When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new. - Dalai Lama
Ah…the melodious sound of a dog barking. It’s always the harbinger of something even more onerous: the cacophony of barking dog mixed with barking owner:
What are you barking at?! Fido, enough! I said stop! Quiet! Do you want to go to your crate?! ENOUGH!
I love when I walk into a client’s house, and the owners tell me about their dog’s barking problem. They describe how Fido barks at everything and nothing at the same time. And what is the owner’s response to the barking?
”Stop or I’ll say “stop” again!”
Fido is asking a question when he’s barking. It’s a very legitimate question in his mind, even if it seems like nonsense in yours. He doesn’t see a pug walking in front of the house with their owner like you do. He sees a predator in his front yard who he can’t identify as of yet. He’s asking you to come over and answer one simple question: Is this a threat? Fido barks when he’s in his crate. Can you come over here and let me out? All of Fido’s barking has one thing in common: a question that needs to be answered.
For example, suppose you’ve just fixed yourself a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch, with a nice side of potato chips. You’re ready to sit on the couch in front of the tv and zone out for a bit while you enjoy your meal. Suddenly a local predator has set his sights on you. It's Fido, the Golden Retriever. After smelling the grilled cheese, he sits directly in front of you, staring. You try to ignore him, but it doesn’t work. He hovers even closer to you. You shift away from him, desperately trying to ignore him, but then he starts in with the barking. Non-stop. He’s asking….or, rather, demanding, that you give him that sandwich. So you start yelling at him. Of course it doesn’t work, so you end up either putting him in his crate where he continues his caterwauling, or you eventually give up and give him some of your food. Congratulations, you’ve now reinforced this behavior. In his mind, barking at you is what is required to get some of your human food. Or anything else Fido feels he deserves.
So let’s start from the beginning. We all know barking is your dog’s way of getting you to do something, be it give him food or give him an answer. Usually both. So instead of coming up with a myriad of ways to handle the situation, let’s just take the simple route: why not just answer his question?
Dogs are binary creatures, which means every question they ever ask will be a yes or no question:
Is that other dog going to kill us? Can I have some of your food? Can we play rope toy right now?
So all you need to do is respond to them using “yes” or “no”. Kinda like a game of true/false or hot/cold. Even easier, “yes” is the absence of “no”. (If you have kids you already know this: But you never said I couldn’t!) Unless you answer your dog’s question with a “no”, you are telling your dog you accept their current behavior. So to communicate with your dog, you need to answer the question. Here’s how to do that, using their language.
Control yourself. If you’re angry, rushed, hyper, annoyed, whatever, it’s not going to work. They’re going to take that energy you are giving off and fling it right back at you like monkeys at the zoo. Take a second to get your composure. Don’t rush. The question will be answered when you are ready to answer it.
Controlling yourself has another component, though. Your body language. Sit and stand like a letter “T”. No cowering. No pretzeling your body. You need to look confident that you have the answer to this question. Stand up straight. Dogs are based on body language, and if you’re giving off a “I’m-not-sure-what-do-you-think-dear” vibe, they’re not going to be willing to accept your answer.
Control the situation. Don’t add more stimulation to the situation! So your dog is barking, don’t join in! Noise equals energy (think about the music played at a nightclub vs. a funeral home). Yelling at your dog only stresses both of you out more. It doesn’t work. Be silent. Don’t add to the energy. No, not even talking a little bit. Be silent, and you’ll be amazed at how much energy is diffused.
Answer the question. To tell a dog “no” simply stand up straight and walk into them, invading their personal space. Keep your feet like a letter “V” (I don’t want you stepping on their toes!). Your dog will back off. Once they’ve stopped barking, take a step back. They will start up again (odds are this is the first time you’ve ever answered one of their questions, so they aren’t quite prepared to believe the answer at first). By all means, answer their question again. And again. Prove to them you can answer their question. It's not about being stronger, nor do you have to be faster. Think of it as a game of "Whoever Loses Their Calm First Loses". You will be calm and steadfast with your answer.
Now here’s the trick. Remember how I said that it was like a game of hot/cold? I wasn’t kidding. In dog trainer lingo, you’re trying to catch a behavior. In this instance, silence. So your dog is barking, use the body language. The moment they stop, remove your strong body language. Pretty soon they get the idea. In my head it's "Red Light/Green Light".
Weeping Angels - World Champions of Red Light/Green Light
For a better visual on how to do this, try this little exercise: you’re going to drop a piece of cheese on the floor, and not let your dog get it. Your dog’s question is, “Can I have that?” Your answer is going to be “no”, and you’re going to use the same steps and the same body language as described above:
Control yourself. Deep breath. Stand like a letter “T”, not a letter “S”. Good!
Control the situation. Is you dog hyper? You’re not ready yet. Get them seated and staying where they are (you may have to extend your arm and pretend your are drilling a hole right between their eyes with your finger – that’s how you get a dog to stay where they are). Dog is seated? Staying? Great! But how close to you? Remember, you are about to add a whole lot of stimulation in the form of that cheese landing on the floor. If they are right on top of you already, that’s not giving yourself a fighting chance for it. Think of it like this, a dog eating a bone never lets another dog right next to them. They back the other dog off, and then continues eating the bone. Pretend you need a little buffer of personal space. Got it? Now you’re ready.
Answer the question. Drop the cheese. Odds are your dog tries to dart for the cheese on the floor. Simply insert your body between your dog and the cheese, backing Fido off your food. Pretend your dog is a little taller, and you are trying to hit him with your belly button. Your back is to what you’re protecting (the food) your front is towards what you’re saying “no” to (Fido). Remember, you aren’t backing your dog off into the next county – merely putting some distance between your food on the floor and your dog.
So what does cheese on the floor have to do with your dog barking at the mailman, garbage truck, grilled cheese sandwich? Everything.
You’ve now learned how to tell a dog “no” in a way that they understand. Without anger. Without yelling. You’re ready to answer any question your dog throws your way. You simply use the same body language.
If my Sparta starts barking out the window at “something”, I insert myself between her and the window and back her off. She may run to the other window and start barking, so I claim that window as well. After a short time, she turns around, walks away and gives up. If she starts barking at me to give her part of my sandwich, I merely stand up and back her off of my personal space, answering the question each and every time she asks it. This is what we refer to as Piloting your dog. Every time you answer a dog’s question without anger and, well, nobody dies, the more faith they have that you have the answer to the next question, and the next question. Piloting is a huge piggy bank: whomever has the most money wins. You can take money out of your dog’s bank by answering questions in a calm, but firm manner. That money starts to add up and snowball. Pretty soon, you have a lot of money in your bank. Now Sparta looks out the window, starts to bark, but then looks at me. I’m not barking, so she decides that’s the route to go. She started off as being the dog who gives the orders, the one everyone should follow. After Piloting her for a bit, and taking all her money out of her Piloting bank, pretty soon she wants to be like me, and do whatever I’m doing. I’m the cool kid everyone wants to be like (or at least my dogs, anyway).
Now, let’s make this even simpler. Do you really want to have to stand up every time you have to answer a question? Yeah, neither do I. So let’s use a substitute for the body language. After you’ve mastered the body language (read: their language) you’re ready to start teaching them your language. While you’re walking into them using the body language, you can repeat the same command over and over. When you stop using the body language, stop using the word. I use the word “off”, but “no” can be used, too. Just remember, one word for one command. It’s not no barking, stop jumping, off the couch. Those are all answered with the same body language, so they all need to be linked with the same word. Pretty soon you can replace the body language completely with the word. So now if Sparta starts barking out the window, I simply say “off” and she immediately stops. However, if she doesn’t, then I am instantly off the couch using my body language.
So think of it like this: your words are like a credit card: a convenience. Your credit is worth what it has to back it up… it merely stands in for something else: cash. Cash money is your body language. Cash is accepted everywhere. So if your dog won’t accept your credit card, go for the body language/cash.
Just remember, your dog is indeed asking you important questions when they are barking. Make sure you answer them, don’t just remove them from the situation. The basis of the PAW Method of training is answering your dog’s questions. The more you answer, the less they start asking, and pretty soon you have a calm, happy, quiet lunch of grilled cheese, with a dog snoring silently at your feet.