What Your Dog’s Bark Is Telling You
Statistics from the North Shore Animal League indicate that roughly 10 percent of all dogs adopted from U.S. shelters are eventually returned because of behavioral problems. But recent studies by the Humane Society have gotten to the heart of the matter, revealing that a full 41 percent of those problems specifically involve excessive, distracting, and often hostile barking. If there’s happy news to be gleaned from all this, it’s that most goodhearted rescuers hang on to their yappy adoptees and simply suffer sans silence. But the bad news is that that’s not really healthy in the long run for man or canine. Rather than keeping an endless supply of earplugs on hand, say, Cesar and other experts, try identifying the cause of the bothersome barking, which isn’t as tough as it sounds. There are generally four basic triggers—and each carries a very clear message.
When Cesar took on the case of Fella, an adorable Jack Russell/Italian Greyhound mix, the little dog’s antics were about to get his owner slapped with an eviction notice. At the apartment complex where Fella resided, he barked nonstop the entire time his adoptive mom was at work, ceasing only once she came home at night. The complex manager liked Fella’s owner, but when other tenants began complaining loudly, she didn’t feel she had a choice: Do something about the barking, she said, or you’re going to have to move out.
A notorious barker when he was at the shelter, Fella also yelped incessantly whenever he was in a car, and was overtly hostile toward other dogs. But it wasn’t long before Cesar got to the bottom of things. It turned out that high-energy Fella got only 15 minutes of exercise a day. So while separation anxiety was obviously a factor here, it was merely symptomatic of a much greater problem: Poor little Fella was bored out of his mind.
In the widely acclaimed behavior guide How Dogs Think, psychologist and author Stanley Coren asserts that in a case like Fella’s, how long a dog bark has everything to do with the message being sent. “The underlying rule,” he says, “seems to be that the longer the sound, the more likely the dog is making a conscious decision about the nature of the signal and the behaviors that are about to follow.” Taking into account the rate of repetition, Coren notes, is also critical to accurate interpretation. “Sounds that are repeated frequently, or at a rapid rate, indicate a degree of urgency.”
Faced with the fact that a return to the shelter might mean euthanasia, Fella’s owner got the message, admitting she’d been selfish in not devoting more time to developing an exercise regimen that would address Fella’s considerable needs. With Cesar’s help, she worked out a rigorous daily walking routine, as well as a morning ritual that involved brief but increasingly lengthy periods of separation, meant to prove to Fella that his owners leaving did not signify permanent abandonment. When Cesar returned to the apartment complex several months later, Fella was still happily ensconced, and there wasn’t a tenant to be found who’d heard him barking.
By the time Cesar arrived to film a Dog Whisperer episode with Prada, a pampered Pomeranian, the pup had become a Class-A brat. She worked herself into barking fits when she didn’t get what she wanted, and worse, used her considerable charms to attract houseguests’ attention, only to turn on them—growling in a threatening way—once she’d succeeded.
Prada had a weekly toy allowance of $100, was swaddled in cashmere, and was regularly treated to gourmet meals. To minimize her time alone, she often went to work with one of her owners.
The problem, though, wasn’t that Prada had been allowed to live out a doggie daydream, but, rather, the mind-set of her owners. Guilt- and grief-stricken over the loss of Prada’s mate, Gucci, two years earlier, they’d done everything they could to make things up to Prada, and to themselves. Yet it took Cesar just one walk with Pomeranian and parent to pick up on the “hysterical energy” that was spurring the dog’s frequent barking bursts and schizoid bouts of growling.
Prada required the standard rehabbing rituals—learning to walk the walk, being given toys only when she was in a calm-submissive state—but it was her owners who really had their work cut out for them. They were overindulging the dog to make themselves feel better, remembers Cesar. “I had to convince them of that, and get them to convince themselves that, even though they still loved Gucci, it was time to let go.” Once Prada’s owners were able to change their guilty mind-set, their histrionic energy abated and they were able to lead their pack of one with calmness and clarity—and belligerent barking became a thing of the past.
With dogs as with humans, say those in the know, it’s the context in which a sound is uttered—be it a word or a bark—that ultimately determines its meaning. In the New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog, author Alexandra Horowitz writes, “A sound a dog makes while wagging merrily means something different than the same sound delivered through bared teeth.” But more important, she says, “there is reason to believe dogs and all non-human animals respond ingenuously. In many cases, a sound will have a reliable effect on those in the vicinity: think Fire or Free Money!”
Or, as was the case with pampered Prada, You need to cut the crap! As Cesar himself has often noted, dogs do not lie.
Sonny, a rescued German Shepherd, was a huge hit at home with his owner and with dogs at the local park, too. The problem for Sonny, unfortunately, was everybody else. Early experience with animal control officials had so traumatized him he was left with a permanent fear of strangers, which he demonstrated by barking loudly and incessantly whenever one approached. This became especially problematic for his owner, who counseled adults with special needs and liked to bring Sonny along to the center where she worked. Whenever one of her clients tried to pet Sonny, the dog would bark madly until the client retreated in fear—at which point Sonny himself would dive under his mom’s desk and spend the rest of the day cowering.
“When his owner first rescued him,” says Cesar, “she told me that as he hid in his crate trembling, she petted him over and over as a means of assuaging his fears.” But what she actually did by offering affection when the dog was fearful, he insists, was reward the fear, giving off weak energy in the process. “When he got hungry, he would’ve gotten out of his crate, then she could have offered him food—and the food would have become affection.”
And though she obviously meant well, Sonny’s owner hadn’t set herself up as an authority figure with her gentle attempts to coax him out from under her work desk either. “Rather than making herself powerful, she was asking for a favor,” Cesar recalls. “When a dog shuts down and won’t move,” he says, “it’s like with horses. You just have to bring him out and get him out; bring him out and get him out. Then he sees he doesn’t have a choice.”
When Cesar, Sonny, and his owner went for their all-important walk, Cesar encouraged her to project the kind of authoritative energy that she routinely projected with her clients—rather than acting as though she were dealing with a scared, unpredictable dog and knew it. As she began to practice walking with authority, it got easier and easier to be authoritative in all of her interactions with Sonny. And as his leader’s confidence blossomed, so did Sonny’s confidence in her—and his fears abated in equal measure.
Secure in the hands of a confident leader, Sonny not only abandoned the barking-and-cowering routine but went on to actually assist his owner in her work.
When four-year-old Hootie—a budding agility-course champion—was just 18 months old, his promising career came to a screeching halt. He and his owner were heading home from practice one day when a team of skateboarding teenagers whizzed by at lightning speed, shouting loudly, and coming so close to Hootie they nearly clipped him. From that moment on, the Australian Shepherd was gripped by an intense fear of kids that not only made life difficult in general but made agility competition nearly impossible. At the briefest sighting of a teen in a crowd, Hootie would immediately freeze up and start to bark.
“The minute we met,” says Cesar, “Hootie’s owner told me how terrible she felt about what had happened, and that she felt responsible for not having protected him.” But feeling responsible wasn’t the worst of it. “She also told me,” he says, “that every time she was with Hootie and spotted a teenage boy, she’d begin to anticipate all the bad things that were about to happen.”
Curing Hootie’s panic-based barking required a three-pronged approach. His fear of kids could be addressed only by having him face them head-on—and to that end, Cesar’s sons, Andre and Calvin, were brought along on Hootie’s first rehab-centered pack walk. Once the dog understood the boys posed no threat, Cesar kicked things up a notch, putting Hootie through a new kind of obstacle-course training, in which Andre and Calvin themselves served as the obstacles. He was tentative at first, but it wasn’t long before Hootie was flying over the boys, leash-free.
Now that his owner understood that the sight of a child didn’t have to send Hootie into panic mode, she was able to visualize positive outcomes to future encounters. And the energy those positive pictures engendered helped regenerate Hootie’s confidence: If his leader was feeling good about teens on the scene, why shouldn’t he feel good too?
Alexandra Horowitz notes that a dog’s sensitivity to our emotions—particularly when those emotions involve our own fears—can’t be underestimated. “It is likely that dogs do smell fear, as well as anxiety and sadness,” she says. “Mystical abilities need not be invoked to account for this: fear smells. [When a person is fearful], pheromones are produced involuntarily and unconsciously, and through different means: damaged skin may promote the release of them, and there are specialized glands that produce chemicals of alarm. In addition, the very feeling of alarm, fear and every other emotion correlates with physiological changes—from changes in heart rate and breathing rate to sweating and metabolic changes.”
With his fears identified and faced, and a leader who no longer fueled them with her own frenzied thoughts, Hootie stopped barking and got back to agility training. And if the sight of a teen ever did happen to spook him, a brief introduction by his owner was all it took to bring him back to reality.