By Rose Stremlau
Traditionally, Pyrs are nocturnal, a characteristic that enabled them to guard and protect the flocks entrusted to them. Even today, working Pyrs continue to keep watch over their charges all night. For those of us who do not own livestock guardians but instead share our homes with “couch guardians,” this aspect of Pyr behavior can be frustrating. Not all Pyrs bark at night, and for those that do, there are ways to train them to bark less often. This is one family’s experience reducing night barking.
Leonidas was a night barker, and he still is to a much smaller degree. When we first adopted him, he barked several times each night for ten or more minutes at a time. In part, he was responding to the noises in our neighborhood. Lots of owls and nocturnal critters make their home in our yard, and Leonidas liked to “talk” to them. At that time, we also had two separate neighbors who were either coming home from or leaving for work in the middle of the night. Leo would bark at them as well.
My husband is a very light sleeper. All of this made for frustration, and shooshing and yelling didn’t quiet Leo down. We found that white noise doesn’t work either. Pyrs have such good hearing, and it didn’t fool Leonidas like we wanted it to.
After talking with Martha and our trainer, both of whom encouraged us to work with our dog’s temperament, we began to appreciate that Leonidas thinks he is doing his job by barking at night. So us yelling at him for “working” just confused him. It might have made him think he wasn’t working hard enough, or he might have thought that our yelling was joining in with him.
Pyrs are hardwired to protect their flock regardless of what time it is. To some extent, they still will want to do that even when they are couch guardians. When we go to sleep, Leo thinks he clocks in. We can’t change hundreds of years of canine evolutionary adaptation. Instead, we changed our response, and it worked over time to reduce this unwanted behavior.
We created a night time routine for Leonidas. He gets last outs, a biscuit, we set the house alarm, and then we walk with him to his favorite sleeping place, which is as far away from stimulating noise as possible. After he lays down, we sing him a good night song. Yes, we sing him a short lullaby, the same one each night. Our trainer didn’t suggest that specifically, but she did say that clearly indicating to him that it is time to sleep is important. It is communicating “you don’t need to work now.”
We’ve done this for two years, and if Leonidas doesn’t get his “sleepy Pyr” song as we prepare for bed, he sulks and whimpers. Every now and again, when we’re tired and don’t follow our routine, it is inevitable that I’ll just crawl into bed and start to relax before Leonidas will start throwing a tantrum and crying in his bed. If I get up, go to him, sing him his song, and give him a good night hug, he settles right in and quiets right down. He’s almost always asleep before the song is over.
If he barks during the night, we let it go for a minute or two. Now, he usually quiets himself, but when we started this, he didn’t. If it seems like he won’t stop, one of us gets up and goes to where he is barking, which is usually one of our front windows. Then, we calmly say “What’s up, Leo? What do you see?” and look at the window with him for a moment. Usually, we see nothing.
A few times, we’ve seen something we didn’t want to…like a drunk driver who hit our neighbor’s mailbox! We want Leo to guard us, so it is important to validate him with praise and treats when he does a good job. After a moment of looking with him, we say in that same calm, reassuring voice, “Thank you, Leo Pyr. Good work. That’s enough. Okay, back to sleep.” We walk him back to his sleeping place, wait for him to lie down, pat him on the head, and go back to bed.
In other words, instead of trying to stop the behavior totally because it is annoying to those of us who work and have to get up, we appreciate that he’s working. Signaling that he’s done his job and can go back to sleep has worked over time. We noticed improvement within weeks, and now, he might bark for a few minutes once or twice each week.
I think he began to understand that many of things he was barking at (like the evil, hated owls and the normal car noises), were not concerns to us, and this method communicated that we appreciated his alert but that it wasn’t needed for that thing. Or this thing. So he slowly but surely stopped barking at those things. His “vocabulary” increased, and he understood what not to bark at. As a result, he barks a lot less. He’ll bark at new or strange things. We’re ok with that.
We also do something like this during the day. He barks like a mad dog at a few things, and we want to discourage that overreaction. When the mailman drives by and he flips out, we go to the window, look out with him, calmly say, “Oh, okay, its the mailman. I see. Thank you, Leo, but he’s okay,” and gently lead him away from the window to a rug where we have him lay down. He gets petted when he is calm. At first, he didn’t calm down right away. Now, when we go “rug,” he usually will settle down after he’s thanked and removed from the stimulation. By doing that during the day, we’re reinforcing that when we acknowledge his alert but say it is okay, we mean “thank you for being a Pyr AND take a break.” He’s now ok with the mailman, but he still wants to fight the UPS guy. Why he’s learned the one is okay but not the other, I have no idea?! It is a work in progress, and each overreaction is a chance to work with him to create a new outcome.
Once we learned what to do and calmed down because we realized we could teach him, our attitude changed, and THEN his behavior changed. We are now able to communicate our preferences to him. There are a few things we want him to bark at–like people we don’t know walking on our property, so when he barks at them, we praise him and give him a treat at the window so he knows he’s being a great boy.
None of this is quick fix. Pyrs are smart and stubborn, but they respond well to affirmation and clear signaling of right and wrong in a way that works with their hardwiring and not against it.