Dogs ‘talk’ in different ways than humans, but the goal is the same: Communication. Humans use words and intonation to convey meaning while dogs use different sounds (i.e. whines, barks, etc). With a dog that barks excessively, it can be easy to feel that the dog is barking just to annoy its owner or that it is barking for no reason. In fact, barking might seem like manipulation: They don’t get what they want, they bark incessantly, you give up and poof, they win. However, just as with people, different situations stimulate their desire to bark. A few common reasons are: Warning/alert, anxiety, playfulness/excitement, attention-seeking, boredom, etc. The first step in training your dog to calm down is to identify the trigger(s). You can then start training your dog in each situation to exhibit a different response when he/she normally barks.
This is our shock collar for the invisible fence. While there is the option to use a remote to shock for correction, we did not order it.
There are a lot of different pieces of advice floating around about how to stop a barking dog. Many of them involve a ‘correction’ (i.e. choke collar, spike collar, shock collar) that effectively punishes the dog for the barking. However, such aggression tactics can and often do backfire – the quietness that is bullied out of them might not be long lasting and/or might not be understood in different situations. Additionally, hurting the dog (yes: choking, yanking and shocking are painful) can lead to fear and aggression.
Positive Reinforcement Training
The hardest thing for many owners to believe is that ignoring a barking dog can help them learn to not bark. By ignoring them every time they bark because they want something (i.e. walk, food, play, etc), and only giving them their desire when they behave, you will condition them to use a different form of communication (being quiet) to “say” that they need something. Reward and praise are given when the dog takes a few seconds to be quiet and collect themselves (or when they give up). This method requires a lot more patience that the punishment tactics. With punishment, the human gets to take out their frustration by yanking/choking. With positive reinforcement, you just have to wait them out. In a way, less energy is required….but your ears might hurt for a little while.
Our Story: Sydney
Sydney seems to enjoy being in the car, but her happiness can quickly escalate to out of control barking.
As you may have read in recent posts, we recently adopted Sydney and she came with a whole repertoire of poor behaviors. The worst one is her barking because it is so sharp and loud that it immediately raises your heart rate and makes you want to leave the situation. Her first week with us was really tough. She barked for everything. If she wanted to go outside, once she was outside, if she wanted you to throw the frisbee, if she was hungry, if she was excited, if we tried to take her on a walk, if we put her in the car, if we talked to Trooper…the list goes on. At times, I seriously thought my ears were going to start bleeding.
We tried a lot of different tactics to soothe her. We tried saying “shoooooosh” in a long, low, calm tone, saying “Sydney, No”, putting her in a different room, advancing quickly in her direction to throw her off guard, petting her in a soft, soothing way….nothing was long lasting and her barking would just start up again whenever we stopped our ‘correction’. And guess what? Trooper was starting to mimic her! That’s the worst! When your well behaved dog starts to copy the behavior of a poorly behaved dog, you know you need to act fast.
The Solution – Ignore the dog and wear ear protection
These ear muffs are for heavy-duty construction. Confined barking in the car definitely necessitates protecting your ears.
One morning it dawned on me that we should just ignore her. What she often wants is attention or for us to be quicker at whatever we are doing (i.e. hiking, getting the food dish on the ground, etc). If we pretend we do not hear her and just wait her out, she would hopefully learn to communicate the same request (look at me or please hurry) by doing something different – being quiet. We could then swoop in with a delicious treat and praise.
The second week was not easy. We tried ignoring her when we went out in the yard for play and exercise, but she would run in front of us, essentially running backward to keep her body/head facing us, and make eye contact while barking at our faces. It was really challenging to not say something. But speaking or indicating you hear them is giving them what they want – attention or a response. So when she started barking, I would turn a haughty chin in the air and change directions. The moment she was quiet, I would ask for a sit/stay and then throw her frisbee for her. Amazingly enough, her barking started to reduce in frequency, duration and intensity.
Advancing to the high desire situations
While her outdoor play behavior, requests to go outside and overall patience was improving, her response to being on the leash was not going anywhere. As soon as we would take a leash out, she would start barking and running around like a crazed beast. Once the leash was on, she would bite (angrily?) at it and pull on it. Every time we tried to go for a hike, we would load her into the car, get blasted by her barking and take her right back out because we couldn’t handle having our ears blasted. But this was the next step: Teaching her that being quiet and calm would get her what she wanted: Walks, hikes and car trips. Barking her head off would get her nowhere.
The video below documents the first time we took her for a hike and the barking fest that occurred leading up to it. She barked for 20 minutes prior to being allowed to go into the woods (four minutes in the back yard and sixteen minutes at the forest parking)! As you’ll see in the video, I walked around in the yard and ignored her until she quieted down. Once parked, we again ignored her or engaged in something other than what she wanted (i.e. walking around but not going in the woods). When she was quiet, we praised her. For the first several times, praising her even a little bit would send her off, so we had to be careful. Eventually, however, she started to respond positively to being rewarded nicely (“good girl”, “sweet Sydney”) instead of ignored.
Sydney’s first hike
What is not recorded is our hike in the woods. Sydney was out of control! When we were not hiking fast enough, she would herd us, running behind us and barking as loud as ever. If we rested for a few minutes, she would run in circles and bark. It was absolutely shocking the level of energy she was willing to put into this communication. She would actually work herself into such a state of frustration that she would eventually leave us to run over to sticks and branches on the ground and would bite at them; groaning, grunting and whining while she pulled/chomped them into pieces.
After the hike, we were a little disheartened. We ignored her for 20 minutes and were perhaps looking for that to be the miracle cure. Wrong…Just because she gave up near the car does not guarantee that she would transfer that experience to being in the woods. But guess what? Doing the same exact routine for a second day worked wonders!
We went for a hike the next day and she only barked for 8 minutes! It was so incredible that I would not have believed it had I not been there. I do not believe that dogs want to bark the way she has been conditioned for the past five years. They just learn to do it to get what they want, but it is stressful and requires a lot of energy. Once Sydney figured out that sitting down quietly resulted in the immediate delivery of what she wanted, she started to put the pieces together. The next outing only featured 5 minutes of barking!
Sydney’s progress is dramatic, so do not be discouraged if your dog does not advance as quickly. One thing that will definitely help is consistency. Because Sydney barks in nearly any situation where she wants something, I get a lot of opportunities to reinforce the behavior I want. If she only barked during hikes, I would only get to train her in the context of the hike. We have been ignoring her barking for nearly two weeks now, and she has started transferring her experience in one situation to the rest of them. If barking does not get her food or the frisbee or attention or a walk or a hike….then maybe that response that worked for the food and for the frisbee will work for everything else too!
For further reading, The Humane Society has a great article that describes working through other bark situations.