Is the voice a vice?

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By Tracie Korol

I have a dog friend with a bark that could cut glass.  She is a well mannered, clever blonde poodly-sort loaded to the gills with otherwise good-dog attributes. But when she lets loose with her song, humans within range grit teeth and hold on until it stops. Her mom and I are working toward establishing a positive interrupt sequence so we can all remain friends.

So, what’s with the barking? In the wild, adult canids rarely bark and only in specific situations: in defense of the den or pups, a warning, a protest, a threat or an actual attack.  By comparison, our housedogs are virtuoso barkers, capable of a variety of melodies but also barking for specific reasons. Genetics plays a role in the style and quality of a dog’s tune. Those dogs selectively bred as “scent” hounds (beagles, coonhounds, foxhounds) give voice, usually a hearty Ah-Roo! to announce the presence of their prey. Herding dogs, the Type-A’s of the dog world, will short-yap continuously while managing their sheep. Sight hounds (greyhounds, afghans) prefer to chase quarry rather than bark and guarding breeds (akitas, mastiffs) will save their barks for serious provocation while quietly escorting you off the property. Dog barks can communicate a message, attract attention or express excitement.

Alarm barking is common to most breeds. It is a dog’s way of telling you that Timmy’s in the well or that something is amiss in his domain. My poodly friend alerts Mom to strangers on the property (a good thing), but also random nature noises — wind, branches brushing the eaves, squirrels crunching in the leaves (not a good thing). Given that alarm barking is bound to occur, it’s useful to teach your dog a positive mid-bark interrupt. Dogs generally do better when told what to do (“come over here for a goodie!”) rather than what not to do (“stopitstopitstopit!”). Redirecting behavior occupies a dog’s brain instead of leaving a behavior vacuum to be filled with more barking.

Demand barking occurs because your dog has learned that he can get something he wants — usually attention or snacks — by telling you, over and over and over. The best way to extinguish a demand bark is to completely ignore the dog — no eye contact, no conversation, even turning around so you’re not even facing him. If you turn toward him and say “Quiet!” you lose, he wins, and you’ve just reinforced unwanted behavior.

Dogs, as social creatures, become lonely and bored when left alone all day and often, all night. Boredom barking is monotonous and continuous, is annoying to neighbors and if you’re lucky will likely to elicit a knock on the door from Animal Control. The solution to boredom barking is simple: bring the dog in the house.

I have a neighbor who keeps four dogs in a box, the ubiquitous “huntin’ dogs” that somehow lose their ability to do what they are bred for if they are allowed to have a moment of life. These four dogs have boredom barked non-stop since October 9, 2011. If you want to come out and hear what boredom barking sounds like, let me know.

Stress barkers are fearful, anxious or panicked about something real. At kennel, I once hosted a huge, ungroomed Newfoundland who, in addition to looking like a yak, was wearing an enormous Elizabeth collar for medical reasons.  Alex, the golden retriever in the next room, went nuts because he had just never seen anything like that before. It smelled like a dog, but it sure didn’t look like one. (Alex spent the rest of his visit in the house with me.)  Separation anxiety falls into the stress-barking category and is often manifested in hysterical, shriek-attenuated, non-stop barking. SA is serious business and usually requires intervention of a professional.

Play barking is common in herding dogs, the “fun police” of the dog world.  As other dogs or humans romp, the play-barker skitters around the edges, barking and sometimes nipping at heels. Merlin, a Border collie friend at kennel, never got in the game; he “managed” from the perimeter. Great fun for him but annoying to we humans who had to listen and the other dogs that just wanted to play.  This behavior is inappropriate with children and should be handled by removing the dog from the scene or enforcing a “time out” each time the behavior manifests.

Greeting barking is a dog’s version of “Hooray! Mom’s home!” It’s one thing to be greeted by a wagging, wiggling dog and another to be greeted by a cacophony of maniacal barking. Unfortunately, sometimes one leads to the other. To temper the reaction, simply wait at the door for the cacophony to subside and then enter calmly. (It may take a while at first.) No dramatic re-entry, no hugfest or squealing “Mommy’s missed you, too!”

A dog’s voice can be a useful thing, especially the bark that lets us know if he needs to go out, or when he wants to come in. Dogs warn us of intruders or of impending emergencies. We want them to have their voice. We want to thank them when they use their voice appropriately and tell them how wonderful they are when they stop barking.