When a dog’s barking becomes a nightmare
Our less than a year old miniature schnauzer Polo is a very barky and excitable dog. We have a lot of trouble with him because he greets everyone who comes into our apartment with shrill, incessant barking. Recently he has even started barking at the sound of people walking down the staircase. Neither requests nor threats help, and the neighbors let us know that for them, too, our pet’s behavior has become a nuisance.
Polo indeed had extraordinary vocal abilities. In a screaming contest (there are such contests, at least for humans) he would certainly be in the lead in terms of the amount of decibels he produced. When I appeared in the doorway, I could guess from the movement of his lips that his owners were saying something to me and were also trying to silence their dog with their voices. Eventually they locked him in a separate room, which they did every time a stranger came into the house.
The Schanuzers, whose task was for a long time to guard, had to be extremely vigilant and able to reliably warn of the appearance of strangers. This trait has largely survived to this day, but what Polo presented was a fearful, almost incessant barking. His hunched posture and withdrawal from visitors invading his territory showed severe stress. And it was stress that seemed to be Polo’s primary problem.
His caretakers, an elderly couple, seem to have done their best for the dog. He was with them from puppyhood, always having loving caregivers, good food and care. He also never got sick.
However, from the information provided to me, there was another picture of Polo’s life so far, which could explain a lot about the background of experienced stress and unbearable barking. Well, the elders led a very regular and orderly lifestyle. They rarely left the house, did not go on vacations or weekends (at least not since the dog appeared in their house), and were rarely visited by friends or family. As a result, Polo knew only a few people and the route of his daily walks around the block.
In such a world he felt safe, everything else, unknown was a potential threat, and because the caretakers used to take the dog away as soon as possible from situations that were difficult for him, the fearful behavior was reinforced from experience to experience. To understand this better, one can refer to the human experience, for example the school phobia. The more the proverbial Johnny avoids school, the more he fears it, and his school phobia becomes greater. The feeling of relief he experiences by avoiding the unpleasantness of being in school reinforces his fear of it. Similarly, avoiding fearful situations was for Polo a reinforcement of his fear. So, too, locking him in a separate room when I came for a consultation caused the poor dog, while experiencing relief, to learn to fear strangers even more.
There were two reasons for dog’s difficult behavior – lack of experience and familiarity with different situations and mentioned mechanism of reinforcing fear. The third, I believe, was the lack of activities and stimulation. Gifted with a lively temperament, the schnauzer does not easily endure the lack of activity and engagements such as chasing a ball, playing drag or searching for treats, or chewing dog chews. Unfortunately, Polo didn’t have a chance to express himself in this kind of activity. The elderly couple, by their very nature, were not so energetic and playful, and were not aware of their dog’s needs, which was a source of their frustration and lowered thresholds for reacting to stressful situations. Simply put, a dog deprived of play and activity felt undermined and reacted much more easily and intensively with fear in situations which he perceived as threatening.
After a short conversation and explaining what Polo’s problem was, we decided to put him to the first test in order to get him accustomed to the fear. The dog was let out of the room where he was confined, while I sat quietly without showing any interest in him. The trial, although difficult to endure because Polo, as expected, did not spare our ears from decibels for a good seven minutes, made sense. In the end, tired and a bit confused by the new situation, he hid under his lady’s legs, watching me vigilantly and barking again, although not as intensively, at my every move.
Meanwhile, we took advantage of the silence to discuss the behavior modification plan. His caretakers have been instructed on how to play with the dog (for obvious reasons it was not possible to demonstrate the games at this stage), and together we have arranged a daily schedule to ensure that the dog gets enough exercise. Polo was to be fed from my hand as often as possible for coming to the caretakers, sitting down or standing up. Playing chase with a ball or a ball of food was another idea that the caretakers could implement even when they were watching TV.
The most difficult task, however, was to change the dog’s barking at the sight of strangers, which was very fixed and difficult to bear. Because there was no other way to do it than in the presence of strangers, we had to arrange a series of visits by friends, during which we had to stop isolating the dog or trying to silence it by shouting, and reward it for showing calmness or concentration on the caretaker or a toy. Friends were also to try to give the dog treats or at least throw them to him whenever he stopped barking. The first step was somehow made, because at the end of our meeting Polo ate a few treats that I threw, and one of them he even took from my hand.
The third important task was to catch up with the dog’s familiarization with various situations such as driving a car, visiting friends, walking in completely unfamiliar places, getting used to the traffic – cars and passers-by, also with other dogs. The best and the easiest way is to give Polo such experience when he is still a puppy and accepts all novelties without fear. Once a dog has reached adolescence or adulthood it is much more difficult for him to adapt to environments and situations he has never experienced.
After only about two weeks Polo’s barking became much less intense. This success in turn motivated the guardians to further consistent work. Tension and readiness to react with fear slowly gave way to natural for schnauzer spontaneity and curiosity about the world. Within a few months from the first consultation Polo became a confident, cheerful schnauzer. As a typical schnauzer he is always on call, loves to play and is the apple of his owner’s eye. Like a schnauzer, he also barks at strangers approaching his territory, but this is a completely different barking, quickly giving way to curiosity and a desire to establish contact.