How to keep your dog focused when there’s barking all around!

In our group classes, we have a rule that if another dog barks, your dog gets a treat. This has proved to be puzzling to our owners until they give it a try and see that it is a great way to get their dogs in the class to remain calm and focused on them.

Think of it from the dog’s point of view:

Sparky: “WOOF!” (Hey, guys! We’re in class, wanna play? Huh? Huh?)

Phaedo: (Thinking) Hey, that’s Sparky! Hmm, maybe I ought to tell him that if I had opposable thumbs and could unhook this leash, I would SO love to play… 

But before Phaedo can respond, his owner swoops in with a tasty treat.02_dog_will be cute

Phaedo: (Thinking): Whoa! Chicken just happened! Cool! Got more?

Xerxes: “WOOF!” (Yo, Sparky, I got your back, Jack!)

Phaedo’s owner swoops in again.

Phaedo: (Chewing and thinking): What just happened here? One of the bro’s barks and I get chicken…hmmm. Perhaps there’s a pattern developing here???

A group class can be very exciting (or stressful) for our dogs as there are plenty of new smells, people, and dogs in a new environment. Some dogs will respond to this heightened awareness by vocalizing, and that can encourage other dogs to vocalize as well. Therefore, we advise owners to short circuit this cycle. By interrupting Phaedo’s orientation to Sparky (and Xerxes) with a tasty treat, Phaedo learned that when another dog is a distraction it is worth his while to check in with his owner. Moreover, when a dog is focused on his owner, and not the world around him, the owner can ask him to do something such as sit, down, or meditate on world peace. We have also found that it tends to lessen Sparky’s barking as well, because no one is responding to his alert. This nifty technique can be used outside of class as well.

This week I had our Bernese Mt. Dog at MedVet and decided to do a bit of an experiment as the waiting room at MedVet isKitchen Buckley busy with a variety of dogs in variable states of arousal, anxiousness, and/or excitement. Whenever I go to the vet’s office, I take a bait bag full of treats, to help keep my dog focused and relaxed, but this time I tried tying treats to the behavior of dogs around us.

I started by finding a place where we could sit and I would see the approach of any dog before Buckley. He was a bit nervous about being there, and was drooling, panting, and watching every movement around him (Buckley, being a Mt Dog, drools and pants even when not aroused, but this was a bit more intense). I gave him a few treats to get his focus on me. Then, a dog walked by, I offered a treat, Buckley checked in, and relaxed a bit. I had him lie down facing me to help him relax. Two dogs out of his sight at the front desk, squabbled and he shot up into a sit, got lots of treats from me as long as the dogs debated, and he settled himself into a down. When a dog walked by us, Buckley got a treat. When one vocalized, 2-3 treats. A shepherd mix growled at him, and he got a fistful of treats as we moved to a new location.

This continued into the examination room. A couple of dogs were clearly upset in the hallway outside the room and in the room next to us. I fed Buckley as the kerfuffle continued and while he alerted to the noise, he did not start pacing or whining in response to their stress (something he tends to do when he is excited). By giving Buckley a reward for his calm response, and keeping him focused on me, he had a much easier vet visit and did his part in keeping the general peace.

So, next time you are out with your favorite canine, take some treats along and when you hear another dog bark, whine, growl, or otherwise vocalize, give your dog a treat and you too will find that the barking of another dog will soon become a cue to your dog to check in with you.

15_dog_please send treats

General Training or "Why, Why, WHY?"4 comments

  1. Cool! If your dogs are like mine, just make sure they are super-high value, gravy-imbued bombs of tastiness such as they’ve never experienced before!

    • Julie Smith says:

      Love the term, “Gravy-imbued bombs of tastiness”! But, you are so right! The reinforcement for looking at you has to outweight the reinforcement of joining in the canine chorus.

  2. Mary Elliott says:

    Is Buckley okay?? I’m afraid my vet would have a fit if I brought in treats for the boys as she is sooo over the top on their weight issues! It is a GREAT idea though… Thanks

    • Julie Smith says:

      Hi Mary, Thanks for asking about Buckley. He had ACL surgery yesterday and comes home in the cone of shame today. The surgery went well an we expect a full and quick recovery.

      As for treats in the waiting room, one thing you could try is skipping breakfast on the day of a vet visit and feed that amount of kibble as treats in the waiting room. Hungry dogs are motivated dogs, so kibble will seem more wonderful than usual and they will likely be much more interested in it having skipped the most important meal of the day! Plus, you have the added advantage of not giving them additional calories!

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