I know you might find this hard to believe, especially just after Crufts, but some people do not like dogs! I know this sounds mad to a dog loving audience but some find dogs’ behaviour at best irritating and at worst grounds for formal complaint to a local authority with the aim of some form of legal action.
With modern UK building practices resulting in population densities increasing, it is inevitable that dogs and people are going to come into contact more and so this will result in some people finding our dogs’ behaviour, grounds for complaint.
I’m not sure if it has always been this way, but it just feels to me that some sections of society have become less tolerant of dogs in general and that social media and legislation gives people a platform to express their upset without actually talking to each other.
I would say the number one problem that brings dog owners into conflict with their neighbours, is barking. I say this because most of the time when I am asked to help with barking dogs it is because the owners have received a complaint.
Let’s first agree that barking is something that dogs do; fish swim, birds tweet and dogs bark. They may bark for a variety of reasons – they may be barking in play, worried about something, frustrated or just plain bored, but whatever the reason why, it is not something you can just switch off like a light.
Now as pro dog as I am, I do have to agree that a dog that is left for long periods of time on its own, that barks continually for hours on end, day after day, may be considered a nuisance and unreasonable for your neighbours to put up with. In fact, there is probably a welfare issue that needs addressing in this scenario too.
Accepting dogs bark, I do struggle to understand why people get upset when a dog barks for just a couple of minutes broken up throughout the day. Some people will not even tolerate a small intrusion into their lives – they notice every noise your dog makes and become very intolerant of everything the dog does, picking up on every single bark. People will literally fall out over the stuff that dogs do and behave completely irrationally.
One of the first questions I ask clients who have received a complaint is; have you talked to your neighbours? An awful lot will reply ‘no’, along with ‘it’s pointless, they just won’t listen’ or they are worried about their reaction.
I have even worked with one owner who had received a complaint from her neighbour about her dog barking and the neighbours who complained also owned a dog that did not stop barking for the full duration of the consult! When I asked if this was normal, the owner told me ‘it’s like this whenever they go out’, I did feel a little sorry for her, especially when she told me she never let it bother her but now if she mentions it to her neighbours, she is afraid they will just think she’s saying it to get back at them.
So, what can you do if you receive a complaint?
Whether you have been spoken to in person or maybe all you have had is a letter through your door, start by trying to defuse the situation – it will be much better than going into battle with them over it. Listen to what they have to say and try to avoid being defensive (it is very hard not to be defensive, especially if you feel you have been done an injustice and the complainant is being totally unreasonable). They will probably tell you that your dog barks all the time, which you know is an exaggeration, but for now just listen and accept your dog probably barks sometimes. Tell them you are sorry that your dog has been a nuisance to them and be sincere, but do not admit guilt. Take them wine, beer and flowers as way of an apology and empathise with them but do not offer things you could not deliver or are prepared to do. Ask them what would make it better for them and negotiate a little, do not promise, but do your best.
Start to gather information about your dog as this will be useful if the local authority get involved. There are a vast array of apps and technology that is available to let you monitor your dog’s activity and I use them often for my own dogs. You want to have something that will record the date, frequency and the duration of barking, when you are away from home. When you are home with the dog, note this information down as this may be important evidence should local authorities become involved. Try to figure out if there are other dogs barking around the area – sometimes it can be an accumulation, certainly when I did this exercise, there were at least three other barking dogs in my location. It is also worth asking neighbours on other sides of the property if they are hearing the same things and make notes of their replies.
If you have irritated a neighbour, there is a fair chance they will be looking for any other opportunity to support their case, so do not give them additional ammunition, always be polite and courteous, make sure you fulfil your responsibilities as a dog owner, clear up after them and keep them under control etc.
Once you have a better idea of the problem you can then start to act. You could call in professional help, but understand that no professional should ever guarantee that a dog will not bark again, that would be unrealistic. The aim of training is to reduce the number of occurrences and the duration of barking to an acceptable minimum.
There are a number of things I could do to assist with this, for example if your dog is bored and under stimulated, we could increase its exercise and give it more things to do when you are absent. Change the time of its walks and make sure it is not left alone for long periods. We could increase the amount of white noise, maybe leaving a radio playing will make them less sensitive to everything going on outside. We could add visual barriers in the way of opaque film on windows, or better still, don’t give your dog access to places where they can sit and bark at the world as it goes by.
If your dogs’ fence-fight with the neighbours’ dogs, you could add a second fence or barrier to keep them further apart. It might be they are just frustrated at not being able to get to each other – could they spend time together if they were all dog friendly? Work with your neighbour to reduce to a minimum when they are out together, do not leave it to your neighbour, encourage them to participate but act as if you were working on the problem alone. Improve your dog’s recall so that they can be called away from boundaries and fence-fights, which will help you when out on walks too.
If you think your dog is barking excessively and/or is worried about being home alone, please seek the help of a competent force-free, reward based professional who will be able to help your dog feel happier about life in a kind, aversive-free way.
First Published in Dog World
To play or not to play, that is the question! I was recently working with a client and a question came up about whether they should get another dog to join their family because their own dog does not play as much anymore.
Now, my first thought when asked this question was, every time a new dog joins your family, you reduce the one-to-one time you can give your existing dog – you can only spread yourself so far. Maybe instead of thinking about another dog for your dog to interact with, why not spend more time with the dog you have? I am certainly not against multi-dog households as I have one myself and from an enrichment point of view, having a member of your own species around adds another dimension to your life for sure and I’m certain dogs benefit from this too.
However, to get another dog because your dog does not play as much anymore may well not be the answer you are looking for and could possibly come with a range of other unintended consequences. Many owners place a great emphasis on their dogs playing and being able to play with other dogs and sometimes they will even feel something is wrong with their dog if they do not want to play or that they used to play lots with other dogs but now they are not so keen. Saying to a dog you must like playing with other dogs because I think you should, is a bit like me telling my wife that she must like horror movies because I do!
Some dogs will play for the whole of their lives, but most will show some decline in their playful behaviour as they age, just as we do. As some dogs mature, they may become less tolerant of those that want to play and will tell them in their own doggy way to back off and leave them alone.
So, what is play all about? Many animals play, especially when they are young, I did, you did, lions and wolves do and left to their own devices, dogs will play. It is generally believed that play serves as a way for young animals to rehearse the life skills that they require as adults and play activity will fall into the four categories of fight, flight, feeding or reproduction and if you watch dogs playing, you may well see them chasing, body slamming, growling, mouthing, mounting and fighting etc and it can look rough! What I have found is that most owners love to see their dogs playing with other dogs and to be honest, I also love to see my dogs running around, chasing and wrestling with each other.
However, my dogs do not all play like they did when they were young – two of the three play on a regular basis and enjoy wresting, biting and chasing. I have one however, who seems to prefer human interaction and plays very little and when he does, it usually involves short bursts of just running around like a fool.
So, is dog-play good or bad? When you ask a trainer this question, their answer will be more of a reflection of that trainer’s experiences rather than a scientifically proven fact.
If a trainer has had mostly ‘bad experiences’ or they feel out of control when they let dogs play, then they may well think play is a bad thing for dogs, but on the other hand if they have had mostly good experiences, they may well think play is a good thing.
I personally think that dog play is mostly a good thing, offering elements of socialisation, exercise and enrichment to our dog’s lives that only dogs can provide and like I say, there are others who think it’s mostly a bad thing and allows dogs to behave inappropriately with other dogs and rehearses undesirable behaviours like ‘bullying’.
What I do know is that nobody really knows for sure, but trainers will try to figure it out from the dog’s body language, but even this can be problematic if you are not careful and start over interpreting what you see. Just take something as simple as the popular term ‘calming signals’, are they calming? Do they defuse conflict? Is that what the dog really thinks?
What we are really getting is somebody’s interpretation of what they believe the dog is thinking based on watching numerous dog interactions and the outcome of those interactions.
We can apply this same process to play and this helps us identify that a dog’s intent is play, rather than the real thing. So, what do you look for? We would be looking for clues from the dog’s behaviour that we believe signal the dog’s intent and those behaviours fall into the following categories; meta-signals, self-handicapping and role reversals.
It is believed that meta-signals are how dogs signal that their intent is play and not the real life equivalent of the behaviour. You will often see these signals before, during and after play. What are the meta-signals you are looking for? You are looking for what most people recognise as the classic play-bow – front end down and bottom in the air, but there are others. You are also looking for ‘play faces’ – basically looks like the dog has a big happy grin over its face or inefficient bouncy running (a rocking horse gait) as they chase each other – it should not look like they are chasing a prey animal.
When I talk about self-handicapping, I am referring to when the dog is holding back, for want of a better word, pulling their punches – they look like they are biting but without punching holes in each other. You will often see their mouths wide open and waving their teeth around but not bearing down on each other. Another common example of self-handicapping is where you see a big dog rolling onto its side while a little dog bites its face – my Border Terrier over-powering my Dogue, really? Only if she wants and allows it to happen!
During play you should also be looking for role reversals – this is where the dogs’ roles swap, for example where one is on top biting, they then swap over and the other goes on top biting or where one chases the other and then they swap around so the chaser becomes the one being chased.
Don’t get me wrong, if you allow play, squabbles will, from time to time, break out, but most dog squabbles are nothing but arguments – they are not trying to kill each other. If they were really trying to kill each other every time they had a fight (and judging on the number of dog fights there are every day), they are not very good at it!
A great website for dog body language is called ‘I speak dog’ and can be found at http://www.ispeakdog.org.
So, as I have already stated, I think dog play is generally a good thing, but play is not just about letting dogs get on with it and hoping for the best, we need to monitor their interactions, understand what to look for and not let our dogs just run up to others uninvited – yours may love play, but not all do.
First Published in Dog World 21.04.17