Training Your Dog to Stop Barking
by Robin MacFarlane
How to Train My Dog Not to Bark
Need a recipe for exasperation? Try combining a bombardment of daily noises with a dog incessantly barking! Barking problems are one of the most annoying issues that pet owners struggle with, and stopping the annoyance is usually a high priority for the dog's owners as well as their neighbors!
But before we can stop it, it is important to evaluate why the dog is carrying on so much.
Why Do Dogs Bark?
Barking is a normal behavior. Dogs bark to communicate a variety of messages. The challenge is trying to figure out exactly what the message is. Sometimes the reason for the noise is invisible to us (perhaps a sound that is undetectable to the human ear) and the dog is seemingly "barking for no reason." Other times we can't understand the concern because the reasons seem so benign -- a dog that barks at a flag flapping in the wind for example. We can't understand why the big fuss when a flag is so obviously harmless.
Dogs bark to sound an alarm, they bark to threaten, they bark because they are excited and some bark because they are frustrated. There are a lot of meanings so let's take a look at some of the messages before we try to get the dog to stop sending them.
The Different Types of Barking
Alarm barking conveys that something is causing concern and the dog is warning to signal a potential problem. Alarm barking is actually one of the main reasons we domesticated dogs so many years ago. We liked the fact that dogs could sense things we could not and it served as an early warning system to help us fend off potential dangers. Eventually, we even began to selectively mate dogs to create breeds that barked for specific reasons. We could use those various barks for help with guarding, hunting and defending.
Some dogs were meant to bark not only to sound the alarm but also to threaten and drive off any intruders. Whether the intruder is a person or another animal, if the dog can get rid of the perpetrator with enough noise (and sometimes chasing), they learn that the behavior works. And of course any behavior that works will be repeated! If your dog is successfully getting rid of the mailman each day because the mailman walks back down the sidewalk after the dog barks...well, your dog believes he is doing a fabulous job making the "bad guy" go away!
Many dogs will bark when excited. If you have ever seen hounds during a hunt, you understand that restraining from vocalizing while excited and charged with adrenaline is not the norm for certain breeds.
Dogs also bark when they are frustrated. Frustration can come from isolation, boredom, or the exasperation of not being able to obtain what they want. And if you've seen a litter of pups solicit mom into feeding time through vocalization, you can see how quickly that dogs can learn that making noise will get them what they want.
It is important to understand that dogs are social creatures. They don't thrive under conditions of long periods of isolation. Many dogs bay, howl or repetitively bark as the result of being alone for too long of a time period.
Controlling Nuisance Barking
Now that we better understand some of the reasons for the noise, let's discuss ways to start curbing nuisance barking.
Controlling the barking should be our goal rather than stopping it altogether. It is not fair to own a dog and expect them to NEVER bark. I think we can all agree we would appreciate our dog barking up a storm if someone were breaking into our home or the house was on fire!
But we don't appreciate the dog going crazy because the UPS guy is walking up the sidewalk to deliver a package, or the dog who thinks that the new garbage bin sitting in the kitchen is a weird monster. It would be great if dogs could easily discriminate the "bad things" from the good ones and regulate their barking accordingly, but that simply isn't the case.
We have to help the dog figure some of these things out. We can desensitize pups to everyday things and interruptions and we can teach dogs to stop barking when they are directed to. Desensitizing and training take time so it is important to note that often we can simply manage the environment in ways that make exposure to the various triggers less likely.
In some situations, management is the easiest and least time intensive solution.
If your tenacious terrier stands on the back of the couch yapping at passers-by all day long, move the couch or close the curtains and you'll likely solve the problem. The use of a crate might also be a simple fix for the pooch who only barks out the window when you are gone from the house.
Before you decide if training is needed to stop a dog's barking activity make sure you've been fair in assessing why the dog is making all the noise.
For the dog that is barking out of boredom and isolation, do something with the dog that burns physical and mental energy before you have to leave the house. Most dogs were bred for purposes that involve an active lifestyle. They need outlets. If the dog's only function is to sit around the house or yard all day waiting for you to return from work, you're just asking for problems to build up over time.
Consider upping the activity level from a simple walk to something more intense like jogging or biking with the dog. Burn off mental frustration by engaging in activities involving obedience or agility. This does not mean you have to compete or do a lot to formalize your training. It can be as simple as asking the dog to sit or lay down before you throw the ball, or having the dog jump over an obstacle when you call him back to you. Activities that make the dog think will help tire them out.
If your time is too limited, hire a dog walker or have the dog attend daycare once or twice a week.
Our view that dogs should enjoy "just sitting at home or in the yard and relaxing all day!" is misguided. We don't understand why the dog would possibly bark so much when he has it so easy. But we have work and hobbies that tire us mentally and physically. If you were home, day in and day out, with very little social contact, no entertainment and the same couple of toys to look at that you've had for years...you might get pretty cranky. Imagine that same scenario if you were tethered in the backyard day in and day out. You might start howling in frustration, too!
There are dogs that have been provided ample exercise and outlet for energy and yet they still bark more than is acceptable for their owners. If you own a dog that alerts constantly, barking for all manner of intruders, you're going to have to do some training.
There are two ways to stop unwanted behavior: ignore or interrupt. The circumstances of the barking will determine which technique works faster, but regardless of which you pick, you need to be consistent.
Barking that does not cause a nuisance to others can often be ignored and it will go away.
For example: the dog that barks for attention. If a dog has learned that barking elicits play, petting, or sometimes even scolding (because to the dog, that is attention), resolute ignoring will cause the dog to give up the habit simply because it no longer works.
You can walk away from the dog that is barking because he wants dinner or wants you to throw the ball again. After a few repetitions of you leaving the scene, the dog will begin to learn that noise actually STOPS him from getting what he wants. Dogs with this excitable personality often benefit from learning to bark on command. If you give them an outlet to bark when directed to, it can be much easier to control and stop it when you desire quiet.
For those barking situations when you can't ignore it or for those of you that aren't the personality type to be that patient, you can use interruption to gain control.
This is my preferred method for alert barking. I don't want to ignore it because I appreciate my dogs letting me know someone is at the door or they heard a sound outside. But I want the barking to stop once I've determined that there is no danger. I teach my dogs to cease the barking by effectively interrupting the dog's focus enough that I gain a moment of silence and then I reward the silence.
I've found the vibration or static pulse of a remote collar to work as a great interrupter, BUT I only train this AFTER I've done some initial e-collar conditioning first.
If you don't have a dog that is e-collar trained you can experiment with using your voice (don't yell because your dog will think you are joining in the fray -- simply be firm and use a unique sound like uh-ah), the clap of your hand, a pop on a leash, a squirt of water, or hiss of air from a can (purchased at the office supply store or pet store). Use whatever mild interruption works to cause a brief cessation of the barking, label the silence with a word like Quiet or Enough and then REWARD IT!!!
Give your dog a reason to want to remain quiet. Redirect your dog's attention to some other known behavior that you can also reward. My preference is to use an obedience command such as Down or go to your Place. By directing the dog to DO something, the act of focusing on the trigger becomes more difficult and you can reward your dog for focusing on you instead.
When you are using treats to reward, make sure you present the treat AFTER the silence is achieved. If you use the treat as a bribe to initiate cessation of barking you're actually rewarding the dog for making the sounds to begin with.
Bear in mind this is different than using treats to counter-condition for the dog that barks because they are fearful of things (the dog barking at the trash can or the flag flapping in the wind). In those situations using food to counter-condition is great and should be presented to the dog before the barking even starts. Again we are rewarding silence, but it is our job to keep the dog under threshold and help them gain confidence being around these triggers.
As strange as it may sound (or appear), I've found that totally ignoring the dog at those moments of fear barking and actually LAVISHING attention toward the triggers (yes, I am suggesting you talk to and pet the trash can or flag pole) will help your dog gain the confidence to come sniff and explore the items. Dogs follow confident leadership. If you act as if this weird thing is awesome, your dog will come check it out as well.
Barking is a big issue and there are many ways to solve it. If you're interested in how electronics can help with the problem, check out this article but always remember to understand the root cause before you start applying solutions.
Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.