Sheila & Bob Barker
Bob Barker is a Yorkshire terrier and one of the first dogs I ever trained. When I first spoke to his whisper-quiet owner, Sheila, I was so thrilled to be training dogs that I didn’t bother to ask about his issues. Between my excitement, Sheila’s subdued voice, and Bob Barker’s nonstop barking in the background, not much information was processed. I must have said “I’ll be there” about ten times, hung up the phone, and actually made it to the subway station before I realized I didn’t have the address. I made another call, got the address, and said “I’ll be there” one more time. The only prep work I’d done was a little brushing up on the breed, which proved intimidating at the time: “Although classified as a toy breed, this is a terrier through and through,” “can make a determined and boisterous watchdog,” and finally, “even when properly trained, this dog will never be considered quiet.” Uh-oh. On the subway I began worrying about how was I ever going to get this dog to stop barking? I arrived with no good plan.
Every trainer has a client in the early going who is notably unique or weird. Sheila is unique. She whispered on the phone like Marilyn Monroe, but when her door swung open, I was greeted by a woman who looked like a cross between the St. Pauli Girl and Zsa Zsa Gabor. She also spoke in a thick German accent at deafening volumes. Why would she whisper on the phone? “Who needs that accent? It’s no fun until you see the package,” was how she explained it. Sheila is one of the most spirited, interesting people you’ll ever meet. “I’m here to have fun, baby” is her catchphrase. In her travels, she managed a graduate degree in physics and an Ivy League MBA. She now consults with Fortune 100 companies on how to optimize employee efficiency by having fun in the workplace. “So you’re having a problem with the barking?” She emphatically shook her head no. “Just the opposite, baby,” she said, and walked over to the window to examine some drapes. “I don’t feel my Bobby Barker and I have the best relationship. He’s only interested in me when I’m busy, like all the men in my life. But I’m so much a serious one when I tell you this. It’s a gigantic problem.” She went on to tell me that Bob would have barking fits when she wouldn’t play with him. Her melodrama, phrasing, and a little epiphany I was having caused me to break into laughter. What I had read earlier that day flashed through my mind—“even with proper training this dog will never be quiet,” “determined and boisterous”—and yet I felt relieved.
Sheila had somehow made me forget that Bob Barker was in the room. How was this possible, when his barking was all I’d heard on the phone? Why wasn’t he barking in the apartment. To this point, Bob had come up for a very civilized meet-and-greet before making his way onto the sofa and puttering around her big living room. He was anything but a nuisance or noisy. In fact, he was church-mouse quiet. Why? The apartment wasn’t big enough for the both of them. Even the irreverent Yorkshire terrier was no match for Sheila. Her personality was so demonstrative and loud that Barker couldn’t get a bark in edgewise. In a fit of unwanted adaptation, the Yorkshire terrier shut up. The moment Sheila got quiet or on the phone, Bob would start barking up a storm. According to her, he was expressing his displeasure with the relationship, and she may have been right. Bob probably thought something was wrong when things got quiet.
Training entailed teaching Sheila to “share the stage” with her dog. She had to quiet down around Barker and engage him without being so “on” all the time. He couldn’t make sense out of Sheila, so he’d step back, attempt to determine his role, and follow the closest thing to a script that he could identify. We practiced having Sheila come home by calmly walking through her front door. Once inside she gave Bob the first crack at being excited to see her. When she made her entrance in a more subdued fashion Bob began to pipe up.
I doubt I’ll ever have another session like that. I’ll never forget it. Dogs will readily follow scripts and without them attempt to determine appropriate behavior. Although their energies may ramp up quickly and come down slowly, they think their behavior is in line. When a dog jumps on an owner until she’s annoyed, getting shoved off in anger will become part of the routine. Next time you come home, hold your ground and don’t engage. The dog will eventually realize that jumping up is not producing a worthwhile result and will go back to its business. With enough time, the dog will understand that it is not his job to do this when you arrive.
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