Barking happens for various reasons. What is the purpose of your dog’s vocalizing? Understanding the purpose behind any undesirable behavior is the first step in changing it.
The Attention Seeker
Dogs learn quickly that barking at a human can result in obtaining his attention. Remember that simple eye contact qualifies as attention in the dog’s playbook. Often we inadvertently set up barking as an attention seeking behavior: the dog approaches his human and barks as a trial (what happens when I do this?) behavior. Our natural response is to make eye contact and say, “What do you want?” This leads to further engagement. The dog gains access to something he wants. It’s gratifying, so he will repeat his barking.
Barking for attention stops when it is no longer reinforced. You can turn a cold shoulder or even leave the room. When your dog approaches you, ask him to “sit” before he barks. Similarly, if he barks to go outside, get food, or initiate play, ignore him until he offers a more acceptable behavior and acknowledge that instead.
Frustration and Over Arousal
Many dogs have a low threshold for frustration and many triggers for over arousal. (Some call it “hyper”.) These internal states can result in vocalizing. One example is a dog who can’t “wait” until food or a toy is delivered. He wants it NOW. If your dog is accustomed to on leash greetings, he may see another dog approaching, become overly excited, and bark with frustration until the meeting happens. Some dogs bark in their crates. This “get me out” message is associated with frustration.
The solution starts with teaching your dog to “wait” for everything. Stop reinforcing the barking and ask him to “watch and wait” or “sit and wait”. Reward calm, quiet behaviors. On leash greetings set up for undesirable behaviors. Allow greetings and playtimes with friendly canine neighbors off leash in a confined area. Switch equipment, if necessary, and start fresh with a new and structured leash walking technique. Frequent “check ins” with your dog’s attention on you will evolve into a more pleasant (and quiet) walking ritual.
Clicker training is an effective way to turn off crate vocalizing. It’s precise and clear to help your dog learn that quiet crate time works best.
Boredom. Barking is a Mission
A barking habit can develop out of boredom. Here’s the scene: the dog is either home alone or with his human. He’s awake and in “seeking” mode. He may have access to a window or door that provides a viewing area. Someone or something enters the viewing area, and your dog’s arousal level spikes. He barks. The object of interest stops briefly or continues moving past the house. We understand that people/other dogs/ traffic move along. Your dog has a different perspective: the stimulus’ moving away is a result of his barking. This gratification guarantees that barking behavior will be repeated. He has a mission, a “job”, and a way to engage himself when he’s bored. He becomes increasingly “alert and on duty”.
The solution to boredom barking is to find appropriate activity outlets for your dog and limit his options. Clearly, he is making poor choices as far as we humans are concerned. When you are not home, crate or gate your dog from his viewing area. Otherwise, the environment dictates his behavior, and you won’t change anything. Provide him with environmental enrichment and mental stimulation to offset boredom as well as reduce stress. Bring in several yummy chews and deliver meals and treats in food-foraging toys.
Keep Your Distance! Offense as Defense
When we misinterpret our dogs’ signals, they take matters into their own hands (paws). Barking isn’t usually the first “keep your distance” strategy they use. They quickly realize that the flight option isn’t available while on leash and in other situations. If a “scary” person approaches and the dog backs away or freezes, the person often continues with the approach. The dog learns that these strategies don’t work to sustain comfortable distance. Barking is hard to ignore. The dog learns that this behavior works well as a way to increase distance between herself and a fear person or object.
The solution is to learn to read your dog’s stress signals, train in several obedience cues, and start a counter-conditioning program. Fearful emotional responses can be changed with a consistent plan. As your dog learns to engage in different behaviors, barking loses its purpose. Your dog learns to relax instead of reacting defensively.
Behaviors that are not reinforced don’t take hold and become habits. Barking can be prevented. We can turn it off with training. For sure, some dogs are more “vocal” than others. Clicker training is really effective in marking and rewarding quiet behavior. Training a “speak” cue can work, too, as long as you only reinforce it when you request it.
Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2016 all rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC