Barking dogs in themselves are not the problem. The problem is when, where, and how long the dog barks.
Dogs bark because Mother Nature tells them that’s how they’re supposed to communicate. But we humans, intelligent, intuitive, and compassionate as we are, simply refuse to live in “dog country.” We refuse to learn their language. We want dogs to speak the Queen’s English or else shut up. On behalf of the world’s dogs, I say, “Grrrrr!”
Dogs bark when they’re happy, but also when they’re scared and bored. They bark when they’re expressing aggression, or to tell us to open the door because they have to pee. Often, they bark just to tell their pals on the next block that the telephone lines are open and working swell.
So how do we all just get along? Education!
Excessive barking usually springs from a failure to correctly communicate with the dog. For example:
• We want our dogs to warn us of intruders, but hate it when they bark at strangers while on walks.
• We like them to bark to show how much they love us when we return home, yet we don’t want them to bark when guests walk in the same door.
• We enjoy hearing them bark while they’re chasing balls, but get offended if we think they’re taking control and telling us to throw the ball.
Three training tools
The positive trainer doesn’t try to stop a dog from barking. He figures out why, when, where, and how long the dog barks, and then uses one or more of the following tools:
Tool #1: Prevention and management are used to keep the trigger away. In other words, the thing that causes the barking is either removed or blocked from the dog’s view. This is done with the proper use of tethers, baby gates, and/or crates. Bottom line: no trigger, no barking.
Tool #2: Counter-conditioning changes the way the dog feels about whatever is triggering the barking. For example, he gets a treat every time the mail carrier appears. With this approach, the dog falls in love with the mail carrier and stops barking. Unless, of course, the dog starts barking because he now loves the mail carrier, in which case the trainer would use the third tool!
Tool #3: Operant conditioning teaches the dog a substitute or incompatible behavior. If dog barks when the mail carrier appears, he’s taught to run to his bed, grab a toy, or simply lie down instead. Hence, no barking.
The first order of business with any problem behavior is to make sure the dog is healthy. Rule out any health factors that may be stressing him and influencing the barking behavior. If he’s physically okay, then he’s probably barking for one of three reasons: excitement, fear, or a need for attention.
Barking for attention
Ignore it and only acknowledge him when he’s quiet. Then reward him with petting, praise and treats. If the dog barks incessantly and for long periods, that’s a different issue. In cases like these, consult a professional trainer.
Barking due to fear
If the dog is barking because he’s nervous or afraid, identify the specific cause. It’s normally one or more of the following:
• Movement: skateboarders, joggers, cars
• Noise: fireworks, pots clanging, sirens and other loud sounds
• Touch: being restrained, groomed, examined by the vet, or confined
To deal with fear-based barking, use:
1. Counter-conditioning to help the dog change the way he feels about the scary thing. This is done by associating the scary thing with a primary reinforcer like high-valued treats. It’s similar to Pavlov giving food whenever a bell rang.
2. Systematic densensitization gradually gets him used to the scary thing. Use successive approximations or baby steps, such as asking him to lie down and stay while the scary thing (like a child on a skateboard) is very gradually introduced. Systematic desensitization is most often linked with counter-conditioning. Each step calls for proper timing, consistency and communication, so it’s useful to call a professional trainer to demonstrate how it’s done and set up a behavior modification program.
3. Operant conditioning teaches the dog to do something else whenever the scary thing happens. If a dog knows what to do in any given situation, the scary thing becomes less scary. For example, teach him to “sing” (bark) on cue, but only when you ask. He can also be taught to be “quiet”.
Barking due to excitement
If your dog is barking because he’s excited, use operant conditioning. Teach him a behavior that is incompatible with barking, like lying down or getting a toy.
Keep in mind that to successfully solve any barking issue, your dog must receive plenty of quality time for exercise, employment, massage, and play. Certain herbal and homeopathic remedies can also be helpful until the problem is resolved.
The case against punishment
Many aversive tools are sometimes used for barking problems. They punish the dog in order to decrease the probability of barking. These tools include squirt guns and citronella collars that squirt the dog whenever he barks, and shock collars that send a mild to severe electrical pulse every time the dog barks.
Punishments are different from distractions. A distraction, such as clapping your hands, whistling, or using shake cans and low volume airhorns are used to startle, not frighten. The dog’s attention is then redirected to the trainer who teaches him a behavior that’s incompatible with the barking.
As a positive, reward-based trainer, I rarely use aversives for any problem. I have probably resorted to a squirt gun once for every 400 dogs, and an airhorn once for every 800 dogs. And I am not a fan of shock collars, nor have I ever recommended their use.
A calm and happy dog doesn’t bark too much. Making sure your canine companion is getting the care and attention he needs, while training him with the methods outlined in this article, will help keep him quiet – at night and any other time.
What about debarking?
In my 35 years as a professional dog trainer, I have never recommended debarking. This surgery involves removing tissue from a dog’s vocal chords. The sound the dog makes after this operation is akin to a rasping whisper. This is supposedly a last resort in cases where the dog has to be re-homed or euthanized if the barking isn’t stopped.
Personally, I feel that if someone has the money to get this surgery done, they have the money to hire a competent trainer to help resolve the issue, soundproof their apartment, or re-home the entire family. That being said, there are certainly situations where moving is not an option. Time and finances are real-life factors, sometimes making it impossible to get an extremely verbose dog to be quiet. In these rare cases, finding another home for the dog is the best option.
Paul Owens began training dogs in 1972. He is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and a leading proponent of positive, nonviolent animal training. He is author of The Dog Whisperer and The Puppy Whisperer and is featured on the Dog Whisperer DVDs, Volumes One and Two. Paul is also director of the Raise and Praise Teacher Training Program, and the founder/director of the children's after school violence prevention program, Paws for Peace.