The Daily Spike: Spike finds his voice (and finally learns to bark)

Does your dog bark constantly? Or maybe your neighbor’s dog barks so much and at a certain pitch that it starts to drive you crazy? It can be worse if you live in an apartment building with multiple yappers. One of my good friends in the city who shall remain nameless has one of those small, non-stop yappy barkers, and I’ve occasionally had (sorry!) bad thoughts.

Since he was a puppy, Spike has rarely barked. I don’t remember him barking at all the first several months of his life. Like ever.

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Spike has a set of commands that he’s expected to learn over his 18-plus months with me as a Canine Companions for Independence service dog-in-training. They include some basics like "sit," "down," "up," "off," "don’t," "stand," "under," "here," "jump," "drop" and "speak" (aka "bark"), among others. Spike and I work on his commands on a daily basis, though one has been highly elusive.

Speak.

It’s important for him to learn how to speak for his (hopefully) future role as a service dog. His human partner can use this command to get attention if they are in distress. Owners can even tell their neighbors that their dog is trained not to bark unless on command, so if they hear the dog barking, it means that someone should probably check on the pup's owner.

Canine Companions dogs are trained not to be aggressive at all. However, a well-trained dog that can speak on command is a good way to attract attention if the graduate is in a situation that might not be comfortable.

For instance, one graduate was out for a stroll in the woods in his power wheelchair, and the battery died. His dog's barking was heard by a UPS worker, who came to assist.

Canine Companions provides training classes to all the puppy raisers, along with videos and a handbook with the basics on how to teach these commands. Here’s their suggestion for teaching your dog to "speak":

"You can teach this by frustrating the puppy. Stand out of reach with the food bowl at a meal time. Avoid contact with the puppy, but let it know there is food in the bowl by rattling it. If the puppy makes any sound or opens their mouth, reward with a piece of food. Gradually increase expectations until the puppy barks before being rewarded. If the puppy is not very food motivated, you can use a favorite toy to frustrate them instead."

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I‘ve tried this countless times with no success. Spike is so chill he just looks at me, his head cocked sideways with a steady stream of drool from mouth to floor, as if to say, "Why are you shaking up my food, momma? It makes no sense!"

Another training approach is to “catch” your pup in the act of doing a command without prompting. You quickly say the name of the command and give a reward. Spike seldom barks at anything, though when he has, I haven’t had a treat handy to reinforce the “good" behavior.

And then something magical happened last weekend  We were visiting a friend who has an old, grumpy, slightly deaf chihuahua named Meena. She’s not a fan of most dogs, and certainly not big pups like Spike. They have enjoyed a distant and somewhat cordial relationship the last couple of times they met.

But this time, Spike found Meena oh-so-enticing. He constantly went up to her, hoping she could play, and instead she started growling and yapping at him — and that got him to bark. I was sitting next to him, with treat pouch at the ready, and was able to quickly say "good speak" and reward him.

He went over to her again, and it was the same thing: Meena growled and yapped at him and he barked. So again I said “good speak” and gave him a treat. This went on for a good 5-10 minutes, and I have to tell you it was pretty cool to see it all click in Spike’s head. Then he just started barking at looking at me for a treat. I gave him the biggest hugs, and his tail was wagging at full tilt. He could see how happy I was, and that made the tail wag even more.

It’s the best feeling, seeing him learn.

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There's now another command me and Spike need to start working on: "quiet." If only I could teach my friend’s yappy dog "quiet," then there might be peace in the big city.