By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
It’s wonderful to come home after a long day of work to relax and spend quality time with your pet. But when quality time includes the following pet owner’s predicament, relaxation is far from the picture.
“My Springer Spaniel barks constantly at the table when we eat dinner and it’s annoying,” says one perplexed pooch owner. “He gets table scraps occasionally but he always has dog food available. Any ideas or thoughts?”
At this point, cat owners are gloating over their choice of a more peaceful pet, but before you feline fanciers let it go to you head, listen to what another reader has to say.
“My neighbor’s cat visits us often. She is very sweet and loving. The problem is, she meows constantly. She literally never shuts up! Nothing seems to satisfy her—food, water, holding her. What would make her “talk” constantly?”
Why Are Domestic Dogs and Cats So Vocal?
Why do dogs, and even some cats, blabber on? One clue comes from observing their next of kin. The closest cousin to the dog, the wolf, rarely barks and when it does so, it’s more of a breathy “huff.” Similarly, wild cats rarely meow and their meows are more of a throaty “erk.” So somewhere during domestication meows and barks became the main mode of vocalization.
The second clue comes from observing domesticated cats and dogs. Extensive observations reveal it’s primarily those cats and dogs that are owned by humans that carry on with their loud seemingly pointless conversations. A study on free-ranging dogs in Baltimore in the 1970’s spearheaded by Dr. Alan Beck, showed that dogs that were owned but allowed to roam barked boisterously on many different occasions. Dogs that grew up in the absence of human and that were not tame remained relatively quiet. When animal control officers searched for these dogs in abandoned buildings, rather than barking to defend their territory, these dogs stayed silent.
On a somewhat similar note, while all cats can meow, cats rarely meow to each other. Rather they reserve this aspect of their vocabulary for speaking to humans. In fact, both dogs and cats rely more on body language as well as the proverbial urine spray and other scented “post-its” to communicate with their own kind. It’s not until we add in the human element that barks and meows become a major nuisance.
The phenomenon may puzzle some, but it’s clear to me. Cats and dogs quickly learn that we humans are blind to their visual signals no matter how pronounced, but it’s hard for us to ignore a constant meow or ear-shattering bark. So cats and dogs may have developed the herculean ability to bark and meow for hours on end because it’s a great way to get our attention.
One study by Michael Owren and Nicolas Nicastro from 2003 even indicates that cat meows are tailored to influence the human ear. The study showed that cats can produce pitch-modulated meows and the more modulated the meow the more urgent it sounds to human listeners. Since cats are poor at detecting variations in pitch, this adaptation isn’t useful for conveying urgency to other cats; but it’s perfectly suited for calling humans to action.
So now that you know that cats and dogs meow and bark excessively because they’re training you to respond appropriately, you should be able to plot a successful behavior modification plan—one that involves ignoring the noise and rewarding quiet behavior.
How to Deal with a Vocal Dog or Cat
For Skippy the Springer who demands caviar instead of his kibble and will bark through an entire meal until he gets it, treat him like he’s not even there. Then when he’s quiet for about 5-10 seconds toss him a little treat for being quiet. Then follow with a sequence of small treats for continuing to remain quiet. Toss them frequently enough to keep him quiet. Then systematically and rapidly increase the time in between treats so that you get longer periods of quiet for the same size reward.
At some point you’ll probably wait too long and the barky bowser will start barking again. Just wait it out repeatedly and reward him when he’s quiet again. After he gets the idea that it’s the quiet that’s earning him the treats, expect him to be quiet for longer periods of time before your start giving him the first treat and wait longer in between treats. Build this quiet time up as rapidly as you can until you reach the duration of an average meal.
Remember that Skippy has a history of getting what he wants if he just barks a little longer so it may take a while before you get your first period of silence. You can shorten this wait by practicing in several 10-minute sessions before you need him to be quiet at dinner time. In these sessions work on having him automatically sit to get a treat (or his kibble) and then reward with a series of treats for remaining quietly seated. Even up the excitement by adding movement—moving backwards quickly so he follows, and then stopping and rewarding him when he sits. This way he’ll have a built in idea that sitting quietly is a great way to get rewards, and when you ignore his regular barking at dinner, it won’t take him that long to figure out that maybe he should be quiet (and sit). If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. And the best thing is that if you’re extremely consistent and practice a lot at first you’ll be able to enjoy a quiet meal within several days to a week.
In the case of the social cat, Sylvester’s ploy may be a bit sinister. Maybe she wants food, maybe she wants to be petted, maybe she just wants to see you do a little dance. Cats often just meow because they want your attention just like dogs. They often aren’t sure of what type of attention they want. They may meow at the back door and when you open it they immediately go out, but then several seconds later they want to come back in. Or they just sit in another room and meow seemingly mindlessly. Generally what they want is petting or some type of attention but they haven’t been taught to perform appropriate behaviors such as sit, to earn it. Just as with dogs, you can train cats to sit quietly first for treats or canned food, and then for petting. It’s easy! Then when they get into a situation where they meow noisily at you, ignore all meowing and treat her as if she doesn’t exist. Then when she sits quietly, make sure you pet her before she decides sitting quietly doesn’t work and starts meowing again. Similar to the dog, if you’re consistent she’ll learn quickly. If you’re not and you give in when she’s meowing she’ll just learn to cry louder and longer!