Barking Buster

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nov. 11, 2010

Dear Patty,

Occasionally the newspaper succinctly reports the name of a local resident issued a summons for a barking dog. That could be me. I imagine going before a judge and pleading, "Your honor, I've tried everything to quiet the dog."

"Try harder," the judge says. "Pay the clerk."

Our new dog Buster enjoys a good barking session, and his is a bark that belongs in the Irritating Hall of Fame. It's the same note over and over but sounds more percussive than musical, a staccato repetition of insistence that could replace waterboarding. Please stop! I'll do anything. I'll say anything.

The barking sometimes just means he wants in, and he's obliged as quickly as possible. Or that from his perch on our back porch, he has spied Sunday, our neighbors Frank and Robyn's tomcat. Buster verbally attacks Sunday most every day of the week.

While voting at city hall last week, DC thought she heard Buster barking. City hall is three blocks from our house.

Buster's the one who should be hauled in for questioning instead of me. I want some answers, too.

"OK, Buster, if that's your real name, why the racket?"

"Racket? Maybe I like the sound of my own voice. Lots of people do."

"That's the problem. You're a dog."

"Don't tell those people I live with."

That is the problem. We treat our dogs like people, which isn't the way dogs expect to be treated, and that leads them to behave like people. They do what they want, they sleep where they want, they eat and drink whatever they want -- even if it's not good for them -- and they wake up in the morning and do it again.

Cesar Milan, the trainer known as the Dog Whisperer, says he wants to be reincarnated as an American dog.

Buster is not like other dogs I have known, dogs that only mean to please. When Buster climbs onto your lap, he's not seeking your attention. He's claiming you. You're his, like one of the lifeless plastic toys he gnaws and shakes anyway, and his son Dizzy or our other dog Lucy shouldn't butt in. Grrr.

Robyn has surmised that Buster barks at whatever he fears. That includes people he hasn't sniffed and licked the hand of, and anything that makes irritating noises like vacuum cleaners and hair driers. Petting him with one hand while vacuuming with the other sometimes reassures him. Sometimes.

Dogs are like people in some ways. We bark at whatever we fear, too. Liberalism, conservatism, joblessness, loss of privacy, militarism, pacifism, immigrants, racism, big government, a government run by lobbyists. Dogs also can teach people about love. Sometimes dogs choose love instead of fear. We can, too.

In desperation, DC bought a collar that will impart a small electrical shock to a dog when it barks, but neither of us has the heart or stomach for subjecting Buster to that. No behavior should be induced out of fear of pain. Fear is the terrorist's weapon.

Instead we are trying to teach Buster and Dizzy to respond to love rather than fear. The love often is in the form of a treat. Dizzy always thinks with his stomach, so he's a pushover, but Buster has figured out that when a treat is offered it usually means we want him to do something he probably doesn't want to do.

Outthinking a dog can be a challenge.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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