Barking is a completely natural, normal and acceptable behaviour for dogs, but we humans often don’t tolerate it in our community. From your dog’s point of view, there are many good reasons to bark. Fido comes hard-wired with various instinctive survival and communication behaviours, which includes barking at intruders or competitors, and at sources of fear and excitement. Excessive barking is defined by it occurring at inappropriate times, or when it goes on for too long. Most large breeds of dogs rarely vocalise, but small breeds and working dogs are particularly prone to barking.
While it is unreasonable to completely inhibit this essential instinctive behaviour in our dogs, we certainly can train Fido to learn when, and for how long, it is acceptable to express himself. Firstly, we need to establish why Fido is barking, because this changes how we train.
WHY DOES HE DO IT?
If Fido is barking for hours at a time when he has been left home alone, we need to treat him for separation anxiety, which involves a completely different approach to territorial barking. (See our Separation Anxiety tip sheet).
Another form of annoying barking is an attention-seeking behaviour, which is closely lionked with separation related behaviours. Does your dog bark at you and/or jump up for attention? Don’t give him any! None at all – not even eye contact or voice control. Gruff reprimands count as attention in Fido’s mind, so yelling “quiet!” reinforces his behaviour and will make it worse – he’ll actually think you’re joining in the barking. If he is mugging you for attention because he is anxious, yelling at him will only increase his anxiety. Only reward your dog with your attention when he’s calm and distracted, never when he is demanding it, or even just asking for it. (See our Attention-seeking tip sheet).
Boredom and medical-related barking
If the dog appears to be barking at nothing, with a repetitive, chronic bark, he could be bored (especially in younger dogs) or experiencing pain or dementia (especially in older dogs). Boredom, due to lack of exercise and mental stimulation, is the most common reason for monotonous, incessant barking. Think honestly about whether your dog is getting enough physical and mental stimulation. How would you feel if you were locked up at home all day with no phone, iPad, companions or outings? Boredom and lack of stimulation is torture.
Our dogs crave exercise and attention. Thirty minutes to an hour of vigorous exercise or mental games are essential to keep him happy, help him settle down, become less reactive and more tranquil. Trick training is a brilliant way to stimulate your dog on rainy days or if you are unable to provide vigorous exercise. Ask neighbours to visit and play with your dog or to take him for extra walks. Being walked on a leash at a slow pace is better than nothing, but dogs need to run fast – hither and thither – to really get the beans out.
Make Fido work for his food through puzzle toys stuffed with treats or food. These are great entertainment for dogs and give Fido something fun to do while you are away or busy. Have several on hand so that he gets most of his meals this way. Scattering dry food throughout his territory is also a great way to satiate his natural instincts to ‘hunt’ for his food.
Territorial and defensive barking
Almost all other types of barking result from an innate defence mechanism, in response to a perceived threat to the dog’s personal safety, territory or precious resources (such as his pack, young, food, toys, sleeping place, mate etc). Most dogs are relaxed and rarely bark, but those prone to anxiety will bark at the proverbial drop of a hat! Dogs travelling on the road with their owners become hyper-vigilant and fiercely defend their caravan site. This is because their constantly changing environment increases anxiety in some individuals, so they bark at anything within cooee of their tiny territory. Some dogs find this overwhelming and are simply unsuited to life on the road, while others can learn to relax and absolutely revel in it!
Territorial barking is a common form of unwanted barking behaviour and usually involves sudden, acute bouts of hysterical barking at the first sight of something unusual. Fido sees something – usually approaching – and goes nuts, to alert his ‘pack’ of a perceived threat, and/or to create a tirade of defensive threats against the intruder, telling it to stay away. As the intruder walks past and away from Fido’s territory, he thinks that it was his hysterical, defensive barking that drove the threat away, so this behaviour becomes self-reinforcing.
WHAT TO DO?
What is ‘acceptable’ barking?
It is okay for Fido to give a few good barks to alert us to the presence of a ‘threat’… but it is not acceptable for him to on, and on, with it. If he barks at every movement and sound he sees and hears – from his bed, through the window, from the deck or campsite, in the yard or in public – it becomes irritating for all within earshot, especially if Fido carries it on long after the trigger has gone.
Dos and Don’ts
We need to help Fido learn new coping strategies to deal with his anxiety or arousal, by positively reinforcing calm, controlled and confident behaviour. (See our Tranquillity Training and Desensitisation tip sheets). He initially needs to learn to focus on us and remain in control, leaving us to thwart the threat. Later, his new-found confidence will allow him to remain calm on his own.
Yelling at the dog to stop barking can be perceived by him that you’re joining in, so stay calm, controlled and quiet. Simply remove Fido from the proximity of the perceived threat and work with him to get his focus on you rather than the intruder, to create a calm, confident response to the presence of the trigger.
The most effective method to reduce this frantic response to an approaching threat is to stay with Fido whenever he is exposed to potential triggers and watch for anything that he is likely to react to. We need to get in first – before he reacts – asking him for focus, and keeping him really busy with tasks – like sit, shake, drop, spin, etc. This will distract him from either noticing, or reacting to, the trigger. If he looks at the intruder but doesn’t bark, say “Yes!!” and immediately reward him with whatever he most loves – a game, a food treat, a cuddle, etc. If he looks and gives a couple of gruff woofs, do the same, because this is also absolutely acceptable. But if he barks in a way that is unwanted – hysterically, or going on with it beyond three or four woofs – immediately isolate him from your company and attention.
Never molly-coddle him! Don’t caress him, saying: “It’s okay, Fido, be a good boy, shhhh. Good boy, good boy. It’s okay, Fido…” etc. This does not help but only reinforces his behaviour – you are effectively saying “Good boy for going nuts, Fido, good boy. Be anxious, that’s right, go nuts” which is not the message we need to impart! Just ignore him and isolate him until he stops barking.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND IT
Operant conditioning is the highly-researched scientific concept to which dogs are well known to positively respond. It simply involves providing consequences to actions. Through consistent and repetitive provision of good consequences for wanted behaviour, and mildly unpleasant consequences for unwanted behaviour, a pattern begins to form that the dog can recognise. Fido will eventually start to understand that certain behaviours work better for him.
Rewards of treats, affection and games provide positive consequences for the sort of behaviour we want him to repeat. Briefly isolating Fido from your companionship forms a very mild ‘punishment’ – a negative consequence to his unwanted behaviour. If he could think deductively (which he can’t) it would go something along the lines of: “If I alert my human to the scary man or dog approaching our house without going completely nuts, I get cheese and a cuddle… but if I go nuts, my human leaves me alone! I’m gonna try and win more cheese!”
Keep your training positive
Fido will learn much faster if training has a positive focus. Try to maintain the ratio of positive consequences to 99% and negative consequences to only 1% (or as close to this as possible) for the most effective results. This is especially important in the anxious individual. It takes a fair amount of vigilance and commitment to train a naturally vocal dog, but this process really does work if you follow the basic scientific principles of consequences for actions in a positive framework.
Repetition and consistency is the key, so if you leave Fido outside to bark at threats 90% of the day and spend only fifteen minutes trying to train it out of him, it won’t work. Fido must not be able to detrain himself by barking at triggers whenever you are not around, or if you are too busy to notice triggers approaching and have to resort to punishment methods to try to stop Fido’s barking. It’s not working for you now, and it won’t work for you in the future. You will need to restrict his ability to be reactive by reducing his exposure to the things that trigger his excessive barking until you can be with him and pre-empt his reactivity with focus and training exercises. This means you need to spend a lot of time with your dog.
Barking First Aid
As a stop-gap emergency measure for territorial reactive barking, and for the times when you are not able to be with him to train him to be more tranquil and less reactive, we need to reduce Fido’s sensitivity by blocking his view of passers-by. He won’t bark at what he cannot see or hear, so keep him indoors, close the shades, confine him to a part of the house or caravan that doesn’t have windows he can see through. If he stays outside in a yard or tethered to your campsite, reduce his view of his environment with covered fencing or portable pens. Play music or leave the radio on, loud enough to cover outside noises (but not enough to annoy your neighbours!). Crates are excellent and crate-trained dogs will be far less reactive if they have their own special little ‘den’ in which to feel more secure. (See our Crate Training tip sheet).
anti-barking training SUMMARY
- Have some high-value treats ready – small and soft so they can be eaten quickly – such as pea-sized pieces of cheese, ham or bacon (not boring dry dog biscuits).
- Stay alert and watch for triggers that are likely to make Fido bark.
- Reward him lavishly if he does not react, or does so within the bounds of acceptable behaviour (a woof or two, or even three). Be a little generous with what you deem ‘acceptable’ in the early stages, to help him have as many wins as possible. You can become more selective later, as his anti-bark training progresses.
- Pre-empt any potential reactivity by getting his focus off the trigger and onto you, before he even has a chance to start barking. Distract him with tasks such as obedience cues and give him tricks to complete, for which he can be lavishly rewarded. This makes him feel happier, and the resulting change in his emotional state – from being aroused or fearful to thinking about you and staying calm – is exactly what we are aiming for in this training.
But what if he barks anyway? – Timeout
- If the dog starts barking, do not over-react – give him one ‘cease it’ cue such as Enough, Hush or Quiet, spoken firmly but without emotion
- Lead him with as little contact as possible (eg. by a leash) to a timeout zone where he feels a little isolated. The toilet or a bare crate (not his favourite sleeping crate), where he has no comfort or companionship, is ideal.
- Don’t leave him in isolation for more than a minute – less if the dog is naturally anxious – and only release him when he is calm and quiet.
- It is important to wait for fifteen to twenty seconds after he stops barking before you release him, or he will associate his release with barking in the timeout zone.
- (See our Timeout Training tip sheet)
- Always try to focus on providing positive consequences for not barking, rather than relying on negative consequences through timeout.
- Reward him repeatedly and lavishly for staying quiet and then gradually increase the time he must remain quiet before rewarding him, which is how we phase out the treats.
- If he starts barking, go back a few steps and reduce the duration, or go back to distracting him with tasks, or use timeout to discourage it.
- Once he begins to understand that you are rewarding him for not being reactive to whatever triggers him, add a cue word – hush, sshhhhh, or quiet – as soon as either of you sees triggers in the future.
Long term training
As with any behaviour problem or obedience skill, training must be ongoing. Many trainers make the mistake of forgetting to provide positive consequences for wanted behaviours when the behaviour is no longer a ‘problem’ so progress begins to slide away. If you constantly praise Fido long into the future for merely looking at – or maybe just giving a minor woof – at triggers without being overly reactive, he will continue to feel confident and calm and maintain his new skills.