A few weeks ago, I used the word, “maddening,” in a blog as I confessed the near-meltdown I had when trapped at home with my pets for about a week. It was then I realized a change was needed and quick. Freedom, The Boyfriend’s stinkin’ cute Hound mix, had clearly developed into a “Demand Barker.” Freedom can’t reach a toy under the couch? He barks for a human to retrieve it. It’s time for dinner? “Get over here, an’ feed m’ belly!” he bellows. Oh and does he bellow. I’m talking about very loud, continuous baying and howling. I had (purposely I think) blocked out how piercing an adolescent Hound’s voice can be. Have I mentioned I am sound sensitive? Not a good combination.
In their defense, demand behaviors are not the end of the world and some are downright adorable. Like when your dog softly nudges your hand asking to be petted and looks up at you with sweet eyes. Who can resist? I’m not going to tell you this is the end of the world, your dog is controlling you or you need to be the boss and not allow this type of interaction. That’s up to you to decide. If you don’t like a behavior, then don’t respond to it. Otherwise, pet that puppy! To my mind, there’s only a clear problem demand behavior if it tips over into being a nuisance or stress behavior. By that I mean nuisance for the humans and stressful for the dog or humans. Make no mistake, when behaviors reach a level in which the dog cannot control his impulse, he is stressed. Some dogs look to their humans to provide blanketed attention or comfort instead of seeking ways to occupy themselves or self-soothe. That is a concern for me, when a dog has not developed impulse control and the skills to cope independently.
Building up confidence and an ability to self-comfort is crucial for any pet. Demand barking has become Freedom’s “go-to” reflex behavior when he wants something or becomes frustrated. Soon, I’ll be starting a monthly blog entry that will dive deep into this topic and others. Keep an eye out for that if you’re interested in how behaviors develop and are modified using modern training techniques. For now, let’s just focus on this ridiculously annoying behavior and how lucky Freedom is that he’s so cute.
Addressing any demand behaviors means teaching impulse control and other skills Freedom can utilize in a moment of need or desire. Instead of crying and having a temper tantrum on the floor when his beloved tennis ball becomes lodged under the couch, Freedom can go grab another tennis ball or toy. Instead of dinner time alarm barking, he could sit in front of his bowl and make eye contact with his human. I’d even be fine with him nudging a hand softly then taking a seat at his bowl. Sometimes, I too get hyper-focused on other items, needing a nudge. Again, you can define the limits of what is acceptable behavior for you and your pet’s relationship.
So, when Freedom’s Papa (The Boyfriend) asked for help, I hesitated. It can be a slippery slope helping friends or family with their pooches problems. But that’s a different blog entry. I was internally beyond elated! Testing the waters, I shared a fantastic tutorial article, “I Want It Now!” by one of my mentors, Pat Miller. From there, we had plenty of chances for real life demonstrations of the techniques Pat suggests for modifying demand barking. This was a start. We saw some mild improvement. Then I had a brilliant idea. Now to convince The Boyfriend of its brilliance. I proposed he and Freedom join my next Growl Class. “But Freedom isn’t reactive.” He said. “He’s not ever lunged or growled at another dog on or off leash. Besides would he be in any danger from the other dogs? Not sure I want to subject him to that.” Think fast, C.C. How do you unpack and present this without overwhelming him and insulting his sweet pup? Stay focused on the issue and goal.
Any dog would learn useful skills in this class. It would help “our” boy as well.
“Well, consistently dogs that enter my Growl Class have a need for improving their impulse control. Any dog would learn useful skills in this class. It would help “our” boy as well. Many of the class exercises focus on building impulse control. Plus the teamwork between the two of you would be a lot of fun. As far as his safety goes, we haven’t lost one yet [insert cheesy smile here].” Uh-oh. Losing him! “Um, seriously, the classes are kept small so we have eyes on everyone and can pay close attention to subtle behavior changes in each dog. We also have tools and skills for breaking up any skirmishes should they occur, but not a single one has ever even started. One of the keys in modifying those behaviors is to keep everyone, dogs and humans, calm and not stressed so they can all learn. We want to make the most of everyone’s time. Also, you may be surprised to hear this, but most of the dogs in class are actually somewhat fearful and only behave ‘aggressively.’ They’ve learned a growl makes things that frighten them go away so they use the growl. Smart pooches, really.”
I see the wheels turning in his head, then a few “yes” nods. Time to seal the deal. “Besides, I could really use your feedback on the class. You know I’m always trying to improve it and your coaching experience would give me a fresh perspective.” Done!
The latest Growl Class started this past Saturday. No dogs are in attendance at Orientation other than one of my own dogs or a selected class dog for me to work with as I demonstrate the first foundation exercises. Freedom had improved so much already from The Boyfriend’s work with him that he joined me as the official “Demo Dog!” His demand barking was minimal in the hour class. That’s a very big deal for an adolescent hound with a major in demand barking and a minor in treat-lover.
Since then, Freedom runs into the room when he hears us doing any impromptu training with the other pets. Words like “Yes,” and “Find It” are now a source of focus and fun. The Boyfriend has been showing off his new found skills too with all the dogs (we’ll get him to train the cat next). I walk into the room and he’s got them each in a sit and waiting their turns to take the treats as he says their names. I’m so proud of my guys!