Is this a cure for barking?

2010-03-22 00:00

MURPHY, my Labrador, used to get very upset when I went cycling, leaving him alone at home. If I went next door he quietly waited here, but as soon as I was out of sight on my bike he would start barking, becoming quite frantic. A kind neighbour made things worse by coming to comfort him, then taking him to her cottage and giving him biscuits, so encouraging his misbehaviour.

I couldn’t go anywhere without taking Murphy with me. He just had to be taught not to bark when I’m out. But how? I hatched several ideas, such as a collar that would give him a shock when he barks. Someone in the Cape sells such a thing, but they optimistically want thousands of rands for one. Finally, I borrowed a small tape recorder and set it up at the door when I went out, shutting the dog inside to muffle the noise a bit. When I came back, Murphy and I listened to the recording.

After silence for the first few minutes, we heard almost nonstop, frantic barking and whining. He had worked himself into a frenzy. I transferred a few minutes of the recording onto a CD, which I then played to Murphy and gave him a stern wigging. Every time his voice came over, I scolded him, sometimes whacking him with a rolled-up magazine. He got the message. After a few minutes of this, as the recording went on I stopped saying or doing anything, but he cringed and cowered whenever he heard himself.

Now, before leaving the house without him, I play a minute or two of the CD recording, with further admonishment. Murphy’s body language is too good. He fawns and pleads, says he’ll be quiet and won’t ever do it again. When I go, I switch the recorder on to monitor his behaviour. And there’s hardly a peep from him. Neighbours consistently report silence — after just one lesson.

That was weeks ago. Since then I’ve been going out for an hour or more most days, perhaps giving him a preceding pep talk with sound accompaniment. I still set the recorder to eavesdrop on him in my absence. On the odd occasion there have been a few woofs on the tape, and Murphy gets very worried when he hears them. I glower at him and say he’s a bad dog — body language then expresses abject apology and promise of future restraint. I don’t always remember to lecture him before I go, but it probably makes no real difference now. The training was so quick and easy that I wonder if it really could be a lasting breakthrough. So far, so good.

I recently recorded my own voice by reading aloud for 20 minutes, and added that as Track 2 to the same CD. When I go out, after sometimes first playing the barking track to Murphy, I switch to the second track and set the player to repeat it over and over so that Murphy will hear my voice nonstop until my return. I can confidently report that he no longer barks for nothing. He may bark at passersby with dogs and at anyone else that he reckons may be up to no good, so he hasn’t been cowed. But the separation anxiety seems to be a thing of the past.

Murphy is a calm, obedient dog, always wanting to please. This technique might not work with excitable, headstrong animals.

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