By Dr. Craig Mixon
The role of a watchdog is not to attack people or to chase people away. A watchdog's purpose is to sound the alarm when he sees someone do something that you really need to know about. For example, if a stranger walks into your backyard, or tampers with your cars, or fiddles with your front gate, those are things you need to know about.
On the other hand, if a jogger or a cat pass on the sidewalk, the mailman goes by, or someone shouts in the yard next door, there is no sense in your dog barking at those things. In fact, from a security standpoint, it is much better if your watchdog sounds the alarm only when he spots those things which could potentially represent a threat to you or your property.
That way, whenever he barks you will know that something is happening on your property that demands your immediate attention. Whereas, if he barks at everything, you'll have no way of knowing if his vocal outbursts signal a crises situation or nothing at all. The trick to training a primo watchdog is to go to him every time he barks, every time.
How To Train A First Rate Family Watchdog
From the first moment he first steps paw on the plantation, you need to answer your dogs every bark by rushing to his side. Then, depending on what he is barking at, you must either pet and praise him, or sharply tell him "No" and give him a little smack.
Disciplining Your Watchdog and Yourself
If he is barking at something you want him to bark at, like a stranger opening the gate, you praise and pet him, and maybe give him a taste of dog biscuit. If he was barking at something extraneous, like someone passing on the sidewalk, tell him "No" and give him a smart little two finger tap. If you provide your dog with that kind of steady feedback, it won't take him long to catch on to what is to be barked at and what is to be ignored.
The tough part is disciplining yourself to respond to his every bark. The fact that you take your watchdog seriously and respond to his every warning, will surely not be lost on the animal. Especially if you have a dog of guarding lineage who is genetically predisposed to engage in that kind of behavior. To his way of thinking, your constant attention to his verbalizations will constitute a great honor.
Setting Up Security Scenarios
It is enough to make a guarding type dog take sentry duty seriously - very seriously. You can speed along the process of training your watchdog by recruiting people to engage in the various activities you do and don't want him to bark at. For example, if you want him to bark at people who sit on the lawn then, as frequently as possible, have people unfamiliar to the dog sit on the lawn and reward him when he barks at them. Since you don't want him to bark at the mail carrier, recruit people to walk up and drop letters in your mailbox and then, quickly walk away as a postal worker would do.
That way you'll have plenty of chances to use punishment and reward to convey what is and is not an appropriate stimulus for vocalization. By simulating the situations in which you do and don't want him to bark, you create many opportunities for your dog to practice discriminatory barking, and the extra training will bring him along that much more quickly.
If you immediately respond to your dog's barking, and continue to do so over a period of time, always dispensing either reinforcement or punishment in response to every bark, you will reach a point where, even though you rush to his side every time he sounds the alarm, he sounds off so seldom that you really don't suffer all that much inconvenience. Plus, you will have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that, if your dog is silent, your property is secure.
Some breeds are easy to train as watchdogs, easy as pie. With others you may find it extremely difficult to get results. If it is important to you to have a first rate watchdog, you will be well ahead of the game if you begin by getting a dog that is genetically predisposed to develop those skills. If it's a watchdog you want, you need to go with one of the breeds that are naturally inclined to do well at it. But remember, regardless of the breed, a good watchdog barks seldom.
Choosing Between a Watchdog Security and an Alarm System
If you already have a dog you love, then it's a great added bonus that you may be able to train him to serve as a watchdog. But if you don't really want to put a lot of time, money, and effort into raising a dog, don't make the mistake of acquiring one for the sole purpose of sounding the alarm when suspicious people come around.
Dogs are expensive. In the long run it is likely to cost you a great deal more to properly maintain a dog than to buy and pay the upkeep on a first rate security system. Medical care for dogs is almost as expensive as for humans, and many people find that their puppy sickens, requiring the expenditure of thousands of dollars on veterinary care in the first year of their dog's life.
But that's just the beginning of it. You're likely to find you spend some major bucks before Snoopy passes on to that great kennel in the sky. There's something else you should take into account: a security system can summon the police, which no dog could ever do -- other than Lassie. If you're thinking about getting a watchdog to throw a scare into suspicious people who come to the door, you have a much less expensive option available.
Just the fact that you have a dog may deter burglars and the like, but the value of having a watchdog lies much more in his potential for drawing human attention to the presence of intruders than in his ability to block their path. For one thing, most dogs are locked either in the front yard or the backyard. A burglar can simply break into the house by entering through whichever yard does not contain the dog.
If your dog has learned to bark only at trespassers then, when the dog sounds the alarm, you'll know with a fair degree of certainty that there is an intruder on your property, so you can hurry to investigate. Same thing with the neighbors; if you stress to them that he is a trained watchdog, and they rarely hear him bark, then when he sounds off they will hurry over to check things out.
However, if your dog barks at everything he sees, then while an intruder pries open your side door, your dog will be in the backyard, watching him and trying to warn you, while you and your neighbors dismiss his outburst as just more senseless barking. What I'm saying is that, if you're not going to train your watchdog what to bark at and what not to bark at, and respond to him when he sounds the alarm, then he's going to be worthless to you as a sentry.
Worse yet, while you are in the kitchen, the noise of your dog's constant barking from the other side of the house is likely to drown out the sound of breaking glass as Jack the Ripper helps Ted Bundy climb in your bedroom window. If you're not committed to training your watchdog properly, and responding to his every bark for the entirety of his life, then you'd better break out the brochure from that alarm company again.
Ways to Fake Having a Watchdog
Buy yourself a sound effects tape of a dog barking and put up a beware of dog sign. Then, anytime you feel threatened by a stranger at your door, you can just play the tape. The sound of a watchdog is often just as effective as actually owning one, plus you won't have to feed it or provide it with medical care and it won't get lonely while you are at work.
Whatever you do, don't get a dog unless you are committed to accepting the animal into your family. Dogs have emotions. They become upset and depressed and can suffer terrible longing. Watchdogs are not barking machines that run on food instead of gasoline. If you can't truly accept a dog as one of your own, welcome him into your home, provide for him and treat him as a sensitive, sentient being.
Dr. Craig Mixon is an educational psychologist with a doctorate from the University of San Francisco. Living in Santa Rosa, California, he is an expert in behavior modification who specializes in canine behavior, as well as in the musical behavior of humans.