Saturday, 19 March 2011

The noise from within

I'm lucky.  I get to spend lots of time at home with my dog.  I guess that makes him lucky too.  It also means I can walk him in the middle of the day, when most of the people in my neighbourhood are away at work.

As Woody and I make our way along the quiet residential streets, I take the opportunity to study him while he makes his rounds.  His paws are moving at my slow (to him) human pace, but his nose is in turbo.  No odor gets past him, and I'm more than happy to oblige when he gets completely focused on a single, extremely important blade of grass for a solid 3 minutes. 

So intense is his concentration that he doesn't bother to look up when we stop squarely in front of a house with a very vocal Yorkie slamming the living room window with his tiny paws.  Woody used to be mildly interested in what this little guy has to say, but it seems with daily repetition, the news has gotten old and stale.

The Yorkie lives in a corner house, and his routine involves darting from the front windows to the large side windows as he follows our progress around the street corner.  To his credit, Woody doesn't bat an eye. 

Further along our path is a house with a Schnauzer also barking up a storm from the front window while perched on the back of a couch.  Again, no reaction from Woody, except maybe to flick an ear in mild curiosity.  The Schnauzer doesn't quite put his whole heart into it like the Yorkie does.  It almost feels as though he's doing this out of obligation... like the spectator in a sports stadium who feels he must stand and do the wave when it comes around, even though he'd really rather not.

Up a hill and around another corner, we reach the house I've dubbed "Team Lab".  This house gets Woody's undivided attention, every single time.  The barking from inside the house starts slowly at first; one Labrador Retriever suspects he might hear something in the street (us!) and lets out a couple of tentative phishing barks.  Woody doesn't fall for it, but the second Lab in the house says "What the hell, we've got nothing better to do!", and lets out a series of alarmed barks.

Aaaaaaaand so it begins.  The two Labs bark in unison while Woody takes his sweet time inspecting the curb in front of their house.   He's pretending to be very involved with a scent, but he doesn't fool me.  I see those ears moving.  I know his position is deliberate.  I prompt him to move on.

Right on cue comes the yelling and shouting from inside the house.  A woman -  I've never actually seen her - starts to yell at the dogs, I assume to get them to quiet down.  Instead, she creates an even louder mess as the dogs erupt into a barking, snarling frenzy, probably convinced she's barking right along with them.  Team Lab.  The chaos doesn't die down until we're long gone.  (Unfortunately for Team Lab, the only way back home for us is to walk by this house again!).

So why are all of these dogs barking at us?  Are they bored?  Stressed?  Being protective?  Afraid?  Neurotic?  The short answer is:  Yes.  Or no.  Maybe.  Does it really matter why?

I used to think it did.  Whenever I was contacted to consult for a barking dog, I'd ask a bazillion questions, trying to get to "the root of the problem".   It turns out the root is actually not that important.  The problem, is the barking in the window.  The problem, is that this behaviour is immensely reinforcing to the dog, no matter why he does it.  The problem, is that it won't go away on its own.

The problem, is almost always solved by simple management.  Remove the dog's access from the window; give him something to do while you're gone; don't be gone for 10-12 hours a day (seriously... like I even need to say that).  And in the case of Team Lab - for god's sake, resist the urge to bark with them.

The sad truth is that most people aren't even aware of what their dog does while he's alone in the house.  Set up a video camera one day.  Or park up the street and walk back.  See for yourself. 

In the meantime, I need to take Woody for his walk....

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