A dog barks for many reasons, some good and some bad. Barking can communicate things from a greeting, to a warning. A dog that barks every now and then is tolerable, but the problem lies in those who just won’t quit.
Some breeds were bred to bark, like beagles and Shetland sheepdogs. Dogs that rarely ever bark are greyhounds and basenjis. Barking is a form of communication that serves various purposes. It can be used to keep away, attract, share distress, and warn. Even people who are inexperienced with dogs can notice the difference between a muted woof of acknowledgement and a series of angry, aggressive barks.
Barking is most appreciated by owners when its purpose is to alarm. Dogs can be like a warning system, not just to warn us about possible harm, but to warn those who are potentially dangerous to us to keep away. The key is training your pet to bark when appropriate and turn it off when the threat has passed. Barking can become a huge problem to owners, friends, family, and neighbors when it is inappropriate.
WHEN BARKING IS A PROBLEM
You first need to understand why your dog is barking in order to figure out how to deal with the situation.
TO GET ATTENTION
Some dogs will bark as a way to get whatever they want from you. These individuals are pushy, spoiled dogs who persist on getting their way, insisting the spotlight and all the attention possible. The dog is usually acting up to be played with, sit on someone’s lap, be given food from the table, etc. Either way, it can be tough to ignore these barkers and easy to get irritated with them.
What makes a dog like this? In a nutshell, it’s conditioning. Everything our dogs do, we react to, even if it’s with disregard. This means we are training our dogs constantly through our actions. No dog will continue with an approach that doesn’t work, whether that tactic is crying, whining, or barking. Whatever produces the goods is what is reinforced. An attention-seeking barker is just that because their behavior has been praised with casual irregular support. There are tips to help eliminate this behavior, but it’s very important to remember that a dog barking for attention will usually try their absolute hardest before quitting. This means they will become louder and more intense before they realize it’s not going to pay off.
Withdraw attention. To the attention-seeking dog, any notice is better than no notice. Even scolding can be more appealing than being ignored. Pay no attention to the “bad” behavior and only respond with interest and praise when the dog is calm and quiet. Don’t make eye contact, touch, or speak to the dog when they are barking.
Bridging stimulus. A bridging stimulus can be used to hasten progress if the above strategy becomes tedious. This would be a neutral sound, like a clicker, that is done right when the dog begins with an outburst. It is an indication that you’re about to refuse to give them attention. With this sound, the dog will focus its attention on the consequences of its actions and, hopefully, speed up the realization that the negative behavior will get them nowhere.
Audible Punishment. Sometimes an audible punishment technique may work as a deterrent, but only with dogs that are not very sensitive. You can issue a simple command such as “No bark!” If that fails you can blast an air horn or use a “shake can” (a can with stones in it) to startle them.
Counter conditioning. Counter conditioning is training the dog to do something that is unsuited with his former conditioned behavior, such as barking. For instance, whenever the stimulus that previously caused barking occurs, like mealtime or relaxing on the couch, you can train your dog to lie down in their bed. There they will be given praise from you and possibly a food treat that is long-lasting. If the strategy works, the old, bad behavior is replaced by the new, calm behavior.
SEPARATION ANXIETY BARKING
Separation anxiety barking happens when you are not around, leaving the pet, or are about to leave. Here are the two types of separation anxiety barking:
The first type is an acute type of barking that sounds hysterical. It usually occurs within minutes of the owner leaving and it signifies panic, or a cry for help. Sometimes it’s broken up by bursts of whining. The purpose is to attract attention from the owner, or anyone, so that their misery is recognized, and hopefully, alleviated.
The second type is a more chronic, monotonous barking. This is conveyed by dogs that have all but given up on solving their dilemma.
The treatment for the problem of the acute variety is the same as the treatment of separation anxiety because it is the source of the problem. As neighbors complain of the disturbance, owners only think of the behavior as their problem, not their dog’s problem. Chastisement of such behavior is a common and mistaken answer. Physical punishment, particularly after the behavior, is not only useless but is unproductive and inhumane.
When a dog’s barking simply becomes a release of anxious energy – a displacement behavior – it becomes the chronic, monotonous type of barking. This type usually indicates that a dog has been left alone for extended periods of time for years, and barely believes in its capability to call anyone’s attention to its crisis. Because of this, chronic displacement barking is a barometer of long-term suffering. The humane resolution for these dogs is to prevent them from having to experience such isolation and futility in the future by making arrangements. Training them to stop barking will usually not work and misses the point. Punishment is inhumane. Much more basic issues need to be addressed in order to fix the problem in dogs with this type of issue.
Since one of a dog’s main duties is to protect their home, having one in the house is as good, if not better, than having an electronic alarm system. It becomes an issue, however, when dogs who are particularly enthusiastic continue to bark far longer than needed to inform their owners.
There’s a trick in training your dog to stop barking by acknowledging their warning. Saying “thank you” or “good dog” lets the dog know that you’re aware of their signal. If barking continues after you have verbally recognized it and thanked your dog, a command like “cease!”, “enough!”, or “stop it!” should be used afterwards to call an end to it.
Positive reinforcement should be carried out when training with the “stop it!” command. Treat or praise your dog immediately after, but only when, the barking has stopped for 3 seconds. This type of training may take a lot of patience until your dog will get the message. It’s a good idea to practice this training with a “volunteer visitor” who can ring the bell or knock, but doesn’t mind waiting outside for however long it takes as you go through the training.
A big problem owners face when attempting to train their dogs not to bark at the is that they are trying to juggle too many things at once; opening the door, greeting the stranger, and ushering them in at the same time as trying to control the dog. The only way to train correctly is to have a volunteer help you in training sessions so you are able to completely focus on handling your dog.
Have the volunteer approach and ring the bell or knock. Your dog will bark and you reply with “Good dog, thank you.”
If the dog continues to bark, say “Enough!”
If the dog continues to bark, remain motionless and ignore the behavior. Your volunteer is to wait outside. This is where patience from you and your volunteer comes in.
When the dog finally stops barking, as they all do eventually, say “Good dog!” and present them with a food treat as a reward.
The volunteer will ring the bell or knock again, and the sequence is repeated until the dog is responding more promptly.
Remember to always finish a training session on a good note with a reward for behaving quietly. These training sessions should be repeated every day for many days until the dog stops their barking quickly (less than 3 seconds) and stays quiet as the visitor comes in.
If this method fails, your dog may need a slightly more direct approach. The recommended technique is using a Gentle Leader® head halter.
Initially, you need to train the dog to cooperate when wearing the head halter and not struggle. Plan a visit with your volunteer and have your dog wear the halter and attach a 10-foot training lead. When you’re in your training session and your dog starts to bark as usual, praise the barking then say the command “enough”. If the barking continues, apply a gentle, steady, upward grip to the lead. This causes the dog’s nose to elevate and transmit slight pressure to the dog’s muzzle and nape of the neck. Keep up the tension until your dog is relaxed and quiet, then release the tension. Even though you made the quiet behavior happen, praise your dog for it.
If you are consistent in applying tension to the lead, in turn pressure to the muzzle and neck, your dog will eventually learn that it’s pretty much hopeless to ignore your “enough” command. Using this powerful, yet gentle, training tool, you will intercede and take control of your dog’s behavior.
There is also a counter conditioning technique you can use with or without the head halter. As mentioned earlier, you can train your dog to do something that’s not compatible with the negative behavior. For example, you could train them to go to an out-of-the-way part of your yard or home and relax whenever a stranger appears. Don’t forget to reward them extremely well for this behavior.
If your dog is territorial and also reacting out of fear, some of the above measures may still help, but chances of success are more limited. These dogs can be so anxious and fearful towards strangers that they may never settle down, even after you have greeted the guest. These types of dogs should be put on a “total package” program where they are desensitized to strangers. It’s a good idea to start this kind of exercise on neutral ground so your dog will be less territorial.
Some dogs will bark at anything that moves. It doesn’t have to be a stranger or even something living. These dogs will bark at passing cars, falling leaves, or icicles breaking off. They are on constant “red alert” and can be very hard to live with, especially if the degree of protection you need is very low to begin with. These dogs, perhaps by nature or nurture, trust nothing and no one and will view any environmental change as a threat.
The bad news is that we can’t persuade these dogs that their mission is pointless. The best thing you can do, with your vet, is address any medial contributions to hyperactivity, make sure they are on an appropriate diet, provide the right amount of exercise, and attempt to use the best physical control possible. This treatment is not unlike what needs to be done to control territorial barking. The only difference is that the application of this training may need to be more intense.
If the barking is partly due to a medical condition like hypothyroidism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you might be able to fix it easily with your vets help. If it is not, however, you will have your work cut out for you. Always remember to try to enrich the lives of these reactive barkers so they are more likely to understand what is worth barking at, and what should be ignored. A natural, genetic drive for a dog to bark combined with our own mismanagement can create a very difficult situation. Such a dog may need medication along with behavior modification therapy to even make slight improvement. It’s best to act early to prevent such behavior development.