Dec 4 2014

“Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks”: Chatting with Gabby Munoz, Canine Behavior Manager at Wayside Waifs

While I met with Gabby Muñoz the other day, two tiny Chihuahuas explored the office, having just been surrendered by their owners the day before. Gabby pointed out that they were curious and friendly, but nervous. Their ears were set back, and they were a little shaky.

Some dogs who come to Wayside Waifs are more than a little nervous. Abandonment, abuse, or neglect may leave them not knowing how to interact with humans or other animals. They may guard their food or overreact to unfamiliar stimuli, or shy away from contact altogether. Wayside Waifs hired Gabby as an expert to help the more troubled dogs trust again, behave more appropriately and become good pets.

All of Gabby’s work is based on scientific research, in keeping with her academic background. She earned her Masters in Biology with a Zoology concentration from Western Illinois University. She has also always been a “dog person,” and is the owner of two rescue cocker spaniels now.

Gabby told me about a Wayside alum named Frank, a yellow lab/Shepherd mix. His owners had used physical dominance and punishment to try to control him. In response, he had become aggressive, to the point that many shelters might have given up on him.

The staff started Frank’s rehabilitation simply by showering him with treats and positive reinforcement and then ignoring him when he wasn’t behaving. Positive reinforcement works much better than punishment in changing anybody’s behavior. After lots of work with Gabby and the other patient humans at Wayside Waifs, Frank’s behavior had turned around. He was ready to find a forever home, and he went home with a retired man in a successful adoption match.

Because I didn’t associate Labrador retrievers with fighting behavior, I asked Gabby if certain breeds are more aggressive than others. She told me that breeding did bring out certain personality traits, but that a dog’s experience plays a large part as well. Many American pit bull terriers, for instance, can be excellent pets. Wayside Waifs carefully assesses the behavior of all dogs that come to the shelter.

I had read before that owners need to assert their dominance as the “leader of the pack”- something I probably don’t do with my two rescue terriers. Gabby explained that this idea came from studying wolf behavior. But although dogs are related to wolves, they’ve evolved to behave quite differently. She said that they best owner-dog relationships are, like any relationship, based on “co-respect.”

Gabby assured me that my dogs could definitely learn more from obedience classes at Wayside Waifs, even though I’ve had them for a while. The shelter actually offers three levels of classes: one for puppies, one for dogs and an advanced course to help dogs obey even in the presence of distractions.

Although any dog can learn a lot, Gabby said, their basic temperament will not change. A shy dog can learn to interact with others, but may never be the life of the party. A boisterous pup can learn to calm down, but may never be a couch potato.

Dogs have their own personalities and quirks, just like people do, and they deserve to be loved for who they are. After all, they love us for who we are. And isn’t that what we all want?

-Stacey Donovan
Contributing Writer

Jan 15 2009

Two common reasons dogs bark too much – and what you can do about it

Whether your dog is a high-frequency yipper or a subsonic woofer, excessive barking can be hard on your nerves – and hard on your neighbors.

Here are some guidelines to help you understand and address barking behavior, courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States.

Why is your dog barking?
It’s normal for dogs to bark from time to time, but sustained barking for long periods of time is a symptom of a problem.

Before you can solve the problem you have to determine what causes your dog’s barking behavior. This can be tricky, since barking may occur when you aren’t with your dog. If your dog barks when you aren’t there, try a little Canine CSI:

  • Ask your neighbors what they see and hear (which will also reassure them that you are working on the problem!)
  • Drive or walk around the block and watch or listen for awhile.
  • Start a tape recorder or video camera when you leave the house.

Even if your dog’s excessive barking occurs when you are around, it may take some careful observation to determine exactly what triggers barking behavior. But with a little effort, you should be able to determine the root cause – and then apply the right methods to help your dog bark less.

Common cause #1: Social isolation or frustration
Boredom or loneliness can lead to frustration when you aren’t around – and attention-seeking behavior when you are.

This kind of barking is often seen in:

  • Dogs who are left alone for long periods of time.
  • Dogs left in unstimulating environments, with no companions or toys.
  • Puppies and adolescent dogs (under three years old) who don’t have outlets for their energy.
  • Active types (such as herding and sporting breeds) who need to be occupied to be happy.

To address this kind of barking, you need to expand your dog’s world and increase people time.

  • Walk your dog at least twice each day. Walks should be more than “potty breaks.”
  • Teach your dog to fetch a ball or Frisbee® and practice as much as possible.
  • Teach your dog a few commands or tricks and practice every day for five to ten minutes.
  • Take a dog training class with your dog so that you can work together toward a common goal.
  • Provide safe, interesting toys to keep your dog busy when you’re not at home (such as Kong®-type toys filled with treats or busy-box toys).
  • Rotate toys to make them seem new and interesting.
  • Spend sufficient time with your dog each day – petting, grooming, playing, exercising.
  • Keep you dog inside when you are unable to supervise.
  • If your dog is well socialized and your employer will let you, take your dog to work with you sometimes.

Don’t undo your hard work when you go away! When you have to leave for extended periods, take your dog to a doggie daycare, hire a qualified pet sitter, or have a trusted friend or neighbor provide walks and playtime, just the way you do.

Common cause #2: Territorial behavior
Does your dog bark when he sees “intruders” – like the mail carrier, children walking to school, and neighbors? Does his barking posture look threatening, with tail held high and ears up and forward?

These are signs of territorial barking, where your dog is protecting his territory and his “pack” (you and your family!).

Here are some ways to counteract territorial barking:

  • Don’t encourage your dog to be responsive to people and outside noises.
  • Teach your dog a quiet command. Allow two or three barks, and then say “quiet” and interrupt the barking by shaking a can filled with pennies or squirting water in his mouth. When he’s quiet, say “good quiet” and give him a treat. The noise or squirt isn’t a punishment – the goal is to distract your dog so you can reward the ensuing quiet. You can also throw a toy or ball.
  • Desensitize your dog to the stimulus that triggers the barking. Teach him that people he views as intruders are actually friends and that good things happen (treats, petting, playing) when these people are around.
  • Use attention and praise to reinforce good behavior. When your dog is barking, call your dog to you, have him obey a command such as “sit” or “down” and reward him with praise and a treat.
  • Have your dog spayed or neutered to decrease territorial behavior.

Stay tuned – our next blog post will look at two more common causes for excessive barking: fears/phobias and separation anxiety.

This information is adapted from the HUSUS fact sheet Solving Barking Problems.

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