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March 13, 2022

Ask MM Reply - March 13, 2022

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Written by: Bob Guere

Ruth Wybrant writes,

I have a 3 year-old shepherd mix that barks at everything. How can I train her not to bark?

Dear Ruth,

So, you know how, when referring to extra-marital affairs people will say things like “the affair isn’t the problem, it is a ‘symptom’ of the problem”? Well, I believe this to be true where affairs are concerned, and also where “barking at everything” is concerned. It is first important to think about the different reasons WHY dogs bark. They obviously bark to communicate and express themselves. In many circumstances, barking is a dog’s normal and appropriate response to stimuli in his environment, such as an alert bark to say “Someone’s at the door”; or a happy bark to say, “Dear God, you’ve picked up the leash, which means we are going for a walk, OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD!” That being said, when a dog barks constantly, and for seemingly “no reason”, it is likely that the dog simply has a ton of excess energy, and doesn’t know what else to do with it but bark it out! In this case, barking can be a sign of frustration, anxiousness, or just a generally inappropriate way the dog has learned to get attention and engage with you, positive or negative.

Shepherds, in particular, are high energy dogs; they are a working breed, and they are extremely intelligent! So my guess is that your dog needs more exercise than he is getting, both physically and mentally! Long, structured walks — during which the dog is expected to heel and focus on sharing in the activity with you (as opposed to pulling on the leash, stopping to sniff every two minutes, lunging at other dogs or bikes or people, etc.) are challenging for both the body and the mind. When you expect of your dog that he ‘rise above’ his instincts and exercise self-control, you are essentially requiring that your dog THINK, and this is a very GOOD, very necessary form of stimulation. Think of these types of “brain games” for your dog like a tricky Sodoku puzzle or a rousing round of Jeopardy for us humans. Such challenges give us a way to proactively channel our energy. I’ve always expressed to my dog training clients that it is up to us to help our dogs utilize their multitudes of (mental and physical) energy. And if we don’t provide them with the proper outlets, they will find counterproductive - or even destructive- ways to do it themselves. So obviously exercise is key - walking, running, hiking, treadmill training, swimming, any and every kind of movement you can think of.

And other ways of mentally stimulating your dog include (1) Filling a kiddie-pool full of sand and burying toys or bones in there for him to find - which can also address digging issues; (2) Making him work to earn rewards, including affection and even his meals; (3) hiding his favorite toys around the house and having him “search and rescue”; (4) giving him any of the several toys on the market now that are specifically designed to keep dogs’ minds and bodies occupied.

The kind of cool irony about coming up with these ways to challenge your dog, is that this activity, in itself, is a good, stimulating mental and physical challenge for US as well! Just another way of highlighting the mutually beneficial aspects of the human-canine bond, and how it can empower us all to be better versions of ourselves!

Please keep us posted, and thanks again for your question!

- Liz
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