Lately, we’ve been woken up by both Mara and Maui barking in the middle of the night.
This was unusual because at some point, I had Maui don the bark limiter to make sure that if he barks, he does so minimally. I can sleep through maybe five loud barks, but when both dogs bark for a significantly long time, at least enough to wake me up.
Four nights later, it turns out that they were doing a service to me somehow. It’s always Mara who barks first, which probably alerts Maui, then when Maui barks, it also triggers Mara to bark more. I may be imagining it sometimes, but I think I can tell the reasons behind their barks, probably because I’ve gotten up to check what Maui is barking at way too many times. He seems to have a specific pattern and intensity of barking depending on the “threat”. This time, Maui barked rather violently. If I base this on how many times Maui and Mara had barked, the cause of the barking has walked into our street and close to our gate several times this week. I don’t know why or who. On the lighter side, it could be a stray dog whose trying to mark all the places Maui usually marks. Mara is relatively new here, so I also think she’s just more sensitive to intruders.
I decided to talk to the neighbors. Sure enough, one of my neighbors was also bothered by the barking. I apologised and used this opportunity to talk about why they are barking. Thankfully, she had a camera overlooking her gate and I asked if we could look at what happened last night. Maui and Mara had a reason to bark that aggressively. There was a person looking around in each gate, someone we don’t recognise. We had to take this to the local authority. I don’t think they can do anything about it yet, but it’s better than nothing.
It seems that my strategy worked. With Mara being far more sensitive to sounds, and probably more jittery because of her size, she makes an excellent first alarm that makes Maui confirm what the threat is, and respond accordingly, and it just makes Mara bark louder. My problem now, is that I’ve lost some sleep this past week and while I certainly want them to keep barking when the the person is roaming about, I don’t want to passively reinforce that behavior because once the threat has passed, I don’t want Mara barking at just any other perceived threat and keep me awake at night. She’s too small for the bark-limiter of my training collar so I can’t consider that. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but our family’s foundation is built on overthinking, and I am not one to stop until I’m thinking less about it.
When I place myself in the training mindset, two things quickly come into mind: Ignoring it will reinforce her instinctual behavior because there’s nothing to contest it. Second, it’s possible that the act of me emerging in my room, checking up on her, then checking the outside, might be a subtle reinforcement. Then, I asked myself, is it possible to only train Mara to bark at specific things? Asking that question, I think I can work with finding a solution.
Taking advantage of how positive and negative reinforcement works, I will train Mara to only bark when there’s people passing by, and not dogs, cars, or cats. The strategy is that I will stay with her outside near the gate. When a dog or a car passes and she barks, I will mildly pinch the scruff of her neck and say a command like “Hush”. If she does stop, I will remove my hand and reward her with a high value treat, and there’s little that can beat boiled liver. If a person walks too closely to the gate and she barks, I won’t stop her and reward her instead.
This is rather time consuming, but if I do it right, it will be helpful in the long run as Mara can alert us if there’s actually somebody on the door.
My daughter commented that I’m treating Mara like a doorbell of sorts and it made me wonder about the ethics of training a dog for a specific purpose. The way I see it, if it works, then it’s likely that Mara enjoys what she’s doing. When I train Maui he does the little tippy-tappy thing with his paws which suggests that he’s excited. I can also tell when he’s losing interest and that’s where we stop. As long as Mara doesn’t seem like she’s getting stressed about it and is keeping interest, I can say with some certainty that she’s enjoying it.
So, on with the training. I placed Maui inside the house to lessen the distractions, and kept Mara leashed while we are behind the gate. The streets are a little busy this time of the day, so it wasn’t long before the first passerby. It was a person and Mara barked. I let her bark for a bit and marked the behavior by using my plastic clicker, then gave her praise, head pats, and a treat. She looked confused, but she liked it as far as her wagging tail and tapping paws were showing.
A few good minutes later, a car passed and the engine reverb made Mara bark. I quickly (but gently!) pinched her small scruff and said “Hush!”. She grumbled a bit but I soon let go when she stopped, clicked, then gave her the treat and praise. Honestly, this part is hard because you have to do things as fast as possible so they can associate my actions with the behavior.
A bunch of kids walked past. I was surprised that Maui barked a few seconds before Mara barked, but as they passed, I rewarded Mara and praised her. I didn’t give her a treat just yet though, because I don’t want her to keep yearning for the liver.
About twenty minutes later, I decided to stop because Mara looked a little listless. I decided to release her leach, but the training did not stop. I waited for another person to pass by and see if she barks. Sure enough, she did, and I pressed the clicker and gave her a treat.
This went on for three more times and I stopped. It’s still way early to tell if this sticks, so i’ll have to do it multiple times. The problem now is that if the stranger walks by again in the middle of the night, I’ll lose sleep when they start doing their barking. My wife reasoned that this is worth the bother since the presence of dogs can repel a potential intruder because even if they manage to scale the walls or the gate, they’ll have to face Maui who is likely going to cause a huge ruckus.
It’s a nice that Mara and Maui are getting along just fine. My fears before were actually a little exaggerated, but as always, I would rather over-prepare and be disappointed, than to be underprepared and find myself in trouble.