Question: I have a 2 year old poodle terrier mix and she barks at the drop of a hat… I have tried a bark collar and a device that emits a high frequency sound when she barks! I love her either way but is there a secret we haven’t tried? – Chantel
In an ideal world, when faced with a barking problem, I’d get a comprehensive history from the owner, and I’d spend time with the dog in all relevant contexts so that I could determine what type of barking we were dealing with, and hence the most appropriate training protocol. Dogs bark for any of several reasons:
- Simply as a form of communication.
- To demand attention, that you throw the ball, that you put the food bowl down, etc.
- “Reactivity,” or fear/aggression/frustration toward a particular group, such as other dogs or children on bicycles.
- Out of alarm, i.e.; “Someone’s at the door! Someone’s at the door!”
Because the motivation for and location in which barking occurs must contribute to the development of a training protocol, it’s hard to tell someone all the right things to do without knowing everything about the situation. However, I can give you some general guidelines to follow in various situations.
1. and 2. I’d recommend a similar training protocol for a dog who barks because she’s got something to say (“Mom, I need to go out,” “Mom, I’m tired of this, let’s do something else,” etc.) and for one who demand barks. In both of these cases, your dog is making a conscious decision to try to elicit a particular behavior from you by barking. It’s your job to teach her that barking is not the way to get what she wants. In fact, the consequence for barking, rather than your either throwing a ball, putting the food bowl down, taking her outside or even playing the yelling game (“Stop it! Shoosh!” “Woof woof!”) is that she loses access to you; the person who can make these things happen. She gets a time-out! Decide on a spot in the house (the bathroom is often a good option; just make sure you put away anything destructible while Fido is in there) that will be used for time-outs. The crate isn’t an option! When Fido barks, say, “Eh-eh,” or “Oops!” and into the time-out room she goes. It must happen quickly, and it must happen every time. When Fido has been quiet for a couple of seconds, you can let her out and ask her for some nice behavior like a sit, (think of this as a more polite way of saying “please” than barking) then give her a food reward or reward her with whatever she wanted in the first place.
As your dog begins to catch on, you can begin, gradually, to extend the period of time she’s required to be silent in order to be released from her time-out. At this point, you can also test out the use of your “Eh-eh” as a warning word. When Fido barks, give the warning, then give her a second or two to make the right decision. If she doesn’t bark again, you can ask for an appropriate ‘please,’ then reward her. If she barks, say, “Too bad!” and into time-out she goes. If this happens, she is probably not ready for the warning word and needs a little while longer to learn that you really mean business.
Alternately, in a fix, you can remove yourself rather than your dog. So; Fido barks at you, you turn and walk out of the room, closing the door behind you. The rest of the procedure would be the same as if you were using time-outs.
While you’re doing your time-out training, you should also actively work on teaching your dog more appropriate ways to say please. Any time you know your dog wants something, try and catch her before she barks. Ask her to sit or perform another brief behavior with which she’s very familiar; then reward her with the thing she wanted.
3. Reactivity is a more complicated issue. There are several different motivations for reactivity, and which applies to a particular dog should be a determining factor in what training protocol is used. What I’ll do here is give you a very general idea of the goal and procedures for dealing with reactivity.
If your dog consistently barks at other dogs, children, loud noises, red trucks, etc., it is likely because she’s afraid of or otherwise stressed in the presence of that object. So goal number one is to show your dog that the scary or otherwise exciting thing means great things for dogs. This means:
- Exposing your dog to the scary thing at a level she can handle. This may mean that in the beginning, the scary thing needs to be presented further away, not moving, not as loud; or even that you need to start with an approximation of the scary thing, like a toy truck. The idea is to expose your dog at a level at which she notices the scary thing and is (ideally) a little stressed by it, but not so much so that she will have an outburst.
- Pairing the experience of being in the presence of the scary thing, at the appropriate level, with lots of good stuff. This means really good treats, or perhaps a ball or squeeky toy if your dog happens to be obsessed with one of those items (not if she just likes them).
Following those two guidelines, you can gradually increase the scariness factor of the exposures.
There is another, very powerful re-activity protocol which utilizes primarily real-life rewards. This is similar to the last suggestion I offered regarding demand barking. Rather than simply pairing something scary or otherwise exciting with something good, you would require behavior other than barking in its presence, and reward that behavior with the thing the dog wants most at that moment. The catch here is that you must know for sure what your dog’s motivation is. The appropriate reward will be very different for a dog who is genuinely afraid of other dogs (for example) as for a dog who barks and lunges out of frustration at being unable to go over and say hello.
4. When I talk about alarm barking, I am referring to barking that occurs on the dog’s property. The way I like to explain it is that dogs who bark to warm you about things going on around your home are under the impression that this is their job. So you need to teach them that it’s not! You will handle the goings on in your home. There are two elements to helping your dog learn this:
- Give your dog other tasks to perform when she is faced with something she might feel the need to address. Keep in mind that when I say “give her other tasks,” I mean that other behaviors need to be rewarded in these situations so that they’re more likely to occur. For example, when the doorbell rings, your dog’s job might be to run and lay down on her bed, where she will have the opportunity to sit quietly and work at a nice stuffed bone while you talk to your friend. In order to teach this behavior, you’d need to elicit and reward it before barking occurs. Perhaps you could ask a friend to come over and ring the bell. Be ready with a really great treat, stick it in your dog’s face as the doorbell rings, and lure her to her bed while someone else answers the door. Once on her bed, whip out a delicious stuffed bone. In the beginning, your dog may only be able to handle having the doorbell rung. Gradually, you can move to having your friend step inside and then leave again; and then continue to work up to a normal Saturday afternoon visit.
- Reducing the opportunities for your dog to get worked up. Helping a dog to become less aroused or concerned about normal goings on around your home requires some management on your part. Perhaps you’re working on doorbell training and you’re making some progress. But the entire extended family is coming over for Christmas dinner and you don’t think Fido is ready for a parade of visitors. Then maybe for that one night, the best option for everyone is to keep Fido separate from the action, somewhere where she’s comfortable. Or maybe Fido likes to sit at the gate and bark at every truck that goes by. Well then at least while she’s in training, she probably shouldn’t be left out by the gate unsupervised, where she can practice getting worked up and barking.
5. There are dogs who bark out of sheer boredom. There is no way to “train” this away. Barking out of boredom is most likely an indicator of either extreme, psychologically-damaging boredom; or of a bit of a compulsive problem (or a little of both). So the first thing you need to do is help your dog to be less bored! You may think she’s getting enough exercise, but if she’s bored enough to bark incessantly, she’s clearly got some pent-up energy. Dogs need lots of both physical and mental stimulation; and for most dogs, being out in the yard doesn’t count. They spend most of that time laying around or developing bad habits like barking and digging. Most dogs need at least a 30-minute walk/ jog daily, plus a few hours of dedicated fun time; hiking, playing with doggie friends, playing frisbee, going to agility class, swimming, etc., each week. At home, try feeding your dog’s kibble out of a food dispensing toy rather than a bowl, or hiding it around the house and having her search it out. Play hide-and-seek. Teach her a new trick!
If none of these things are working, you should consider taking your dog to a veterinarian and/ or veterinary behaviorist. Just like in people, psychoactive medications aren’t the right answer nearly as often as we sometimes wish they were; there’s rarely a magic bullet. But on occasion, medications do prove extremely helpful. If you’re convinced that you’re doing everything right and your dog has an underlying medical issue, you may be correct. So have it checked out!
Guest Contributor–Danielle Grand has spent the last decade working to parlay her affinity for animals into a dog training career. While earning her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, she was involved in an experimental study on canine cognition. She has also obtained her dog training certification from Animal Behavior College and attended numerous dog training seminars conducted by respected behaviorists. At home in New York’s capital region, she works closely with colleagues and mentors to expand her expertise; she hopes to help forge strong, happy relationships between many dogs and their humans.