Each dog sport has it's own culture and rules, and as I compete in more and more venues I am noticing that sometimes these cultures may not serve us or our dogs well.
I just recently returned from a ten-day trip that circled through northern Arizona, Colorado, the length of New Mexico, and back through southern New Mexico and then on home. During that time I competed in a three-day herding trial in Durango, and a three day dock diving trial in Las Cruces. The people in both venues were incredibly kind and friendly, but their cultures were vastly different, and as mentioned above, the accepted norms in both sports (as well as others, which will be discussed) may not always serve our dogs or our best interests.
Today I want to discuss barking Dogs.
Last week's blog post discussed herding trials, and how you almost never hear a dog bark at one, because we know how it affects livestock.
As I play more and more in dog sports, I am finding that in some venues barking dogs are ignored entirely. No effort is made to stop them, or to lower their arousal to help them not spend every moment barking non-stop.
I find this attitude perplexing, astonishing, and somewhat dismaying.
Let's probe a bit into why dogs bark, and why, specifically these sports dogs are barking. Dogs bark for a multitude of reasons; they may. bark to ward off intruders, alert others to their presence, or tell another animal to give ground. These kinds of barks are usually short-lived and functional. Once the dog achieves their goal, the barking ceases.
Other forms of barking are centered more around what we call demand or frustration barking, and this type of barking can go on until the demand is met, or the frustration ceases. This is usually a higher pitched bark, than the ones discussed above.
In most cases, dogs barking at agility, dock diving, disc, and other high-speed, high-intensity events are barking out of excitement and frustration (where one bleeds into the other can be tricky to ascertain).
Some people think it's perfectly fine to allow their dogs to bark in this context for hours on end.
I do not.
What is the possible harm of barking if the dog is expressing excitement or frustration?
The first is the emotion of frustration. It could be said that by allowing our dogs to bark we are creating a valve to alleviate the pressure of frustration from having to watch other dogs do cool stuff while they have to wait. I liken this to allowing a child to scream and cry in line at Disney Land. This is not an acceptable form of expressing of frustration, nor is it beneficial to the dog. The stress and frustration are still present, and to fail to alleviate or mitigate that stress is not fair to the dog.
Barking, in this context can actually create a heightened emotional level of frustration, feeding into it, rather than alleviating or mitigating it. We would see this as the likely outcome if the barking is not brief, but continuous, and the dog's other arousal behaviors (jumping at the crate doors, panting, etc..) get worse not better.
In addition, barking is often incredibly stress-inducing in other dogs. Many dogs find barking dogs extremely stressful, and the sound of a barking dog can cause them to bark in kind, become upset and display other behaviors such as spinning, 'pancaking' to the ground, stress panting, and the like, or can cause them to become reactive and aggressive towards the barking dog, or generalize aggression to all dogs.
Last, barking dogs suck. It's not enjoyable for people to spend a day in building crammed with endlessly barking dogs! a dog barking produces about 100 decibels of noise, and a multitude can go up to 122 decibels. Noise pollution has health effects in humans (and dogs?) including hearing loss/impairment, stress, cardiac issues, high blood pressure, and sleep disturbances. Loud background noise can also affect memory, learning and concentration. There is no reason to believe that our dogs are not affected in the same way!
So, how do you deal with these types of situations? First, do not be a part of the problem! Yes, some dogs bark when they are frustrated! Both Ruby and Matilda, left to their own devices would yodel, scream, and bark nonstop. The good news? It's pretty easy to help our dogs make better choices when they're frustrated, and to lower their frustration overall, as well.
Start with the easy stuff. Use distance and visual barriers to keep your dog from seeing the exciting things they will soon be doing. I simply throw a tarp over my dogs' crates. You can distract your dog with licking mats, kong toys, yummy chews or the like. You can scatter feed on the kennel floor or onto a snufflre mat. If none of this works move further away from the excitement. Leave your dog in the car (temperatures taken into account, of course!) or as far from the excitement as possible. Play a radio softly to drown out activities, etc..
Teach your dog a calm cue or protocol away from the excitement and use it to help your dog. Teach your dog a quiet cue, and praise them for remaining quiet in the face of excitement or frustration. Remember that frustration is an emotion that is both powerful and upsetting, so we want to teach our dogs to cope with it when it arises. Excitement is good, and it's ok if an occasional bark happens (Tagg learned to make a weird yodeling sound at her first dock diving event - it was so unlike her, and very cute! But she was only allowed to do it when we were actively in line for the dock!).
In spite of all the excitement of a fun sport and half a dozen dog barking non-stop for hours at the dock diving venue in Las Cruces, the seven dogs brought by my friend Randi, her husband, and I, napped. Matilda occasionally forgot, as did Ruby. A quiet reminder, and a better visual barrier helped them make better choices.
I cannot speak to performance in dock diving since this past event was my only one, but I would say that in other sports where self-control, and more detailed performance is required, a dog that spends its day barking and flailing in the crate is very unlikely to outperform a dog that remained calm or napped.
Last, and this is purely anecdotal, but it bears mentioning, years ago, at a veterinary hospital where I worked a recently spayed dog was permitted out of her crate and spent four or five hours running and barking non-stop in the owner's back yard. The air intake from the barking, combined with the movement of running and jumping possibly led to bloat, and we were unable to save her. I do not know if there is a correlation between extreme, repetitive barking and bloat, but we do know that crying babies inhale excessive amounts of air. Again, this is a single story, and the barking and running may have had nothing to do with the dog's death, but it does bear mentioning.
If we can do better for our dogs, we should.