Ask Jean Donaldson

Q: My normally quiet dog, Chula, has
lately started barking at all sorts of things she finds strange (the
workmen doing sewer upgrades in our neighbourhood, anyone with a limp,
someone running by her, skateboards, etc). She sometimes also
exuberantly barks at nothing at all, like when she runs ahead of me
into our office building in the morning, announcing her arrival. She’s
just 10 pounds, so I’m not sure how to effectively chastise her so this
doesn’t turn into a full fledged barking problem. A stern "NO" is
definitely not doing the trick. I also don’t want to look like a bully
when I have to correct her when we’re walking down the street. -Lady,
New York, NY

Good call to not clobber her for barking on the street as it’s a very different animal from the barking she does at your office.

Chula barks on the street, it’s because her fight-flight button has
been pushed. She’s freaked out and barks to keep the limping person or
other scary thing at bay. This is automatic software that dogs run when
they’re spooked, much the same way horses run horse applications like
rearing up or bolting when they get spooked. If you’re harsh with her,
you’ve put her in a double bind, no different from you being punished
for recoiling from a spider. It would bump the stress up even more and
possibly result in neurotic behavior, including, ironically, barking.

deep solution is to gradually increase her confidence about these
things. Whenever she spooks, immediately put on a happy face yourself,
giggling and baby-talking her and then offering her a favorite treat.
Keep offering until she’s back in her head enough to eat it. It’s worth
keeping a supply in a snackie bag in your pocket just for such
conditioning. If ever you have time, hang out for a little longer next
to workmen or skateboard parks, feeding plenty of treats the whole
time. Chances are, she’ll get more used to them and you’ll accelerate
her associating them with snacks.

The arrival announcing sounds
like plain, old-fashioned, bursting-at-the-seams excitement. For this,
you can provide a plain, old-fashioned consequence. Before you enter,
remind her ("Quiet, please!") and, then, on the very first bark, inform
her she’s blown it ("Too bad for you."), scoop her up, and put her in
the penalty box: her crate with a blanket over it. After a couple of
minutes, let her out. Repeat as necessary. ■

Jean Donaldson is
the founder of the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers and
author of several books on dog training and behaviour, including Dogs
are from Neptune and The Culture Clash.