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The electronic bark collar-a solution to a problem

The electronic bark collar was never something I anticipated using myself.  I had never owned a dog with a nuisance barking habit before.  Sissy, our feist, is not a young dog, but upon moving into a location where she could SEE things moving (she is losing her sight, so she does not see well)  meant she had to bark her alarm.  Unfortunately, not only does she have a shrill bark, but her alarm period is about 15 minutes.  Between the sights and sounds to cause her alarm and the period of her alarm barking…she barked non stop virtually all day long.

It didn’t stop when we were walking on leash either.  If anything, it was worse.  She was definitely a nuisance barker, and we had to do something fast, as our current location is temporary and no one welcomes a nuisance barker.  We didn’t want to be in a situation where we couldn’t live with our beloved little Sissy.

Uncertain, I found a very cheap anti-bark collar on Ebay, direct from…you guessed it…China or Hong Kong.  I bought it, spending less than $10 including shipping.  I wasn’t anticipating a quality collar, and I got about what I had anticipated receiving.  It’s not reliable and doesn’t go off with each barking session.

But…

It worked.  She doesn’t bark in extended periods of time anymore.  There is a warning tone that she actually pays attention to, unlike our attempts to shut her up.  Maybe the reason she pays attention to that warning tone is because on occasion, it is followed up with a jolt.  We can’t adjust the jolt or make it consistently respond, but it is often enough that we know it’s getting her attention.  Yes, I feel guilty when she yips in pain in response to the jolt, but I also know that she continues to bark even when my hand was holding her mouth closed–she was the most devout barker I had ever seen.  She needed serious correction to get her attention.

The cheap battery that came with the collar lasted about a month, and who knows how much of a charge it had in it.  We bought a replacement battery from Radio Shack that set us back nearly $20–far more than the original and collar had cost, even with shipping.  Replacing the collar and battery was necessary however, as a few days with a nearly dead battery had Sissy nearly to her previous level of barking.  Obviously, the collar is going to be a part of her attire for an extended period of time.

What else has it done?  She’s become a bigger pleasure to take with us, as she doesn’t wear out her welcome with continual barking immediately.  She behaves better, since she’s not focused on producing that steady stream of yaps.  She gets to go with us, rather than having to always stay home because of her incessant barking habit.  Other people may not LOVE her like we do, but she sure is much more likable to them now.

We may make a transition to a standard electronic correction collar, so that we can eventually teach her to respond to our verbal commands to hush, rather than merely responding to that electronic tone.  In addition to the barking, using an electronic correction collar may be more effective at curbing her aggression towards other dogs, a life long problem since she’s got security issues, and feels that other dogs may be going to “steal” our attention and affection.

Do I anticipate ever being able to let Red and Sissy hang out together again?  No, I don’t think there is a collar in the world with enough of a non-fatal zap ability that I’d feel safe letting them together again.  Red is aging and more cranky with age, and Sissy’s attempts to gain the throne as “Empress of the Universe” don’t go over well with her, resulting in progressively more severe response from Red at each attempt.  Since the last event resulted in serious injury to Sissy, who has more determination than intelligence when selecting her opponents, we’ve deemed it necessary to maintain our “separate but equal” policy in our lives.  The two dogs are never allowed to be together, even on leash, without a physical barrier or distance between them.  We’re relieved that the aggression from both of them has become a rare event, which makes for a peaceful life for all of us, as the days when the spats occurred with a crate between them were nerve wracking for all of us.

Consulting with trainers, animal communicators and even the veterinarian didn’t offer solutions.  I was told repeatedly that one of the dogs needed to be re-homed, a solution that wasn’t acceptable.  After five years together, it was like being told to give up one of your children!  Instead, we have opted for this separate but equal policy, putting Red outside for Sissy to have some time loose in the house, even if Sissy vastly prefers to hang out in her crate with its bed and nice safe door.  Red largely ignores Sissy, even turning her head away as she passes by her crate, as a result of frequent challenges in the past that always resulted in Red being “in trouble” while Sissy appeared to be the victim of bullying–until the day Sissy got caught doing her little trick!  Red’s turning of the head is so incredibly melodramatic that it is actually funny, but she is pointedly avoiding looking at Sissy, as though that means that she will not be challenged and therefore get in trouble for aggravating the other dog.

Tackling Sissy’s barking problem has given us greater peace.  We’re happier, she seems less stressed now that she’s no longer spending so much time barking (and being told to PLEASE SHUT UP NOW!)  We enjoy her presence more, which means she gets more attention.  She’s more welcome at group events, where previously she would end up banished to her crate often and early, so that people could carry on a conversation without having to shout over a barking dog.  Other people pay attention to her too, which means she feels more valued and validated.  I’m thrilled, because for a change, I’m not the “bad guy.”  She does not perceive me as punishing her, so there is none of the blame game happening.  That’s great for our relationship too!  Happy families are families that enjoy each other’s company…and we’re a happy family again.

Electronic anti-bark collars aren’t always a solution.  I’ve seen them fail miserably in the past, hence my lack of enthusiasm for them.  I would have thought that this collar’s lack of reliable performance would have made it ineffective, but in reality, it’s almost as though it has made it MORE effective for some reason.  (Don’t ask me to explain the psychological quirks of Sissy–she’s a hard nut to crack!)

We knew the first day that she was paying attention to the collar, although at first she wasn’t sure what on earth that pain was all about.  It took several days before she began associating the warning tone, the pain, and the act of barking at all.  We have to consistently USE the collar too.  In addition, the prongs for the shock delivery must contact the skin or there will be no effect at all.

In tough cases like Sissy, that shock was an important attention getting device, even more so than a deterrent for the behavior.  In traditional methods for “hushing” her, the problem was we couldn’t get her attention long enough for her to respond to a command.  The shock definitely gets her attention!  I anticipate the collar being a long term addition to our routine, as it will likely take up to a year to determine if she’s been broken of the barking habit.  She may require it permanently as an accessory–she IS a feist!

Unfortunately, many dogs such as Sissy end up in dog pounds and rescues around the country for the same reason–nuisance barking.  Not all cases of nuisance barking are caused by neglect or lack of training either.  Some dogs just feel a  need to announce everything they see and hear and smell via a bark (or two or three or a dozen.)  I had tried a lot of the traditional ways to deter her, and the only method that ever even worked to hush her was to simply isolate her so that she could not see anything that worried her.  Part of her barking may be due to her poor vision and approaching blindness–even if I’m just carrying something, I appear to be a “monster” when I walk towards her, causing her to bark in absolute panic until I speak to her.  At the same time, I suspect this barking issue is part of the reason that she was in four homes (that I know of–it might have been more) before I adopted her as an adult dog on death row.  (Sissy has some other issues, like a deep seated resentment of being corrected that she will retaliate for in a very cat-like fashion.)  In our previous home, she couldn’t see anything to alarm her and therefore didn’t bark.  Here, that’s not the case, just as it wasn’t the case when we had her camping, on walks, etc. in the past.  Now, we have come up with a workable approach that I wish I had employed long ago.

Don’t give up on your dog because of barking.  Keep looking for solutions, whether its traditional training, medication, an electronic collar, or whatever…there is something that will work, I’m sure of it!  Do check to make sure that they can hear (deaf dogs sometimes don’t hear themselves very well) and there is no reason for the barking.  Make sure they have enough attention, and aren’t barking just to get that brief moment of “shut up” as more attention than being ignored.  Most dogs only bark outside–by bringing them indoors, you are going to at least stop aggravating your neighbors, an important step in maintaining peace in the  neighborhood.  Sometimes, it’s the neighbors that are causing the barking too–with teasing, other pets, noises, odors, etc.  Years ago, I had one neighbor that turned out to be the reason behind a middle-0f-every-Saturday-night barking frenzy from a labrador I had–he was drunk and serenading the dog, who was going nuts trying to get at him as a potential threat to our home.  The solution?  Every Saturday night, he had to stay indoors and was walked on leash if he insisted on going out.  Peace returned to the neighborhood, and our serenading neighbor had to find a new audience with smaller teeth!

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Electronic bark collar or ?

At some point in our pet parenthood careers, we may be faced with a dog that takes “nuisance barking” on as his or her own personal career.  As much as I hate to admit it, there are some that are so devoted to that cause that traditional training just never gets it under control, essentially isolating the dog from society with its own voice.

Often these dogs end up in rescue, as they wear out their welcome in their own neighborhood.  Often, their owners are faced with a choice of moving or getting rid of the dog.  This situation can be heart wrenching, as they are forced to give up the dog due to their own economic and housing issues.  In worst case scenarios, all too often the normal scenario, the dog dies for the barking problem.

Years ago, I adopted a feist who had been through the mill on rescue, having been returned four times that I could trace.  I took her sight unseen from “death row” as her time ran out, and was more than a little surprised when she arrived, as I was expecting a fifteen pound, six month old rat terrier and got a 25 lb. full grown adult feist.  I understand the motivation behind the “fudging” on the reality of her size, breed, and age–they were desperate to get her out of the pound.

Even though she was very unexpected on a number of counts, she came home with me.  I had a history with big dogs, and she still seemed pretty small, and after all, what could she do that a big dog couldn’t?

Her name was Lovey when she arrived, and there was no way that I could stand on the back porch and holler “here, Lovey, here, Lovey!”  That name had to go, but I had nothing to replace it.  She joined my older dog, Red Dog, and a foster dog in the household, and soon showed her more timid side as she screamed any time the bigger and more rambunctious dogs got too close.  Her name became Sissy as a result, and it has stuck.  Never mind she’s all terrier, and that sissy routine was just a wily way to ensure that I had sympathy for her.

Over time, I soon learned that Sissy couldn’t control herself in public, and would turn into this loud, obnoxious and very abrasive dog in public situations.  With a multiple dog household, correcting her was difficult, and all too often, she was left behind because of her behavior in public, causing her to miss out on camping trips, park walks, and city strolls.  Even trips to Petsmart were an exercise in aggravation and stress as she alternated from a slobbering snarling apparently vicious animal to a whining small dog fawning for attention just before she would turn around unexpectedly and snap at some innocent bystander.

Nothing seemed to get her attention, and she would practically self-destruct as she got progressively more frantic during a solo outing, the only time I could contend with her.  The only thing that could be done, even on a camping trip, would be to isolate her in her crate and make sure she couldn’t see anyone or anything moving until she calmed down again.

It got more difficult after her continual battles with Red Dog began, as she strived towards becoming the “pack leader.”  After a very severe injury resulting from a conflict, we decided that they could not be allowed near each other any more.   While not convenient, it was our only option as it became apparent that the conflict was unresolvable.  Both financially and emotionally, we could not take the risks of trying to keep them together anymore.  We do everything with them kept apart by either a physical barrier or distance on leash.  A divided household is far better than a mourning one or one in bankruptcy!

Then, we found ourselves moving and discovered a new problem, one that had been laying in wait all along, we suspect, but never appeared before due to the isolation of our yard.  Sissy is a problem barker, and NEVER shuts up.  If she’s outside, she is barking, whether we’re walking her on leash, she’s in a pen, or on a cable.  No one wanted to see us arrive for a visit with our dogs–her barking annoyed everyone!

Forced with the potential of having to live in closer quarters with people, it was obvious that her barking was not going to make us a welcomed neighbor unless we moved into a hearing impaired community.  Something had to happen before the unthinkable did.

Sissy had to stop barking.

I tried the squirt bottle, the hose, the leash, a muzzle…it didn’t even slow her down.  Finally, I bought a cheap electronic anti-bark collar.  My daughter was wondering whether it would deliver a fatal jolt, as she couldn’t imagine Sissy stopping.  I was pretty sure that a battery couldn’t do that.

We put the collar on.  It didn’t seem to work.  GM tried it on his arm, and it definitely worked.  We put it back on the dog.  She kept on barking, and then we heard the warning tone.  Sissy ignored it and continued…and then it delivered.

With a yipping whine, she was chastised, and she actually stopped barking for a few minutes.  Once again, the collar warned her and she ignored it.  It zapped her and she yowled again before hiding in her dog house for a few minutes.  Repeat a few more times and a miracle occurred.

Sissy began to associate the warning tone with the zap.  She would cringe at the tone, still not associating it with the barking behavior.  Soon, she began to associate the barking with the tone and the resulting shock, and silence ruled.

She’s not mute, and she can bark…the collar doesn’t go off immediately.  But now, when she hears that tone, if she’s paying attention, she stops.  If she doesn’t…we’ll hear her yowl soon, and then she does stop.  It’s not perfect, and pangs of guilt slice me to shreds each time I hear her bark dissolve into yowls, but I know the reality is…she has got to shut up.

Is it cruel?  Maybe.  But its much more cruel to see her killed for the barking.  We don’t have a choice if we want to preserve her life, unless we win the lottery (our state doesn’t have one) and can afford to buy an estate where she can bark her head off.

Sometimes, it’s cruel to be kind.