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Barking, Biting, Bozo Breeder

Barking DogDear John:

We have a Shetland Sheepdog (Sheltie). He is about three years old now. When we went to the breeder to get a puppy, we found him – an older dog. We felt sorry for him, and took him home. The breeder had cut his vocal cords so he would not make much noise. He still barks, but a raspy, sort of low noise bark. My question is, that every time the coffee grinder, or hair dryer, or vacuum is used, the dog goes crazy, and runs all over the place, nipping, at people’s heels which is painful. He seems to know it is coming, as soon as someone picks up the coffee grinder – he starts yelping. Also, the dog is not neutered – could that be a problem, now, or in the future? Thank you very much for your help. – Sue

Dear Sue,

It’s not unusual for dogs to get a little crazy around vacuums, hairdryers and other household mechanical devices, particularly if they haven’t had a lot of exposure to them when they are under 3 months of age. I’m a little curious about the yelping part considering the vocal cord surgery. I’m not a big fan of surgical procedures to address behaviour issues. The same goes for your neutering question, I’m not opposed to neutering if it’s for birth control but poor behaviour has a lot more to do with insufficient training then it does testosterone.

It has long been felt by many Sheltie enthusiasts that the breed can be uncontrollable barkers but I’d say inclined, not uncontrollable. I did a little checking and found Sheltie breeders divided on this issue. They agree that they are natural barkers but not all felt they are uncontrollable barkers. One, an experienced, respected author and Sheltie breeder of 40 years argues that de-barking is a reasonable procedure for a naturally noisy breed. She says that Shelties are bred for herding work that included a lot of barking to discourage birds of prey from scooping up the odd lamb.” She describes a Sheltie’s bark as “so piercing that they can be heard for miles around.” As such the vocal chord reduction another term for de-barking and technically a more accurate description of the surgery is in her view a justifiable procedure. She believes that “it saves lives of dogs that might otherwise be dumped in the pound for their barking.”

The “why they bark” part of this isn’t unbelievable but I think the argument is a little shaky and to some extent there is a bit of canine racial profiling going on creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. At the very least if they are by nature excessive barkers that must be stopped or they will lose their homes, one might ask of the breeder concerned for the welfare of her sold dogs, “How ethical is it in the first place to sell a breed that is customized for rural life to a city home thereby risking their lives?” Wouldn’t it be better to have a strict policy to sell to people with an appropriate working environment for the breed. Never the less I’ve met a lot of happy city dwelling Shelties and ironically I can’t remember the last time I had a call from someone wanting help with an excessively barking Sheltie. Plenty of other dogs but not an inordinate number of Shelties.

I do get a lot of calls about Shelties that try to herd every moving thing from the family cat to passing cars and while I’m sure some sort of surgery might address this trait I’ve found that training a more palatable and effective solution. However sometimes the dog’s owner is up to it and sometimes not and that is the more likely reason that they resort to surgery when the problem is barking. There are a lot of reasons that barking breeds get out of hand, one of which is that it isn’t addressed early enough in the dog’s life.

But back to the business of your dog’s agitation around mechanical noises and even the appearance of them. It can be a long haul but gradual desensitization is the way to go. This means presenting these things much more often when you don’t have to use the appliance for it’s intended purpose like drying your hair. If you have a leash on the dog when you’re playing “blow dry the air.” your dog can’t be nipping at your heels. You have to make these things a much more regular part of the day, often associated with positive things like going for a walk, dinner time etc. My first dog loved attacking the broom and as I was informed by the top dog in the house that abandoning sweeping the floor was not an option I had to resort to desensitizing him to it. I dragged it around the house, left it beside his crate a little closer each day and made it a much more integral part of his day and eventually he was indifferent. I will admit it was time consuming but it worked and should work for you.

John Wade . Ethological Communication . [email protected] . P 519-457-9559

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