Yahoo! Voices invited professional dog trainers to answer questions submitted by community members. Here’s my answer to one dog owner’s dilemma.
Michael Luchies writes: “I have an 8-month-old Shih Tzu who has passed early training classes and is a great dog. The major problem we are having is early morning barking while in his kennel. He wakes my wife and me up at six in the morning. Are there steps to take to solve this early morning barking? Thanks in advance for your help!”
Despite what most people think, roosters are not the only animals known for delivering an early morning wake-up call. As you have witnessed, dogs can also be added to the list. Of course, not all dogs are early risers, but many will do what it takes to prevent you from hitting that snooze button too often. In this case, you may need to blame his circadian oscillators. Basically, your dog’s internal cues, triggered by daily fluctuations of body temperature, hormones and neural activity, cause him to behave in certain ways at given times, explains professor William A. Roberts, in his article “Are Animals Stuck in Time?” However, there may be more than that.
Warning: Reinforcement at Play
A lot may also depend on how you react to his barking. Your 8-month Shih Tzu has already demonstrated how bright he can be by passing his training classes in flying colors, but at times a dog’s intelligence can backfire. In this case, you’ll need to blame reinforcement. You’ll find B. F. Skinner’s new term into Thorndike’s Law of Effect interesting. He claims: “Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened)”
What may be happening here is that your little fellow finds the barking behavior reinforcing, which causes the behavior to repeat. You may wonder what may be fueling the behavior at this point. After spending the night alone in his kennel, he may surely appreciate some attention. In this case, because he’s perhaps lonely and bored, even negative attention will do. If you are frequently getting up to check on him or are yelling at the top of your lungs, and yet that barking doesn’t stop, most likely he is enjoying all the extra attention. From his perspective, the happiness of seeing you and hearing your voice after a long night alone overrides your irritated tone of voice. So what are the steps required to tackle a problem as such? There are several options, but let’s first determine if all his needs are met.
Ruling out Basic Needs
First and foremost, determine if all his needs are met. Let’s give this fellow the benefit of doubt. Does he have access to water, should he be thirsty during the night? When was he last fed? Sometimes a bedtime snack will keep him less hungry in the morning. Was he sent out to potty last thing before bedtime? This is the best approach to buy some extra time in the morning. Is he getting enough exercise during the day? Many dogs don’t sleep through the night because they have loads of energy to spare or are simply too bored and tend to nap too much during the day. Is he used to getting up early on workdays? If so, you can’t blame him; most likely his internal cues cannot tell the difference between a Monday and a Sunday, leading to that annoying week-end barking. Once you are sure all his needs are met, you can try these strategies.
Steps to Reduce Early Morning Barking
- Make sure he is well exercised and receives loads of mental stimulation during the day. If he’s an early riser, a stimulating toy may keep him entertained while he waits for his family to get up. This can give him an alternate behavior to focus on other than the barking. In some cases, room darkening shades may trick him into thinking that it’s still night outside allowing you some extra sleep.
- Refrain from getting up or yelling at your dog. Remember that behaviors which are not reinforced tend to die-out or be extinguished. This means that ignoring the barking is the best approach. Morning after morning, he’ll come to realize that his barking is no longer working, so he’ll likely give up.
- Expect some extinction bursts. If your dog is used to seeing you get up every morning or yelling, most likely the first mornings you’ll see an increase in the barking behavior. In other words, your smart Shih Tzu is likely thinking: “Hey, my barking is not working, I’ll need to bark more and louder, and perhaps this will grab their attention.” Get your ear plugs ready and don’t give in or you’ll reinforce the behavior getting worse!
- Make it a habit of getting up only once the barking has stopped. Your pooch will pause every now and then to take a breath. Use these pauses to your advantage. This will teach him that barking keeps you away and silence gets you closer. If you’re getting up and he barks, go back to bed and try again when he’s quiet. Sooner than later, he’ll understand the new rules of the game.
- In some cases, placing his kennel closer to you may help if his barking is due to social isolation. With you in sight and the sound of your breathing, chances are high he’ll feel less lonely. Instead of barking, he may just look at you, and once he feels reassured that he’s not alone, he may just fall back to sleep.
As seen, there are several steps you can take to gain back some restorative sleep. Just make sure you are consistent and that your significant other is on the same page. There’s nothing worse than getting up to stop the barking one day and ignoring the barking the next. This puts the barking behavior on a ”variable schedule” which means it puts more roots in the same way as people get hooked to ”playing the lottery.”