Sunday, March 9, 2014

BARK! How to stop inappropriate barking humanely and effectively

All dogs bark.  It's what dogs do to alert other members of their social pack to potential problems.  Different barks have different meanings, from the short sharp surprised yip that signifies "Hey, was that?!"  To the continual "Owowowowowow" with the front of the body, head and ears up and forward, and the back of the body downward and ready for flight that signifies "OMG this is so scary, come have a look!".  When the whole body is erect and head and ears are pitched forward, that bark becomes a "Hey, Come on over here so I can mess you up" bark.  Dogs also bark a loud sharp bark if they need something ("HEY!").  Dogs bark in response to stress and stimulation.  No matter when your dog barks, it is because he is stimulated and/or stressed.  Usually we humans are cool with a few barks to alert us to a potential problem ("Hey, some one is at the door",  "There might be an intruder",  "Timmy fell in the well!"  That kind of thing)  But when the dog starts repeatedly barking, often when we are not home, or when we are out for a morning constitutional and he sees something that he's not used to or super excited by (like a squirrel) we often call it excess barking.

So how do you stop excess barking?  There are a couple of ways you can do it.  One is to apply an aversive (something that the dog doesn't like) like a squirt of water from a spray bottle, or a shock from an electronic collar.  The reason I don't ever recommend either of these methods is that any results will be short term, stopping the behaviour while you have access to water or while the dog is wearing an electronic collar .  The reason that electronic collars have any effect at all is because they cause the dog discomfort (If you don't believe this, try using one on your own throat-ouch).  The dog often doesn't realize that the collar is causing the pain, since he has no knowledge of electricity or how it can be used to hurt him when he barks.  He just knows when he sees the postman/skater/little kid swinging a lunch box/guy with a cane or some other thing like the shadows from the position of the sun, a bicycle etc.,  he gets hurt.  Guess what?  He probably  stops barking at the stimuli while he is wearing the collar, since the pain goes away when he doesn't bark)  But he no longer wants those people (or things) in his life since they cause pain/discomfort.  He automatically gets  nervous when he sees them now.  So he now has a good reason to  do everything he can to get them to go away, including lunging at or biting them.  Now you have a dog that has a potentially dangerous aggression problem, especially when he is not wearing the e-collar.  DON"T RISK THIS!

The long term solution, is to not correct the dog at all.  I know this seems counter-intuitive, but when you correct a dog, the dog becomes even more edgy than he was in the first place.  If the dog is nervous or stimulated, he will instinctively bark to warn the rest of the pack that something might be amiss in his world.  Instinctive behaviour is hard-wired (Thanks for this term, Jean Donaldson) within the part of the brain that never really changes.  So while you may be able to  stop the behaviour for a few seconds or even minutes, you will need to keep applying correction the excess barking  every time the dog notices the stimuli that got him worked up in the first place.  To me it's better to teach the dog to be chill around everything and everybody using a long term solution that either involves building a positive association with the stimuli, or teaches the dog that a few barks are all that is needed (as in when someone knocks at the door).  

Somebody was asking me how to stop her two little dogs from barking at everyone when they go out for a walk.  Here is what I would do:


  1. Only walk and work with one dog at a time for as long as it takes to change the behaviour of both dogs.  One dog's alert signal (body language and barking) will make the other dog vigilant and alarmed too.  Every time the dogs get all excited and crazy and get each other into barking mode, it makes it more likely that it will happen again.  So in this case, walk the dogs one at a time in an area where you are less likely to run into whatever causes the dog to go crazy while you are teaching the new behaviour. Prevent the unwanted behaviour (barking)while you are teaching a new behaviour (looking at you and eventually relaxing). 
  2. Be warned:  This can talk as long as three months.  
  3. Use a harness that attaches to the leash on the front of the harness (Easywalk, Freedom, Sensation are a few front attaching harnesses that are available in my area) and a six foot leash.  Front attaching  harnesses are excellent for helping to keep the dog calm.  Any type of collar on the neck causes a low level of stress in reactive dogs, and stress is ultimately what leads to barking.  Take as many small stressors away as possible, and the dog will have a better chance if relaxing. Carry a treat pouch filled with moist, pea sized bits of roast meat, or beef hot dogs.   This will help you to control and distract the dog way before he starts to bark.  Never ever jerk the leash, because this will add to the stress level that leads to sounding an alarm.
  4. If necessary, if your dog goes over threshold and barks, or you can't get him to take his focus off the stimuli, then nonchalantly and gently take him to where there is something blocking the view, and get him to relax. 
  5. Remember to relax and be conscious of your breathing.  If you are stressed, then your dog has a really good reason to be vigilant and alarmist.
  6. Think of barking as the end result of a series of physiological responses to a stressor.  Watch your dog for signs of stimulation.  The front of his body will be a little more erect than usual, his ears will pick up and point forward, his nose may twitch a little.   This is the stage where it is easiest to distract the dog, get him to perhaps sit and stroke/scratch him gently where he likes it best,  when he relaxes even for a brief second,  quickly reward with loving praise, first a small handful of treats.  
  7. Repeat, repeat, repeat.  DO NOT ADVANCE TOWARD THE OBJECT/PERSON causing the stress until the dog is completely comfortable with it at a distance.  So comfortable that the stressor is a non issue and the dog sniffs around or looks up at you and not at the object.
  8. Some dogs (especially hunting breeds like pointers and retrievers) will automatically feel more comfortable and relaxed carrying a favourite toy (for some a "talking" stuffy often works especially well).  And it's hard to bark seriously at something when your mouth is full!  
Teaching appropriate barking at the door works on the same principal, but get a friend or family member to help you with a set up:

  1.   Friend is outside at the door.
  2.   Relax and focus on your breathing.
  3.   Make up a cue so your friend knows when to knock or ring the door bell.
  4.   Have lots of yummy pea sized treats in a bowl/pouch/etc
  5.  Stay right beside the dog and give the cue to your friend.  
  6.  After the dog barks twice, say something like "Great Bark!" "Thank you!" enthusiastically. Then fill his mouth up with snacks. 
  7. If he wants to keep barking, you can very gently close his mouth with your hand, and whisper "Quiet" and then immediately give him a bunch of snacks.  Do NOT yell "QUIET!". Whisper it so the dog can learn what it means from you and you can show him that you are on the same team.
  8. Most dogs will catch on very quickly.  As with everything you teach your dog, repeat, repeat, repeat until your dog knows it off by heart.  Don't just stop right after he gets it.  The way we train is the way we play.