Recently I was at an obedience trial and watched a dog bark every time they did the Utility GO OUT. Another dog barked for most of the dumbbell retrieve in Open. Still another dog barks when heeling. What do all of these dogs have in common when competing?… they will get big point deductions from the judge and may even get eliminated from the class if the barking is excessive.
How do people manage or NOT manage barking? I have heard over and over the comment, “I am not worried about the barking since it shows my dog is happy and excited about what he is doing…” such as retrieving the dumbbell or doing a go out, or heeling. Other frustrated people use some form of negative reinforcement.
Shaping a NO BARK Through Positive Reinforcement.
Some of us enjoy training our dogs for the interaction with them and the joy of watching that ah-hah moment when they understand and can perform a behavior we are training. It is not about the titles, ribbons and placements but about the teamwork we can develop and the joy it brings us to experience this with them.
Operant conditioning, which I have written so much about, is the art of shaping behaviors through positive reinforcement rather than eliminating behaviors you do not want through negative reinforcement, punishment or even worse FEAR. Shaping involves dissecting a behavior into its smaller parts, helping the dog to understand the correct criteria for each part and rewarding their correct behavior. Reinforcement strengthens the behavior and is a strong training tool when used correctly. This writing is not about shaping and how it is used other than to point out how shaping formed the foundation of how I stopped Myst’s barking in her GO OUTS.
A Few Basic Principles:
- We must break down a behavior or training outcome into small pieces and shape its training.
- By understanding the parts we as trainers are better understanding the criteria for the correct performance or behavior.
- Next we need to consider how we are going to communicate this criteria for behavior to our dogs.
- What will be our reinforcement schedule as we continue to build and understanding and perfection in this behavior?
- Trust that the absence of reward indicates that the behavior was NOT correct.
- We should not allow the dog to continue with what they are doing if they are not doing it correctly. By allowing them to continue we are not building that understanding of the correct performance and we are not being fair to our dogs.
- AND, we need to understand our dog and how best to communicate all of this to them. Each dog is different and we often have to adjust our training to address each dog’s unique personality. In dog training there are NO RECIPES.
Meet Myst and Her Barking Challenge
Myst, my young Border Collie is very high drive and loves to bark. She barks when she runs, is excited, thinks I am not going fast enough for her; she barked in agility and during her GO OUTS in obedience.
I had never had a dog that barked doing agility, obedience or herding. Myst started to do some barking when she was a puppy and I was training her in agility foundation work, tricks and some balance disc work. I read this as, she is having fun and it is OK for her to bark. I also was not sure how to stop the excited barking when she was doing agility. For trick training I found that she seemed to bark when she was not understanding the behavior I was asking for but when she understood it and could do it the barking stopped.
We continued on with life and agility work and training ignoring the barking. It was not until we started doing Utility work in obedience that I found the GO OUT exercise was causing Myst to bark. She barked in the car when she heard me work with Kaffee giving him his GO OUT commands. Every time I set her up to do a GO OUT she made some noise. When I sent her she barked, squeaked or whined.
This was NOT acceptable and I knew I could not continue any training of the GO OUT while she was barking or making any noise.
Very early we changed her GO OUT from a GO TOUCH or GO BOP to a tiny lid with food. Using this method did not seem to cause her to make any noise, however this method did not work for Myst since after her first GO OUT to the food she had no idea why she was being asked to go again since she had already taken the reward. She acted confused and offered behavior like going out over the jump, looking back at me and just looking and acting confused.
This was the first time that I really thought about how to better understand who Myst was, what she was trying to communicate to me and what I could do to help her develop the behavior I was asking for. Myst is a highly intelligent Border Collie, perhaps more than my other Border Collies. AND more importantly she is an honest worker and does try to understand what I am asking her. Now it was up to me to take the next step and know her better and how to work with her.
While driving I thought and thought about this GO OUT challenge of her not understanding the second send for the GO OUT. I realized that Myst has been trained to do a behavior and get a reward each time. She was clearly not understanding how I was trying to teach this first GO OUT so I decided to change to the GO BOP/GO TOUCH method that I had originally been introduced to from a seminar with Laura Romanik.
I read over the notes from Laura’s seminar and started re-teaching the GO OUT thinking that Myst was a little older and perhaps would not bark. WRONG… sometimes she did not bark; sometimes she barked; sometimes she whined waiting, whined running out; or just made noise during this exercise. None of which are acceptable in competitive obedience.
I had worked some with Laura in trying to get more help for Kaffee on his GO OUT problems and changing him to this method. I also had the opportunity to ask Laura more about teaching the GO OUT from beginning to end AND… what I might do about barking.
Laura told me how she worked with her students who had dogs that barked when being sent. She did not let the GO OUT continue but called the dog back after walking away from the GO line… It is important not to have a negative associated with the GO line. The thinking is that the dog is not allowed to continue incorrect work (which was the bark) and that there was not reward or reinforcement. The re-send would be done and when the dog does the GO OUT without barking and did it correctly touching the stantion, then the reward was given.
I tried and tried this for quite a few weeks with Myst. Sometimes she was good, other times she barked, squeaked or whined. There was no telling when it would happen or how to stop it.
I was becoming very frustrated and discouraged – nothing seemed to work to stop the noise during the GO OUT set-up or send (see the video below). I thought I might have to give up my obedience training with Myst. Then I remembered how Susan Garrett always talked about the challenges in dog training and how a dog was given to us for us to learn from. Each dog has its own challenges and if we embrace them we can become better dog trainers.
So once again, I did some serious thinking about what Myst’s barking and what her noise was about in our GO OUT work. The only other time I had seen her do any noise or bark was when she was not comfortable with performing a Utility exercise correctly such as finding a scent article at a show when entered in Pre-Utility. I realized that she knew and enjoyed her scent articles but was over stimulated by the show environment and her lack of experience performing this exercise at a show.
I found that going back to the basics of her finding a scent article and building on that helped to build her confidence and the noise was eliminated.
From past experience I also knew that Myst does NOT RESPOND to NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT well. I am not sure many dogs do, but she just showed this more by not having it bother her, or offering a really bad alternative in her behavior…. For example while learning to pick up the dumbbell correctly she would pick it up by the bell and not do a clean pick-up. One day out of frustration I went out and verbally scolded her, gave her the dumbbell and told her to HOLD IT!! Well this came back to haunt me. Our first time showing in Open competition she did not pick up the DB correctly and knew it. She brought the DB back to me and dropped it at my feet as if saying… HERE, YOU TAKE IT!! The same day, she ran around the jump for the retrieve over the high jump and again dropped it at my feet.
Fixing this and being sure I never communicated my displeasure at her not picking up the dumbbell correctly took some time and another show. Another lesson learned.
So what to do about the GO OUT barking? I considered again changing the method for GO OUTs but quickly decided against this when I remembered that this is what ruined Kaffee’s GO OUTS.. changing them so often and never really getting a solid understanding of what he was being asked to do.
In examining all I knew about Myst I told myself:
1. She is very excited about this exercise
2. She is NOT trying to drive me crazy
3. She is an honest worker and just wants to know what I want her to do
4. She is extremely intelligent
5. I have allowed her to bark in agility and for our trick training so barking is a default behavior she offers when not understanding or overstimulated
6. She loves to be massaged and rubbed. I have always thought that massage feels good to dogs since it helps calm them and CALM must feel good.
Examining Her Bark Behaviors:
When thinking about when Myst barks I came up with this list:
- When she is over excited
- When she is not confident
- When she does not fully understand what I am asking
- When she is being impatient
Myst was showing me that she was over stimulated by some of the work we do and her first response is to bark. I realized that perhaps what I needed to do was CALM and quiet her. Taking this information I decided to try to calm Myst before sending her on her GO OUT. I set her up with the LOOK STRAIGHT, then I rubbed her chest, inside her ears, back of her neck and down her back. Then I stood up, waited and very quietly spoke, GO BOP. The first time I did this there was NO NOISE. The second time NO NOISE. I tried this same method of calming first before the send in different rings, with different ring pictures and a few different locations. Each time having the same positive result… No barking, whining or squeaking.
The video below shows her barking and noise before I worked on this calming and then how I calm her and how beautiful and quite her GO OUTS are now.
I was so excited but could not share this until it had been tested at a show. We have now been to 3 shows and tried this in Pre-Utility. Not only did Myst correctly do her GO OUT to different ring pictures other than the gates and stantion she trains with but there has been NO BARKING!
Since I started this with Myst and shared this with Laura Romanik, I learned that Brenda Aloff, who has been training dogs for over 20 years and does a lot of work with problem dogs uses a “Be Still” exercise to calm dogs so they can me more receptive to our work and communication through relaxation and impulse control.
Visit Brenda’s web site to learn more: http://brendaaloff.com/
This article was written about the “Be Still Cue” and how to teach it to your dog:
My Breakdown of Shaping Steps for the GO Out in Utility
1. Dog is in ready position (heel position at my side and ready for exercise) and I use my cue for "LOOK STRAIGHT" to where her GO OUT send is.
2. Dog is relaxed and calm in this ready position
3. Dog is sent using a verbal and hand signal: "GO BOP"
4. The GO OUT must be silent
5. The dog goes straight down the GO LINE to the GO BOP stantion or marker in the ring.
6. The dog touches the stantion as a default; if asked to SIT, dog sits before the BOP immediately when asked.
7. Dog is directed over the indicated jump (bar or high)
8. Dog comes over jump to front position.
9. Dog is given the signal to finish and return to heel position.
10. Exercise is repeated for the second jump.
NOTE: Myst has been trained and shaped in each of these steps. In the video you will see the final result of the entire exercise done correctly using a shortened calming cue.
Using the Calming Cue for Dog Training
Little has been written about the importance of quieting and calming your dog before training. Susan Garrett and others do write about the arousal curve and the optimum arousal level for a dog’s learning. Linda Tellington-Jones TTouch method has been used by many as a therapeutic method for relaxing and calming dogs. However, until I was directed to Brenda Aloff’s work I had not heard of using a calming or be still cue to help with over arousal. A lot of Brenda’s work is done with rescue dogs and dog problems, not specifically barking.
I believe that using a calming cue is not magic. It is but one of our shaping tools to help prepare our dogs for learning. By using some form of calming or relaxation we are helping to move our dog from the over aroused state in the hind brain which regulates basic life functions and from where emotions such as fear, reactivity and excitement arise, to the front brain where we find the intellect with decision making, reasoning and learning can occur. We must first take the steps to teach our dog how to be calm and relaxed by teaching the relaxing cue and looking for their response to this. Eventually the cue is reduced and just a stroke along the back or neck calms the dog for the learning.
Some people who do not understand shaping and operant conditioning expect too much too fast. They may try this calming once or twice and give up when the dog barks again. Like all behaviors, reinforcement over time for correct behavior solidifies the desired behavior. The longer that barking has been allowed, the longer it takes to eliminate this problem.
Again, I direct you to the article summarizing Brenda Aloff’s work and a description of the Be Still Exercise from her book, Get Connected With Your Dog
Below is my short video of Myst’s problem barking and noises with her GO OUTs and how I have successfully worked with her to stop this behavior.
Applying the Calm Cue to Other No Bark Situations
As I wrote previously, I have not had a dog that barks in a performance sport. This was new to me and I underestimated how barking can escalate and perhaps become a problem. I have learned a valuable lesson from Myst and will work very hard to prevent any barking with any future puppies. This is what I know:
- Puppies need to learn about touch and how they enjoy touch and massage.
- Touch becomes a way to calm a puppy or dog and can be used before training.
- Touch is a way of connecting to a dog and promoting a positive interaction
- Touch as a way to relax a dog helps to promote learning and improve training.
- Teach silence; do not wait for barking to occur
- Teach and reward quiet behavior. When the dog is being quiet use a signal such as tapping the dog's head with your fingers and a word such as "quiet". REWARD for your dog. This will become your cue for silence when your dog barks. Again, this must be practiced in order to be effective. Reward quiet behavior!!!
- Never continue with training when any form of barking occurs. Stop, ask for either your silence cue or use some method to calm and refocus the dog. In agility, this would occur with the foundation training before the dog is aroused and excited with running a course.
- Remember to always reinforce quiet behavior.