Ask the Dogfather: Leo the barker

Photo by Michael West

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owner of Leo, a German Shepherd whose barking rocks the planet.

Dear Dogfather,

My wonderful German shepherd dog Leo barks. I guess all dogs bark, that’s what they do, but he’s a big dog, lots of teeth, and he scares people. He barks at people he doesn’t know, and he barks at people he does know, even my sons, who he sees many times every day. When people come in the house, despite his barking, he is all tail wagging and friendly as he can be.

In the car he rocks the planet with barking every time a dog walks by. Help!

What to do, what to do?

A loving owner of a barky dog

Dear Loving Owner of a Barky Dog,

Several years ago a vet who’s a friend of mine was quite dismayed when he was bitten by a dog whose tail was wagging furiously just before the bite. As I explained to him, there are different types of tail wags. If a dog loves to bite he’ll be wagging, looking forward to the bite. Same goes for barking. All kinds. Excited, playful, fearful, warning, lonely, just to name a few.

Sounds to me like Leo’s barking is habitual, which is not unique. Dogs are creatures of habit. If he seems to bark at everything all the time, it’s become a habit. What to do?

First thing Leo needs to learn is the command “quiet.”  As I’ve said often, the best way to train a dog is to have success build on success. Maybe start in the car where it’s just the two of you with a good spray bottle or water pistol. You’re not looking to give Leo a facial, so make sure your H20 firearm sprays a good stream, not a mist.

If people walking close to the car cause him to bark, don’t park next to the fire engine during fireworks; remember, success builds on success. Park where the occasional person with a dog walks by and as the person is approaching the car start getting Leo’s attention by talking calmly to him and offer him treats as long as he’s not barking.

When his mouth opens to bark he hears a firm “Quiet” with a spray between the eyes a split second after the word quiet. If he shuts up offer him treats as the person passes the car. Frankly, a toy poodle is more likely to respond to a little water than a German Shepherd, but try it anyway. You never know!

If that doesn’t work I’d consider an E collar, using a vibration mode as opposed to electric stim. If that doesn’t work I’d suggest the help of a pro to ensure proper timing and stim intensity. It should be weak enough to startle, not hurt.

Leo needs a “door turmoil routine” for people coming to the house; a routine to eliminate the turmoil at the door. Initially, thank him for barking to let you know somebody’s approaching the house. It’s one of his jobs. Then he’s told to go to his “spot,” located out of the way but with a view of the entering guests, and sit and stay, If he barks, it’s “Quiet,” and have the guests enter. After “Hello’s” with the visitors, Leo is told to come forward to meet the guests with a treat. No barking allowed at this point.

I’m a big fan of this routine because it’s a tone-setter. If he’s out of control when people come over he’s set the tone of the visit — unpleasant. But if he’s trained to do this routine, the tone that’s set is one of good manners and cooperation. You may need a pro’s help to effect this routine, especially with an intimidating German Shepherd.

Good luck

The Dogfather.