Laddie's World

   If you were to ask a thousand average dog owners if their dog makes noise, most will say "Yes, my dog likes to bark." Ask the same question to just about anyone who owns a collie and they will tell you "Yes, my collie likes to talk". What's the difference?
   Collies as a breed are a very sensitive, very expressive breed of dog that happens to be talkers by nature. Now, I'm not saying that other breeds and other dogs aren't as expressive as we are, but the consistency of this has become so much a part of the lure and legend of the collie breed that it is almost an expected instinctive trait. Before I get ahead of myself, let me talk a little about barking and what it's function is.
   Barking is a communicative skill just like growling, whining and howling. Its basic function is to alert or bring attention to something. It could be signaling an intruder is present, being used in an offensive ploy to frighten or chase something away and can even be used to signal that a need must be met for survival (such as an empty water bowl or companionship). When barking is applied at the right moment, in the right circumstance, and with the right amount of emphasis in conjunction with body language, the desired result can usually be achieved. But how do they learn what the result should be? As with everything else in your dog's repertoire it is all a matter of trial and timing. As an example... A young puppy is half asleep by the front door when suddenly the mail man shoves the mail through the slot in the door. The puppy is startled to full wakefulness and in recognition that something alarming just happened he may bark in alarm. Now that he is fully awake chances are good that he can hear the retreating steps of the mail person moving on to the next house. But the poor puppy doesn't know that the mail person's job is to approach every house, deliver mail and then move on. All he knows is that when he barked he then heard retreating steps. After several repetitions of this the puppy begins to associate his barking with the mail person's leaving (or in his mind running away). The puppy now believes that it is his barking that makes the mail person leave and will in time feel it is his job to bark at the mail person everyday because he can successfully chase the intruder away just by barking. In time this can become associated with anyone who comes to the door and when the person doesn't leave or is allowed in it can even evolve or escalate into a dangerous form of aggression. The puppy can quickly come to associate that barking is a good offensive maneuver to use whenever they are unsure, nervous or outright fearful.
   Another example of how the timing of reactions to barking can teach a desired response is the puppy who is left outside. The bored and lonely puppy may attempt to bark a number of times to communicate the need for attention and companionship. The owner, if home, may not have the time just then to adequately occupy the puppy as he probably should have in the start and in irritation (or with the irritated prompting of a neighbor) shout to the puppy angrily to be quiet. It might work initially, but sooner or later he usually starts up again and will usually be yelled at again. With consistency of that same response the puppy or dog will learn that even though it is negative attention, they can command their owners to respond to them. Thus the dog who barks for attention when alone or ignored is born. (And so to may numerous run ins with police "excessive sound" citations and visits to a courtroom!) Yes, it's all about timing!
   Now that you know this, you can easily see why it takes very little encouragement to get a collie to get into the habit of talking. We are such a companionship oriented breed that we will learn VERY QUICKLY to do whatever it takes to get the attention we need and crave.
   So how does one prevent this from becoming a problem or issue? Well, there are a few simple rules with collie ownership that can help this from even coming about.
   First and foremost, fill the puppy or dog's needs before he must ask for them to be filled. If you don't check his water bowl to be sure it has water and he is thirsty he may need to tell you by barking. Start games with him BEFORE he comes to you with that desire. Trust me, very few collies will turn down an invitation to play with their cherished human. If he has to come to you while you're watching TV because he has energy to expend then he may see a need to bark to get your attention.
   Make sure he gets out often enough and at the right times to relieve himself so he doesn't have to stand and bark at the back door. Basically, if a need isn't met he may tell you vocally.
   Make sure that your collie, whether a puppy or adult, has plenty of exercise to tire him out BEFORE you go on that super long telephone call or go outside to do your gardening. A well-exercised tired collie tends to be happy, fit, and more likely to nap than bark.
   Make sure that your collie has something appropriate to do whether you are there or not. Barking out of complete boredom is to easy to prevent to let it become a problem that has to be corrected harshly for later on.
   Working on basic obedience can give a dog a sense of contentment and make them confident in you and himself. Dogs that are confident in their place in the household fell less compulsion to resort to getting your attention in inappropriate ways. Besides, why bark when training has already taught him that sitting in front of you gets your response and even a reward?
   If you missed filling one of his needs or you have a dog that has already learned to bark for your attention than here is what you can do.
   First, you need to be sure he is barking for your attention. Don't look directly at the dog and more importantly don't make eye contact but just use your peripheral vision to glance quickly to see if he is facing you as he barks. Yes? Okay, now all you have to do is just ignore him. Sit quietly if you're watching TV, eating, or reading. If you're doing housework or cooking continue to do these activities making sure not to accidentally look at the dog. No yelling, or talking or petting allowed either. Complete lack of attention for undesirable attention getting behavior is necessary because of the next step which is... Once the dog stops barking for a moment, turn and look at the dog and acknowledge him. Praise for being quiet, "Good quiet!" and then proceed to figure out what the dog wants. By refusing to notice the dog until he is quiet you are essentially telling the dog that barking doesn't work so he needs to try something else. When he suddenly gets rewarded for being quiet he soon catch on to the idea that silence is golden. As he gets better begin to lengthen the amount of quiet time before acknowledging him but please be reasonable. There should be little reason to ignore a quiet dog, who obviously needs something, for more than a minute or two.
   If you want to incorporate a sit into this, you need simply ask him to sit (assuming he knows and responds quickly to the command) before issuing eye contact and the praise for being quiet. If your dog does not know the sit command yet you need to simply wait for him to do that action before noticing him. This is called "catching the behavior".
   If your dog has a habit of barking at other people or animals you must figure out why he is barking at them. Is it fear? Protectiveness? Territoriality? Dominance? Attention? It can be difficult to figure this out sometimes. Body language signals are subtle things that can be used to indicate more than one feeling. A dog that is barking heartily and lunging forward many not actually be trying to eat the other dog but simply get to it for greeting. By doing this previously and getting response such as acknowledgment from the desired animal or being allowed to go over by the person holding the leash, the dog has been conditioned to expect to get to the other animal with this behavior. Since safety is the paramount thing here, it wouldn't hurt to take your dog to a trainer or behaviorist who knows how to read canine body language so you can get a professional, objective explanation of the dog's behavior.
   If your dog is the type who barks at others just to get their attention or get to them and then stops barking when they get what they want, you'll need to teach them it will no longer work. Just like with jumping it will help to have people (and other dogs) who won't acknowledge your dog's behavior or elicits the least inappropriate response (such as a family member or second family dog). My mom finds that, when walking, as soon as a dog begins to focus on the other person or animal instead of its owner (try not to even get to where they start barking), the owner should turn the dog quickly and go back a few steps to a point where the dog can focus on the owner with little argument. (My mom calls this control through distance not force.) Do a few command exercises such as sits, downs, and attention at this comfortable distance. If the dog responds promptly then try walking a few steps closer to the distraction. It is okay to continue toward the person or animal as long as your dog gives you more of his focus than anything else. As soon as he begins to lose focus on you, turn him quickly and walk away again until he is under control and focused on you. Repeat this process as often as necessary until you can eventually make it all the way to the distraction without barking, pulling or fussing excitedly from your dog. This can take some time so be patient. Don't push a session to far and know your dog's limitations. Use your voice to communicate to your dog when he is pleasing you and succeeding and have treats handy to emphasize your happiness with him. You can use your corrective sound or phrase when he first starts to bark or act up and follow this quickly with your turn around. Remember that no matter what the other dog or person should not get to interact with your dog until it is behaving properly. In some rare cases a dog can get so frustrated that he isn't getting what he wants that they can begin to display inappropriate behaviors towards the owner that is restricting them. They may try grabbing the leash or the owner's hand with their mouth, jump up and on occasionally the dog may even growl. This is his way of saying, "Hello! Anybody there? Can't you see I want to greet that person?" To prevent this kind of dog from becoming frustrated to the point of showing inappropriate behaviors in retaliation for the restraint it would be acceptable to put the dog in a sit and then allow the person to come to them for a quick greeting. The dog gets what he wants as a reward and is appeased, though not in the normal manner, and aggression or retaliation towards the owner is usually averted. Next time though ask the dog to do a little better and go a little further before getting his reward. Asking the dog to sit and wait for the person or dog to come to him is fine as a regular part of his good behavior training, but asking him to do this ALL THE TIME just isn't practical. All around good behavior means being able to act nice whether they come to him or he goes to them so try working on both if possible. (If your dog is sometimes nervous or frightened of new people he may be more comfortable with approaching them. Try a combination of both exercises. Approach the person until a distance of several feet and them give your dog a queue to go say hello. This way they aren't crowded or forced into close contact they don't want and if they decide this person isn't their type they can retreat a few feet back to you.)
   If you a have a collie that likes to bark at small animals like squirrels or rabbits it can be a difficult job to get him to stop since he is probably doing it out of excitement at the possibility of a chase. A good thing to try is a little distraction and then some work. You can use the "turn around" exercise above and work on being able to get him to ignore the difficult distraction or at least strengthen your verbal control over the dog so you don't lose him in the woods chasing a rabbit.
   Remember that barking is normal dog behavior. Except for a few breeds that cannot bark there is no real way to naturally extinguish all the barking a dog does, but with careful management barking can be kept down to a minimum and in the end make everyone happy.