By Cat Cino
Professional Dog Trainer
This article will concentrate on the potential causes and solutions to one of our dog’s most annoying attention seeking behaviours. We find ourselves often frustrated with our dog’s poor communication skills. Yet, it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t note that as a society, our own social skills have been compromised. Most of our communication is automated … we text our kids, e-mail our families, and sometimes even screen our phone calls! Is it any wonder that our best canine friends speak out of turn? Demanding barking has become one of the most common complaints, so if you are troubled by the repeated calls of the wild from your companion, this article is for you.
The Golden Retriever is a beautiful breed. They are social, happy, playful, and most importantly affectionate. Their passion for touch outranks any other breed. A spilled cup of coffee from a persistent nose nudge is a worthwhile risk to owning a Golden. The animated enthusiastic jumping, hugging, and kissing at the front door is often what first attracted us to this particular breed. It is because of our love for this trademark affection that we find ourselves in a pickle. We smile as we clean up the spill, we laugh as our faces are licked clean, and we make no apologies for the excessive amounts of long blonde hair on our clothing. In fact, we will defend their honour if you oppose it.
In the canine world, life is simple. It’s black or white, yes or no, now or never.
At some point the frustration begins to build. The forceful, repetitive demands for your attention can begin to wear on one’s nerves. It may only happen once a day, week or month but when it does we find ourselves out of control and out of patience. In essence, we’re not out to suppress their zest for life … we just want to be able to control it at our leisure. It’s our inconsistency compared to our dog’s that causes so much trouble. In the canine world, life is simple. It’s black or white, yes or no, now or never. Yet we have domesticated the dog into our world where we’ve encouraged them to push past the rules despite their passive temperament. We have created these behaviours unintentionally by simply acknowledging them. Although many dogs love physical contact, most dogs believe your eye contact is the seal of approval, like a child who repeatedly disrupts his mother, just to get her attention. If you want it to stop, you’ve got to figure out what’s the motivation behind the behaviour. What is the reason for this action? For some dogs, typically German Shepherds, a hard glare from their owner can stop any undesirable trait. For most other breeds your eye contact is just another way to say “I love you”! So, if you’re dealing with demanding barking, it’s likely the glare isn’t going to work. Just remember, if it’s your attention he is seeking and you keep looking, mission accomplished … regardless of how angry, disappointed or frustrated you become.
There are a few points to consider before we say the simplicity in fixing this problem lies with just your eye contact. In fact, each dog may have a different reason for his forceful ways. Barking has a few purposes. It relieves stress, it conveys a message, and it can make a request. Obviously a neighbour’s barking dog can also create stress particularly when it has no purpose and can’t be stopped. But for the lonely dog sitting in the middle of the yard barking at what appears to be nothing, he is relieving the stress that comes with boredom and frustration. Regardless of the owner’s efforts to hush the dog, the problem is an under-worked animal. By adding extra mental stimulation to his day, you can improve this situation dramatically. Remember, our canine friends were designed to work for a living and Goldens inherently are intelligent, persistent, and trainable.
Any problem solving exercises, where the dog learns to ignore physical/environmental cues to listen to a verbal command, will drain his brain. These include waiting at an open doorway, leaving food that is tossed to the ground or learning automatic behaviours such as sitting pretty during greetings. Do not use lure training for bored dogs as it promotes reactiveness rather than responsiveness. The difference between the two is a hyper-active dog compared to a guide dog. When a working dog has time off, he spends it resting. If you need to cut corners and choose aversive methods, such as citronella collars or e-collars, your success might be short lived. A new set of undesirable behaviours are often reported by the owner of a bored dog.
A very common complaint by pet owners is about the dog who barks incessantly at the doorbell, during car rides or at an approaching dog. Your dog is trying to convey the message that he feels under threat. You need to recognize that his wild response is anxiety and not defiance. His panic begins as a conditioned response to the doorbell, movement of the vehicle or simply the sight of another dog. In order to control this outrageous behaviour, you must have a relationship with your dog that is built on trust and respect. He must be confident to look to you when things get scary. A correction at this time will increase his anxiety, aggravate the problem, and further cement the idea that this scenario is dangerous. Instead you should begin a desensitization program where you introduce the stimuli (doorbell, dog, etc.) at low levels until the dog can comfortably handle it. It is also recommended to introduce an automatic response such as sitting on the landing of the stairs when the doorbell rings. These two options will help minimize stress, clearly establish what is expected, and therefore diminish his need to vocalize. At first, don’t focus on his barking but rather the expected response. For the car situation, expect him to stay to one side rather than bounce back and forth. You should also gradually desensitize him to the vehicle by short jaunts that don’t rile him up. These examples will help but it is always recommended to work with a professional.
A dog who has learned to request treats or go outside by barking, may become a little confused/frustrated when he is reprimanded (or even worse, ignored) when barking for your attention. We know frustration prompts more barking. More barking creates more frustration. Alright, everybody’s confused! If your dog has learned that barking is an acceptable means of communication, get with the program. He can’t figure out why you’re not responding and his persistence starts to show. If you want your dog to use a different method to request your attention (or not to do it at all) then it is time to teach him. You will definitely come across a few obstacles. First of all, dogs are simple. If it worked once, it’ll work every time. Accept that your dog will continue to try the methods that have worked in the past. If you want to use the ignore technique than you have to commit. I mean, you have to prove no matter how abrasive your dog gets that you won’t cave. Otherwise, it’s time to try a different technique. Your other option is to teach an alternative behaviour. But you must ensure that you’ve met his needs of feeding, playing, and walking before you expect resting. So if barking while you watch TV is the problem, try asking for a command he understands, such as sit. Follow up with some praise (not food), then ask for another command, praise, and after a few repetitions he might just chose to leave you alone. After all, he was after your attention not a job. There are no guarantees here if you’re dealing with a really hyper dog. You might have to incorporate all of the suggestions for a couple of weeks before you see some progress.
Although attention seeking behaviours have some very simple solutions, you will likely come across a few problems. Whenever you introduce change to a dog, he will require some time to believe it. They are definitely creatures of habit and are typically very dependent on routine. This is no time to become frustrated with his actions. You are changing the rules midway through the game so give him a break. Until you have clearly laid out your expectations, established the new rules and done so convincingly, don’t take his inappropriate conduct as defiance. It is safe to say that most of your dog’s actions are unintentional. His only true intent is that he expects the same results from you that he has received numerous times before. Enjoy the process and you will see results.