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Bark the halls — company’s coming!

It’s not too late to teach your dog good manners before guests arrive for the holidays

[From Tufts December 2010 Issue]

 The holidays are fast approaching. The prospect of friends and family dropping in for festive visits looms large, and you’ve procrastinated on your commitment to teach your dog better company behavior. Your biggest concern: Your dog is quite vocal about announcing guests and sharing party conversations. Last year was a nightmare, and you have vowed not to repeat the experience. What can you possibly do in a few short weeks?

As with most undesirable behaviors, there’s modification and there’s management. You can start a modification program in the time you have left, but chances are you’ll need a large helping of the following along with the basic modification program.

Management solutions
Put your dog in another room when guests are expected, as far from the action as possible. Lock the door so no one can let him out or go in and bother him. Crate him if he’ll do better crated. Give him a dog toy well-stuffed with high-value treats or several toys — and refill as necessary — to keep him happily occupied. Practice shutting him in another room with a treat-stuffed toy when you don’t have guests to help him learn to love it.

Exercise your dog well before any planned activities. A walk around the block won’t do — he needs aerobic exercise to use up the energy he’d devote to barking as well as encourage the release of naturally calming endorphins. Assuming a reasonable level of fitness and the absence of medical conditions that preclude vigorous exercise, throw a ball or Frisbee he can fetch repeatedly. Invite his favorite canine pal over to play until both their tongues are dragging. Play heavy-duty tug with him until your arms are ready to fall off.

A trainer friend of mine uses a Manners Minder — a machine that dispenses treats remotely — to exercise her effervescent golden retriever. If she’s downstairs, she puts the machine upstairs and pushes the remote. Truman runs up the carpeted stairs to get the treat and then comes back to her. Beep, run, treat.

If your dog is well trained and a suitable location is nearby, take him for long, off-leash, run-your-legs-off hikes in the hills. I used to hike to the top of a steep hill with my high-energy Australian kelpie and throw the ball for her to fetch — over and over and over.

Give your dog something to do when company’s coming. If he loves toys, encourage him to hold one in his mouth. Let him greet visitors that way and he’ll be less likely to bark. Set a basket of toys outside your door with a sign asking visitors to take one and give it to your dog as they enter. If he has had good-manners training, have your sign read, “Ask the dog to sit, then give him the toy.” Might as well have everyone reinforce good manners while you’re at it!

Install a Pet Barrier (www.thepetbarrier.com): This device attaches to your door and doorframe. When you open the door, the barrier extends from the frame and blocks your dog’s access to the visitor, preventing overenthusiastic greetings and door-darting, allowing you to open the door with calm confidence. When your dog has settled, you disengage the barrier from the door and let it retract so your visitor can enter.

Send your dog elsewhere. If he’s going to cause a disturbance, stress you out, stress himself out and make the event less enjoyable for everyone, take him to a friend or family member’s house for the afternoon and evening, so everyone can have an enjoyable time. It’s a good idea to do a practice run to make sure this will work for all parties.

Board him. Like the previous management suggestion, this removes him from the stress-causing environment and lets everyone relax. If guests are staying several days, your dog can chat up the other dogs at the kennel while they visit. Of course, some expense is involved, and good kennels book up early for the holidays. If you’re considering this option, call your favorite kennel now.

You can modify your dog’s behavior so the need for management decreases. Whether you can do it in time for the holidays depends on several factors, including:

- Genetics: A dog who has a genetic propensity to be reinforced by barking can be a bigger modification challenge than one who does not. Typically, the herding dogs and some of the terriers and toy breeds seem to have strong programming for barking. That doesn’t mean they all do or that other breeds don’t.

- The length of time he’s been practicing the barking: The longer he’s been at it, the longer it may take to change the behavior

- Personality: A generally anxious dog may be more committed to alarm barking, while a gregarious one might be a candidate for happy, excited barking.

- Reinforcement history: If your dog barks for attention and people pay attention to him when he does, or if he barks from fear or protectiveness and people move away from him when he barks, the behavior has been reinforced and may take longer to modify.

- Intensity of the barking: The more energy he puts into his barking, the more unwilling he may be to give it up.

- Emotion behind the barking: Intense anxious or aggressive barking can be harder to modify than happy, excited barking. The emotion is stronger and more deeply seated in stress.

By modifying, we don’t mean punishing him when he barks. A growing number of studies confirm that positive punishment — making an aversive/bad thing happen, such as yelling, throwing or spraying things, or hitting — increases a dog’s stress, thereby increasing the potential for aggression. You may be able to suppress barking behavior in the moment by doing something aversive, but the dog’s likely to bark again the next time because you’ve increased his stress and haven’t taught him an acceptable alternative. Worse, you may be pushing him toward aggressively defending himself one day, and his aggression may be directed at visitors if he perceives them as the reason for your sudden violent behavior.

It’s helpful to understand your dog’s motivation to bark. If he’s barking from anxiety, stress or fear, then counter conditioning may be the best approach to modify the behavior. If you can increase his confidence and change his opinion about the presence of guests in your home from “Threat/Scary!” to “Yay — guests make good stuff happen!” then he won’t feel the need to bark.

If you get many visitors during the holidays, it’s a perfect opportunity to implement a counter conditioning and desensitization program (CC&D), especially if your visitors will cooperate. CC&D gives your dog a new, positive association with an aversive stimulus, so he’s no longer fearful and feels compelled to bark.

How CC&D works:
1. When you are home, keep a “tab” on your dog. You can cut an old leash into the best length of 6 to 8 inches. Or use a longer light-line — a lightweight thin cord — so it’s easy to gather him up when someone comes to the door. Have high-value treats in your pockets or in plastic containers in every room of the house. The instant he becomes aware that someone is arriving — and preferably before he starts to bark — gently grasp his tab or line and start feeding him tiny bits of your treat. Even if he’s started barking, go ahead and feed him. We are less concerned about reinforcing the barking and more concerned about changing his association and emotional response at this moment.

2. Continue to feed treats and restrain your dog a good distance from the door while, preferably, another family member greets the guest. If you are the only one home, calmly escort your dog to another room and close the door, feeding all the while, then greet your guest. You may want to post a sign on the door explaining to visitors that there will be a delay in door-answering while you manage the dog.

3. Now, ask your guest if he will exit and enter several times, so you can take advantage of the opportunity to get more modification bang for your buck. While he leaves, retrieve your dog and be prepared to feed high-value treats each time your guest enters. As you repeat this exercise, you can expect to see your dog start to eagerly look at you for treats when he hears your guest opening the door.

For some dogs, the holidays are too imminent for modification to be completed, and you may need to rely on management strategies to keep the season merry. A boarding kennel is still an attractive option, especially if you’re planning a wild New Year’s Eve party. While we’re on the subject of the New Year, why not resolve to complete his behavior modification and training program in 2011 so next year’s holiday season can be bark-free?

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