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Pet Connection Q&A: On the phone? Don't 'reward' dog's barks

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 7D

When I get on the phone, my dog starts barking. Why, and how can I get her to stop?

– Via Facebook

Anyone who has ever worked as a telemarketer can tell you that lots of dogs start barking the minute their owners get on the phone. Why? Because they've been taught to behave that way – accidentally, of course.

The problem starts when a dog barks at you just once when you're on the phone. Maybe she wants your attention. Maybe she just felt like barking at that moment. If she did it while you were watching TV or paying the bills, you'd probably ignore her. That means no reward for the behavior, which also means it's not likely to be repeated.

But if you're on the phone, you don't want the person on the other end to hear your dog barking or to hear you yell at your dog to shut up. Chances are that you'll pet your dog or throw her plush toy across the room just to keep her quiet.

Before too long, you have a dog that starts yapping every time you pick up the phone, because that behavior has been rewarded.

Sometimes, it even goes a step further. There are plenty of people who give their dog a treat to shut her up while they're on the phone. This is a big payoff for the dog, who is now rewarded for every yip with a cookie. Why would she stop barking? Dogs are not stupid.

The best way to avoid this problem is to prevent it: Don't reward your dog in the short term for behaviors you don't want in the long run. If she barks when you pick up the phone, ignore her. If that doesn't work, or if your dog is already a phone pest, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a dog trainer who can help you retrain her to be quiet on command.

– Dr. Marty Becker

The buzz

Antifreeze gets a safety makeover

• The manufacturers of antifreeze and engine coolant have agreed to add a bittering agent to their products, making them far less likely to poison pets and wildlife.

In its original state, these products taste sweet, making them attractive to animals. The active ingredient, ethylene glycol, is highly toxic in small amounts and quickly absorbed, making veterinary response difficult and death common for animals that ingest the product.

A number of states have mandated that bittering agents be added before products can be sold, but the voluntary agreement, brokered by the Humane Society Legislative Fund, expands the sale of the new formulation to all 50 states.

– Dr. Marty Becker

and Gina Spadafori

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