Marta from Long Island sent me an email today asking how to stop her five year old West Highland White Terrier from sabotaging her social life by barking up a storm whenever she holds a phone to her ear. Connor had been crowned with the title of Sir Barksalot by the time he was a year old and since that time Marta had reluctantly focused on texts to make contact with people.
I explained that it was likely that when Connor was a puppy he barked at her for attention while she was occupied on the phone and Marta had inadvertantly reinforced this behavior by giving him attention as a result. Her attention may very well have been in the form of pleadings to shush, but for most dogs, attention is attention, regardless of whether we deem it as negative or positive.
I suggested she keep Connor on leash when she was there to supervise as a way of having a gentle, but effective means of controlling him. In addition to ignoring Connor when he barks (because if a behavior gets no reward it will eventually become extinct) I suggested she plan some set up phone calls during Connor’s meal times and use her cell phone to call her land line and vice versa.
Each time the phone rings and she picks up to say hello, I advised Marta to take a piece of Connor’s food and toss it on his bed or in his crate. Once Connor starts to move towards the bed or crate when he hears the phone ring (as it will become a cue for going to that spot to get food) Marta can gradually work on delaying the reinforcement for a few seconds at a time so that eventually Connor can go to his spot and wait quietly for a good bit of time.
In addition, I suggested Marta consider purchasing two or three special ‘telephone time toys.’ Gimborn white sterilized bones are a good option as the hollow middle can be stuffed with a small bit of food and will keep Connor happily occupied. After loads of repetitions Connor is sure to get the idea that running to his bed or crate is the best thing to do when the phone rings because he may get a tasty treat or special chew toy.
Think of it in terms of Pavlov’s dog; He developed an association between a bell ringing and the presentation of food. Likewise, Marta’s job is to help Connor learn that her phone time is his time to get busy with his chew toys!