In the Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?”, a young boy was charged with keeping watch over the family flock of sheep. One day, to amuse himself, he went to the town and cried “Wolf, wolf!” People rushed to his aid and it was a thrill for him, so he repeated this day after day. No wolf was ever found so the people, of course, began to realize that he was lying and eventually no one came to help. Not long after, a wolf actually did come for the sheep. That day, when the boy cried out to the village for help, no one believed him and the wolf had a satisfying meal.

The moral of the story: “Liars won’t be believed even when they tell the truth.”

If we replace the boy in the story with your “watchdog” that barks at each and every little thing, well, the moral of this story could be “Nuisance barkers won’t be believed, even when there is an ax murderer at the door”! That’s not such a great watchdog, right!?

We can add another moral…

“The life of a dog can get pretty boring so you better provide something for amusement or beware… they will keep busy by creating an activity; perhaps barking!”

Barking can be valuable to alert us when someone is on our property or to warn us from impending danger but we don’t need protection from the casually strolling couple, every car passing by or the leaf fluttering down to land on the lawn. This is just nuisance barking.

But can you teach a dog when there is reason to bark? Yes. Of course, it is more of a challenge if they have already become a nuisance barker and habits are formed. This can’t be covered completely in a blog, but beginning with the “Say Please!” strategy shared in the last blog will help your dog understand that he should check in with you. In the next blog, I’ll cover a little about habits and how to change those. For now, here are some pointers on how to respond.

“I’m Barking! Are you Listening?”

Yes, I am sure you are but what they heck should you do!?

The Ax Murderer:

There really is someone at the door and you are happy your dog is barking! Let it continue, if controlled. Most of us will never be faced with an ax murderer or the like, of course, but if you live in an unsafe area, live alone or worry because people show up at your door occasionally, you may want a dog for protection. You’ll be happy to know that most criminals will be scared off by barking or even the mere presence of a dog.

Years ago, I took a course on Criminology taught by a policeman to learn how to protect myself. The instructor made a point that stuck with me. He said that most criminals targeting a home or a victim walking, will opt to avoid one with a dog. They’ll just move on to the next target. In fact, you can even leave a large bowl and bone outside, put up a “Beware of Dog” sign and that can be enough to deter a break-in.

But if you are concerned that barking is not enough and have considered training your dog to attack, please think again. Even if you need protection, you must be able to control your dog. When there is potential danger at your door, you should be able to use a previously-trained behavior for control, such as a down-stay in a specific location or be able to physically and calmly remove your dog from the door if needed. Stop and imagine the difference between a dog on command and in control vs. a dog that makes its own decisions, including when to attack.

By the way, previously trained behavior like a sit-stay can be a big bonus! Consider that your dog can appear even more menacing when you have the power to command him into a sit near the door or even better, higher up on a few stairs. Once in position, your dog can increase their intimidation with their eye contact, as if to say, “As soon as I’m released, watch out!” I am not suggesting you let someone in or even open the door. I am saying your dog does not need to be out of control to protect you.

I am also not suggesting that you train a dog to protect you or attack. Most dogs will naturally protect you and no training is recommended or needed to encourage it. In fact, if you do encourage it, you may create a dangerous dog.

I once had a client in clinical practice that had a 120# Rottweiler. He had to travel for work quite a bit so he got the dog to protect his wife and children while he was away. Unfortunately, he lacked any good control and the dog had become reactive and aggressive to all strangers. This was a dangerous dog and I worried about his children and their friends. At the hospital, we could not safely provide even routine veterinary care unless the dog was sedated. Even so, the owner was proud of the protection he had provided and could not be convinced otherwise. He is not alone. Many people are misguided about using a dog for protection and like him, they end up with a dog that cannot be safely handled, will make its own decisions about who to attack and most likely cannot be stopped once an attack begins. This is the last thing you want in a dog, much less in a home with children. This dog should have been carefully trained for obedience, including a “drop” on command. (With a “drop” on command or an “emergency down”, your dog will stop and go into a down on command, even if running.) And honestly, a 120# Rottweiler’s presence – especially if well-trained – is intimidating enough to keep any trouble away!

So basically, when you are in danger and your dog barks, your best response is to let him continue but under your control with a command or with physical means by calmly holding him back and using a barrier if needed.

The Invader:

Your dog is barking after seeing or hearing a noise indicating someone unidentified is on your property. You investigate the warning and determine there is no real threat, praise your dog and tell them “It’s okay!” Ideally, your dog relaxes and stops barking or your dog has a routine so he knows to retreat to a bedroom or crate when told. This is also the best response when a friend or someone approved such as a contractor, enters your home.

If your dog cannot settle, it’s a sign that he doesn’t trust you, isn’t being given the right signals and/or needs to be taught the proper response. Training can develop your dog’s trust and teach the proper response. The “Say Please” method described in the previous blog is invaluable and the best place to start. Your dog will learn to look to you for direction. Then you can also add in additional training to prevent jumping, to get him to retrieve a toy for distraction, to go to his crate, etc. There are lots of options for the dog that doesn’t care for your friends or vice versa.

The “Nothing” :

Your dog is barking at a random noise, object or passerby that is at a reasonable distance or posing no threat. Your dog may continue even with reassurance. This is now nuisance or excessive barking and needs to be prevented from becoming a habit or from strengthening what has become a bad habit or it will just get worse. In addition, your dog will need to learn how to determine if something is a real threat – WHEN to bark.

In the last blog, using “Say Please!” was outlined. This practice will teach your dog to look to you for direction and develop trust. It also provides attention. So when you reassure your dog someone is a friend or that you know the meter reader is there and you’ll handle it, your dog is reassured and settles. Everyone in the house that wants this ability to manage your dog will need to implement “Say Please!” Otherwise, when that person is responsible for your dog, you will need to put preventive methods in place, such as pulling the shades to prevent viewing people passing by.

What’s Next?

Your dog may begin problem barking for a number of reasons and while you don’t want to stop all barking, you do not want excessive barking. Every time your dog excessively barks, he is forming or strengthening a habit that can be very difficult, but not impossible, to change. Prevention is key.

Check back for more on habits and what you can do to change them in the next blog! Do you have a watchdog that is also good with your friends? Please leave a comment below!