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Jul 4, 2023

When I'm Calling Yoouuu!

Scout’s owners wanted their little dog to “talk” to them. Welcomed into their hearts and home at 9 weeks of age, Scout had reached the 16 week mark without a single woof. And the owners wanted very much to hear from her.

When I'm Calling Yoouuu!

Which they did about a month later when Mr. Doorbell beckoned and Scout responded with a few tentative barks. Success! The smiling owners rushed to join her at the front door. Scout wriggled and waggled, the visitors were enthralled. A new puppy in the family always attracts visitors. And the owners felt that Scout’s heralding barks would be both convenient and harmless.

In a matter of weeks Mr. Doorbell emerged as the best trainer in the house. No matter where Scout was in the spacious 4-story home, when Mr. Doorbell called she morphed into a heat seeking missile aimed at the front door. No amount of human speed could win this race giving Scout plenty of time to spin herself up into a frenzy of jumping and barking.

Eventually Scout learned that she could pair barking with stuff she wanted. The little dog could not open doors or fetch a tennis ball from her toy box, but her owners could. In no time at all, Scout had them hotfooting up and down stairs to satisfy her varied wants. The owners moved quickly because they loved their little dog and because they wanted to maintain harmony with the neighbors.

Of course, Scout understood only what happened in front of her: She barked and her people responded instantly. Over time the frequency and intensity of Scout’s barking continued to grow reaching a frantic rhythm and pitch that drove everybody crazy. The owners never conceived their cute little dog could develop such an intense barking habit.

Yet everything about Scout was intense. I had been her dog walker since she was 9 weeks old and watched her develop into a playful, independent, and very energetic terrier. Scout was over 2 years old when she began attending dog daycare in the hope her high spirits could be channeled into chasing tennis balls all day. But there was a problem. After observing the staff’s routine on her first day, she began every morning barking incessantly at the toy bin she could see through the fence. The bin was tucked out of sight but barking continued because, we believed, she could smell the tennis balls. There was no easy fix. And Scout was less than neighborly toward other dogs while expressing her wishes at the top of her lungs. For her to succeed, the barking had to stop.


Back when I learned to use a clicker, Scout was one of my practice pups for walking nicely on-lead. A challenging choice because she was a furry munchkin with smarts and lightning reflexes. With the help of positive reinforcement, we got it done. Now I wanted to change the mind of a dog that had barked most of her life.

To begin, she was separated from the other dogs but Scout could see, hear, and smell everything. Dogs were playing, toys were being tossed by the staff, and Scout barked at all of it. I stationed myself outside her enclosure with my back to Scout, holding a clicker and yummy treats. The sessions were limited to 30–40 minutes.

The first click + yummy treat would follow the first two seconds of silence. I do not exaggerate that it took almost 40 minutes of piercing barking to get those first two seconds. Because she was clicker savvy, Scout caught on fast though giving up barking was difficult for her. After a few more 2-second repetitions, I was able to stretch her to 5 seconds, then 7, 9, 15, 20, and so on. At 60 seconds the minutes began to accumulate faster. After 9 sessions over as many days, Scout could spend 40 minutes in the enclosure with tennis balls flying everywhere and not make a peep.

Yes, she still barked outside the enclosure but Scout was consistently ignored for making noise. Only her silence was rewarded. One day Scout’s tennis ball bounced into a staff-only area and she sat down at the fence, this cute little bundle of a dog, and waited quietly for someone to bring it back to her. I keep a mental snapshot of that moment near the top of the pile.

Scout became a model of self-control. A few weeks later one of her owners casually mentioned he was walking by an open doorway and was shocked to see Scout sitting quietly in front of her toy box waiting for one of them to get her a tennis ball. I couldn’t stop the tears.

Did you know?

There are a number of ways to get rid of dog behavior you don’t want. Below is one belief about barking and four methods to resolve problem barking. A combination of numbers 2 and 4 were used to help Scout kick her habit:

1. When the dog barks, hit, slap, yell, squirt liquids, or threaten with blunt objects.
Punishment is humanity’s favorite method. And it seems to work because the dog stops. But if the dog starts barking again, is it because we didn’t inflict enough punishment?

2. Turn your back or leave the room when the dog begins barking.
Return and give attention at once when the dog stops barking.

3. The dog will eventually stop barking.
If the barking is to get attention, giving attention will reward the barking. Motivation aside, all barking is self-reinforcing and seldom will a dog decide to spontaneously quit.

4. Train an incompatible behavior.
Teach the dog to lay down on command. Like most of us, dogs seldom bark while lying down.

5. Train the dog to “speak” for a food reward.
Easy to capture since the dog already has a barking habit. Once trained, gradually fade the command. This method is surprisingly effective but proceed with caution. A clever dog could turn it around on you.

— Adapted from "Don’t Shoot The Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training" by Karen Pryor

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