwhelming and difficult, so I took pressure of him. I slowed down, made things easier, put hand cues back in and made the training sessions smaller to fit his short attention span. It worked – the barking stopped! It was like an instant cure.
WOW important lesson learned for me. Barking can be stopped if starting early before it becomes a habit/compulsive behavior and if understanding the cause of it.
Beat has had a few set-backs during his career and when he does, I know I have asked too much from him and I need to lighten up and make things easier for him.
He usually never barks at shows, but he has had one competition, where he just stood there and barked at me. It was in England, I had travelled far to get to the show, spent a lot of money on it and I really wanted to compete, so I did try to get Beat to settle and continue, but Beat clearly showed me that the pressure of competing after having been on a long journey and having had to settle in a new home with new dogs around him was too much and I ended up making it a training round.
Another lesson learned – competing is for my ego. My first responsibility is to look after my dog, listen to what he is telling me and make sure he is ok with what we are doing. If he is not, then I have to deal with that and the competition must not matter.
A little less than 2 years ago, Hero joined the Hazyland Gang. He is very different from both Whisper and Beat, but it soon became obvious to me, that barking is a response/behavior that he easily resolves to. It is always there – just under the surface.
He was not even 5 months old, when I made a video of him working and sent to some training friends to ask what they would do about the noises.
I think I already knew the answer, but I just needed to hear it from someone else… Hero was doing so well in training. He was so keen and we were progressing so quickly. I was loving it and too caught up in it to stop and slow down. The advice was ‘Never reward noisy moves and slow down”.
Hero loves training and working and he likes to do everything fast! Sometimes it frustrates him, that his legs won’t move as fast as he wants them to and that will make him bark/be noisy. Slowing a dog like that down is not that easy, but I used food to do it. I fed for every single weave, every single spin and every single circle around me – except the noisy ones – they were ignored. Eating/chewing is a calming behavior, so all the food helped de-stressing him and having to stop to take the food slowed his down, which made it easier for his legs to co-operate, which calmed the frustrations in him.
A series of quiet moves would be rewarded with a toy and too much noise despite of the feeding would result in a quiet ‘No’ from me and the fun would stop, but not for very long.
It didn’t stop the barking as instantly as with Beat, but it made it less and eventually it faded away. It is still lurking just under the surface and new moves, new combinations of moves and extension in training can still bring it back, but I can deal with it the same way. I feed him treats more as eating is calming and I stop noises with a quiet ‘No’, wait for a little while and try again. Quiet work is rewarded with a big game of tuggy or ball.
Rewarding is also an issue though as I have realized recently, that if I always break the routine up in training and reward for quiet or for good work in general, then he gets frustrated when I do not reward. I would never go through the full routine without stops/rewards in training with any of my other dogs, but with Hero I have to do it regularly, to teach him that sometimes he is not rewarded until after the routine has finished. As long as I do that, he is fine, but if I don’t then the lack of stops and play will frustrate him. Once again it seems to be about anticipation. He is anticipating a reward and if it does not come, he reacts with frustration.
To sum it all up!
3 different dogs with 3 different problems, that just all react with the same ‘symptom’ – barking.
What I have learned from working with my 3 barking boys are:
- Once barking has become a learned behaviour/habit that has been reinforced through a period of time then it is very hard to stop.
- Barking is addictive to the dog and stopping or at least controlling it at that stage takes determination and 100% consistency. If you can stop it whilst it is still just the dog’s way of telling you something, then you are in a much better position.
- Barking has a lot to do with frustration – if you can remove the frustration, then you will most likely
seehear less barking too. As long as you do it before the barking has become a habit.
- Anticipating something nice, which does not come or that the dog has to wait for, creates frustration, so if you can avoid too much anticipation in the dog, then you can limit the frustration too.
- Anticipating correction and a constant attempt to try to avoid correction creates frustration too. And once the dog has learned to anticipate correction then it is very hard to change. You would need to start all over with that dog to avoid ending in a vicious circle, which would add to the problem rather than solving it.
- Food/eating is calming and can be used to reduce frustration when extending.
- When working to reduce barking, you can easily get to compromise motivation. If you are not ready to do that, you need to be very clear in your criteria for rewarding with ball/toy. Ball/toy is great, but can only be achieved by working with concentration and no noise.
By Emmy Marie Simonsen, Denmark