Barking is one of the most common reasons people call a dog trainer. Often times, people have endured their dogs barking hoping it would stop, they’ve tried various training methods and they’ve even told the dog “No Bark”! Is it any wonder people are up to their eye balls in frustration when the dog continues to bark anyway?
Let’s break down barking and talk about why telling the dog “No Bark” really does not work. To us humans, most dog barking all sounds the same and as soon as it starts, we want it to end. But the reality is that dogs bark for many reasons.
The happy barker. This is the dog who barks when he is playing and having a good time. My own dog fits into this category. She is really not much of a barker unless she is trying to get a dog to play with her and then she can be really persistent and to some dogs (and me) annoying. So long as the dogs she is barking at don’t seem to mind, I let her be herself. If she is annoying her dog friends or she gets on my nerves then we interrupt her to do something else…walking around, playing or sometimes it’s just time to leave. This is not the usual type of barking that bothers most folks.
The demand barker. This is the dog who barks at his people to get attention or stuff. They are usually looking at the person and barking in short spurts and usually stop when they get what it is they wanted. Whether they want to be petted or have the ball thrown this type of barking is something that we humans usually teach to our dogs unwittingly when we first get them. We often initially find the happy faced barker cute and so we give them attention, talk to them or play when they ask us to…until that is they won’t stop when we are done with the interaction. Ignoring this barker completely (no eye contact, no verbal instructions, turn and leave if you must, put the toys away) and when the dog is quiet, praise him and give him the attention or interaction he is seeking. By showing the dog that the barking behavior does NOT work, he will try something else to get your attention. Catching quiet behavior or any other behavior that you want instead and rewarding that will stop the barking. It’s hard to bark with a ball in your mouth:)
The Alert barker. This is the dog who is usually well socialized and happy to see people, other dogs, things in the environment and is keen to tell us when somebody has arrived on our property. This type of barking is not usually caused by negative emotions like fear or anxiety but is more often just that, an alert. Once the visitor arrives the dog calms down and is comfortable in the presence of the visitor…usually especially so if his family is home. When his family is away, he may be more willing to stay on alert and prevent access to the family space. In any case, this type of barking is also not usually the reason people call a trainer to resolve barking, at least not beyond getting help to settle the dog faster or have the dog wait for permission to greet.
The Alarm barker. This is the dog who is usually not well socialized, at least to the things he barks at. This is an emotionally charged barker who is uncertain, anxious, fearful or angry at the subject of his barking. This barking is usually persistent and comes with other body language that is meant to tell the intruder to please stay away (in fact usually GO AWAY!!! is the intention). Some dogs are great with people but bark at dogs. Some dogs bark at skateboards, cars, motorcycles, garbage trucks, landscapers, mail carriers or other specific triggers and others bark at pretty much anything or anybody that they don’t live with (sometimes unfortunately even people they do live with). This is the type of barking that is most often the cause for a call to a dog trainer. To fix this type of barking, we first have to deal with the dogs emotions. Once we can help the dog to no longer fear, be anxious about or angry at the subject of his barking then he no longer has a reason to bark…in fact the barking just goes away.
Why is my dog afraid or anxious?
I’ve been asked “Why does my dog continue to bark at the mail lady every day when she has never done anything to him; there is no reason to fear the mail lady”? My answers are often something like: Why are humans afraid of snakes when most of us have never been bitten by one? Or I can’t tell you why my mother is absolutely terrified of heights when she has never fallen from a cliff or a ladder.
Fear, anxiety, uncertainty and anger toward things can be cause by many individual situations or by a combination of things. Genetic make up is one cause; a pup can be fearful or anxious if he has a parent that is also anxious. Learning experiences can cause a dog to have fear or anxiety (or anger) toward things or in given situations. A single scary event can be enough to leave a dog permanently afraid of something. Lack of positive socialization is often a prime reason for fear and anxiety toward new things. Dogs have a limited time in their lives when they are open to gaining positive experiences to new / novel things. By the time a puppy is 16 weeks old this window closes. This time is fixed and is not open to modification by humans. During the first 16 weeks (5-9 weeks is prime time) puppies need to have lots of positive exposures to people, places, objects, noises, textures and even other dogs to have the best chance at being a well adjusted adult in our human world. After the age of 16 weeks dogs will naturally be more fearful of the things they were not socialized to and to reverse their associations requires a whole different set of training activities best guided by a qualified positive reinforcement trainer or behaviorist.
Solutions to Barking:
Why “NO BARK!” doesn’t work:
One of the things I often hear people say when their dog barks at something is “No Bark!”. I am pretty sure I missed the movie, show or book that explains this particular phrase but I hear it all the time so it’s out there some where.
Why “No Bark!” doesn’t work. First off, if the dog is barking when you say this phrase and dogs learn by association (and they don’t actually speak English, German or any other human language) then what they learn is their barking and the term NO BARK go together. So when you say “NO BARK!” they not only do not stop barking but they continue to bark because that in effect is what you are telling them to do. If the dog does momentarily stop barking when he hears this phrase, it is more likely a reaction to threatening tone of voice or body language by the human than an understanding of the words. Counter intuitive to how we humans think I know but remember…we speak the language and have reasoning skills beyond that of our dogs.
Prevent the Behavior:
Keep your dog from looking out the front of the house and barking all day at the people who come and go. He rehearses the behavior and learns that when he barks, people go away so barking works! We know they were leaving anyway but the dog does not!
Increasing the distance between your dog and what he is barking at will alleviate his discomfort and the barking will stop if you get far enough away for him to feel safe. Putting him in a different room of the house when visitors come, Turn and go the other direction on walks, Do not allow the scary thing to approach your dog and never try to bribe a dog to like somebody by having them offer a treat; often times this will cause the dog to get closer for the food but then be too close and he may feel the need to defend himself. Remember too that soothing talk and a calm demeanor will help but by itself will not help your dog to feel safe in the presence of scary things.
Make great / awesome things happen when your dog is exposed to the things he is upset about at the distance he is comfortable with. The best way to help your dog change his emotional response to scary things is to hire a Positive Reinforcement Trainer who is experienced working with fearful, anxious or aggressive dogs. Common tools used might be Desensitization and Counter Conditioning, BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training), Teaching alternative behaviors, etc. Avoid any type of aversive training methods, especially when working with a dog who is already upset. Your veterinarian may have a local referral for you.
Association of Professional Dog Trainers
Karen Pryor Academy
Academy for Dog Trainers
Association of Animal Behavior Professionals