When Po-Po turns into a yappy mutt, Miko and Mei Mei have to do with fewer cuddles.

EVER since Miko and Mei Mei came to live next door, we’ve had a very friendly over-the-fence relationship. We nickname them The Gremlins because their ears stand up when they’re happy; it’s a classic Silky Terrier thing.

We were introduced when Miko and Mei Mei were pups, so they’ve grown up knowing we’re friendly. For years we would come home to find The Gremlins standing at their fence, giving a bark or two, as if to say, “Come over and say hello!”

We’d stick our hands through the fence, and rub Miko’s silky ears and admire Mei Mei’s blonde curls. They’re well loved and cared for, so they’re picture-perfect cute. However, when Miko and Mei Mei had a child, Po-Po, we had to curtail our chats because Po-Po is one of those dreadfully nervous dogs.

When Miko and Mei Mei bark, they have two modes: the woof-woof that shouts stranger-danger, like the arrival of their enemy the postman, and the yap-yap-yeeeeeeep hysterical yelping that means something is wrong. The yelping is a bloodcurdling shriek that goes straight through walls and sets your hair on end.

When they were pups, the second type of shriek could mean anything from mummy giving too much attention to Miko, provoking outraged jealousy in Mei Mei to the mutual sighting of something wild and scary like a cockroach. Luckily that phase didn’t last long.

With Po-Po, though, the barking was quite different. He grew out of the blood-curdling yelping fairly quickly but he has a bark that starts off loud and becomes more and more shrill. The trouble is that once he starts, he just can’t stop. Po-Po is such a noisy little thing that we had to cut back on our visits to his mum and dad as it disturbs the entire neighbourhood.

In fact, the ruckus also upsets Miko and Mei Mei. You see, sometimes, when I think the two older dogs are out alone, we sneak a little cuddle time. When we get away with it, we have a good chat and catch up, just like the old days.

If Po-Po appears out of nowhere and starts his yap-fest, I’m prepared to just walk away. However, sometimes his mum Mei Mei turns around and bites her son firmly on the ear. She’s got quite a nip when she puts her mind to it, so it’s something to avoid. Miko is made of different stuff: he just barks back at Po-Po.

A while back, Miko and Mei Mei’s human family took advice and were told that Po-Po would calm down as he ages. Apparently he is a little extra nervous because he had a difficult time being born. His siblings (now happily adopted to good homes) were born in the usual way, but Po-Po was half a day or more behind.

It’s a shame because we’ve been missing cuddling Miko and Mei Mei and, by the looks on their faces, they’re upset that we don’t come round as much, too. It got me wondering, though, about the reason why some dogs bark so much and others are quiet.

For example, Mojo, the moppet pet who lives down the road, barks only occasionally, and the big Doberman who’s just moved in opposite us is a strong and silent type – except for when his mum accidentally shut the front door on him last week and then he howled like a wolf and scared the living daylights out of Target, our senior cat.

As a baseline, people talk, shout and whisper while dogs bark, whine, howl and growl. It’s the way they talk. A dog who is barking is like a human who is shouting. Barking is usually short-lived and is used as an alert. It can mean the dog is hungry, thirsty, bored or that there is a danger of some sort.

When dogs first started living with us, it was probably barking (as well as hunting rats, herding sheep and other useful jobs) that made the dog so welcome. It’s a doggy alarm that means “there’s someone approaching” – which is handy if your doorbell doesn’t work or you have raiders trying to ransack your property.

Wild dogs bark a lot when they’re puppies but when they grow up, they bark once or twice when there’s danger and then they shut up. This alerts the pack and allows everyone to see what’s up and to decide on what action to take.

The theory is that pet dogs bark as adults because of selective breeding and training. We like dogs that bark so we favour them and we encourage them to act as guards. However, pet dogs can become nuisance barkers because owners accidentally mis-train their dogs.

When the dog barks, the owner yells, “Shut up!” which the dog interprets as the pack leader barking along supportively. If the boss is shouting, there must be serious danger, the dog reasons, so he or she barks louder, the owner shouts louder, and before you know it, you’ve got a serious cacophony.

Canine behaviourists recommend that the proper way to train your dog is to look up when your dog barks, and to check out the danger. If it’s nothing, pat your pet, give praise for a job well done, and then take the dog with you and do something calming, like watching TV or reading a book. This way, your pet does her or his job and won’t over-bark.

From what friends with dogs tell me, this advice is excellent and it works beautifully. However, none of them have a hysterical personality like Po-Po who sees everything from falling leaves to cats meowing in the distance as threats.

Po-Po is now more mature and I’m happy to say that when I petted Miko and Mei Mei last week, he came outside, yapped for a few seconds, skittered back inside the house – and shut up!

So with a bit of luck our cuddle times are on again. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, too!

> Ellen Whyte is ruled by cats but also has dog friends. She blogs at lepak.com.

Lessons from the wild

STANLEY Coren, the American born psychologist professor emeritus whose books and television programmes on dog behaviour are popular worldwide, suggests that we take a look at wild dogs when training pets.

In the wild, adult dogs teach pups to cut down on excessive barking. Usually, the mother would place her mouth over the pup’s muzzle and growl warningly. She doesn’t bite or hurt, she’s using her mouth as we would use a hand. She then releases her pup and gives him a cheerful lick.

So, when your pup is barking, acknowledge it’s a good thing and check it out. Then fold your hand over your pet’s nose, say “Quiet” in a calm and soothing voice, then let go. Praise your pet for being a great guard dog and for listening to the quiet.

After doing this a couple of dozen times, your pet will learn what “quiet” means, and you don’t have to touch his or her nose again.

For more about Coren, check out his website (stanleycoren.com/).