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How to train your dog to stop barking

Barking Dogs

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.

Punishment Tactics

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!

Improvement

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.

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16 Comments

  1. our year old australian shepherd barks when someone comes to the door or drives up. she scares visitors with her vigorous barking. we usually isolate her in another room when someone is coming then let her out after they are inside and seated. then she will come out calmly and sniff them. i would love to get her to stop barking when someone new arrives. though sometimes i do like the warning.

  2. Your isolation routine is a good start – It lets her know it is unacceptable to respond to visitors with intense barking. Something you might want to try is turning it into a ‘how many snacks can I give you game’.

    When you hear someone approaching, grab your training treats (keep them small because she is going to get a lot of them BUT delicious because you are about to ask for something that might be challenging for her) and run to that designated ‘isolation’ room. Throw a treat through the door so she chases it in. Praise praise praise! She just voluntarily isolated herself!

    Go into the room with her, ask for a sit and give her a treat. If she can hold a sit-stay, ask her to stay and reinforce with treats every few seconds. You are getting her primed for your visitor.

    At some point, she is going to hear your visitor. The key is to keep reinforcing her silence with treats. If she starts to bark, withhold treats for a second to do what is necessary to get her attention again. For me and Sydney, that means I pretend I’m trying to find an oh-so-good treat on the ground and she has to come plug her nose into the area to help. She can’t bark and sniff at the same time so I just got silence again. You might use a toy or a command or whatever has worked for you.

    Once you get silence again, reinforce it. Once your visitor is established in the house, you can then ask her to calmly leave her isolation room, maybe on a leash. Praise lots for small steps.

    (I do this routine with Sydney but with a crate. She sounds so crazy when visitors arrive that it sounds like i have an attack dog. The crate works great and as soon as my body language points that I am about to run to the crate, she races me there, flies in and QUIETLY waits for her snacks. It’s awesome. We are now at the point where I can get her crated before she knows a visitor is here and released after they’ve left and she doesn’t bark at all.)

  3. I have a 5 month old Aussie female. She barks excessively at us for no reason, when we are just around the house. She does not bark at the door or other dogs, just us when ever we are not 100% giving her attention and playing with her. If we are doing anything around the house she just barks at us for no reason. I have tried to ignore it but it is getting worse. Any suggestions ?

    • Hi Ryan – I’m sorry to hear about your barking issue. I completely understand what you’re describing. Sydney does this sometimes when we make a room transition – I have no clue why.

      Two things I’ve found to be effective – Do the crate routine. She gets one chance to calm down after you have asked her to. If she doesn’t, send her to her crate, reward her and leave her. Cover it up if you have to (this helps some dogs; others don’t like it). As long as she is quiet in the crate, you can also throw surprise treats in every now and then. She needs to understand that she can’t boss you around.

      The other option is to just isolate her from the pack. This doesn’t work for all dogs but it does for Sydney. If she loses her composure, we put her behind a doggie gate in another room. She can see us and walk around but she is not allowed with ANY of us – animals or people. After she quiets down, we release her.

      I’d love to hear how it goes once you’ve given something a go. Good luck!

  4. I have a 2 year old Aussie,Toby. He has been to several obedience classes when he was younger, and we take him to the dog park for an hour every night to play with his two friends. With all his training we can’t seem to get him to stop barking at bikes, skateboards, scooters or any wheeled object. Even with a training collar he still will excessively bark. Now it seems to be getting worse, he will now bark at any noise he hears outside, if a neighbor walks by as we’re on a walk he will bark like crazy. We have tried positive praise with treats, and try to get his attention away from wheels but he is so focused and intense it’s like he doesn’t hear us. Do you have any advice for us?
    -Shannon

    • Hi Shannon,
      I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble with Toby. Fortunately, I think you can train him to stop that. You will have to desensitize him to each object individually. Trooper used to attack and bark at the vacuum. After slow and patient training, he will now lay on top of it!

      This topic is worthy of a post in itself, so I will be brief here. Get one of the wheeled objects he is scared of and bring it into a safe training environment. Reward and praise him every time he looks at you with the object nearby. You want to reward his focus on you and lack of attention to this ‘major threat’. If he begins to get worked up, say his name and reward him when he looks at you. Repeat until he won’t look away.

      Work up to walking near the object and asking him to touch it (if he knows that). When you give him a treat, throw it away from you – near the object, not near the object, anywhere.

      Once he doesn’t care at all that the bike/scooter/etc is in the room, get someone to move it for you. Start over with your expectations. Now that the wheeled object is moving, it will likely be worrisome again for Toby. Reward his focus on you and give lots of treats. Maybe sit on the bike and give him treats. Help him realize it is no big deal.

      Work toward someone riding a bike (or other wheeled threat) across your yard with you training/praising Toby. Then work up to the same thing but strangers riding down the road.

      He definitely hears you but he is ignoring you in favor of this greater “threat”. You have to get your voice heard before he completely focuses in on the object. Don’t yell or be crazy. If he doesn’t respond, calmly hold his collar/leash and walk him away from the object. When you are far enough away that he stops barking, give him a treat and talk to him. Try again.

      This might be a very slow process but it also might progress really quickly once he gets the drill. Aussies love to work. Make this a fun, safe game with his favorite snacks and I believe you will be successful. Let me know how it goes!

  5. Can you truly stop your Aussie from barking? I have a 3 year old, Butters that barks at everything that goes by the house and continues until she can’t see them. Also like others have said she barks at anything that moves. Ex. lawnmower, bicycle, tractor. I have an invisible fence for my Aussie. Although, I did just read that it is not good to let your Aussie roam free. Is this true. I would appreciate and suggestions you may have.

    Thanks

    • It probably isn’t safe to allow your Aussie to roam free, outside of your yard. If you yard is safe, I don’t see why it would be a bad idea. (If you live where there are dangerous wildlife and you allow your Aussie to roam at night, that’s a different story.) As for the barking, how do you exercise her? Have you done any obedience training with her?

  6. Hi,

    I have a two year old mini Aussie named Bo. I am having a problem with him barking when I leave. I live in an apartment and need to get it under control because I don’t want to give him away. What should I do to help the situation? Also, would a bak collar be a bad idea?

    • Thanks for visiting! I generally don’t like bark collars because I think it only addresses a symptom, not the real problem. Does crating him help with the barking? How do you exercise him?

  7. I’m new to the Aussie breed. I rescued a 1yr old from a family that didn’t have time for her. She is very good IN the house -barking is minimal, but when out in the yard,herding our labs (yes, she herds 2 adult Labrador Retrievers & they love it), she barks like crazy. I don’t want the neighbors to get upset… Any suggestions? I’m perfectly ok with the herding behavior/game, I would just like to minimize the barking that’s included. Thanks!

    • It’s FAB – Female Aussie Barking …(joke…I just made that up). It seems every female aussie I know who enjoys playing with others, also likes to bark her head off while playing. Some dogs are just vocal creatures and like to shout about what they’re doing. If you’re okay with her herding them and their play routine, I think it would be challenging to selectively train out the barking behavior. My only suggestion would be to not allow excessive barking in other situations so as to prevent her transferring the ‘allowed barking’ into inappropriate situations. You could also try taking your play sessions to a hike or a dog park.

  8. I have a 3 year old female Aussie who for her first 6 months with us was an angel. We trusted her with kids of all ages until one day she was with one that was constantly teasing her and taking her bone, the child would run with her bone then give it back. Only to snatch it again. After the child was repeatedly told not to do that we took her home. We got a call from the mother saying that our dog had bite the child when the little girl went to say goodbye. Now our dog has NO patience for children and seems to be afraid of any new people that don’t have another dog with them. We have tried gentle leaders and muzzles but she still is very fearful and is always barking at people she doesn’t know or does know but hasn’t seen for a while. Oh and she also has a problem with tall men. What should I do?

    • Thank you for sharing. I’m sorry you’re in such a difficult situation. Have you had your Aussie since puppy or did you recently adopt her?

      Because of the surprisingly change in behavior toward children, I wonder if the child hurt her. If the little girl went to say goodbye and did something mean, hurtful or scary, it could have shocked your pup enough to cause a lasting impression.

      For future reference, be wary of allowing young children to play the food/toy keep away game with her. It’s a risky game even when the dog loves children. I’m an adult and I wouldn’t like someone taking something away from me!

      From your description, we can be pretty certain her responses are fear based and not outright aggression. So it’s time to start helping her see that people are not scary. That means training and conditioning to relax and greet people nicely. This can be a very long process.

      If that ends up being an unobtainable goal, the alternative is teaching her to have absolute focus on you when in ‘scary’ situations so that she is quiet and agreeable. This requires her trusting YOU and trusting that you aren’t going to make her go meet that scary person. If there is a person approaching during a walk and you anticipate that she is going to get scared, you get her focus, change sides of the street, pause and hold her focus while the scary person passes and then resume walk.

      That is just one example. Sydney has a similar issue but I haven’t identified what exactly is “scary”. But to avoid a loud, uncomfortable situation, I just avoid anything that I have learned will set her off. We get out of their way, Sydney gets lots of treats and attention and everybody is happy.

  9. We have a 8 month old, male Aussie who, when chastised for bad behavior, will bark at us as if HE’s scolding US! He does NOT like being told “No”. And yes, he is very loud and I swear his bark echo’s off the walls, vibrating in our ears. LOL I’ll try to remember to ignore him when he’s doing this, but I’m fairly certain he’ll start pawing/scratching at us, which is very hard to ignore. When he gets really worked up I usually place him back in his crate for a time out for 10 minutes, which usually calms him down.

    • You have a great start! You have an energetic puppy. Is he getting enough exercise?

      One of my favorite ways to discipline is to tell them what they did wrong (for example, “no biting”) and then immediately redirect to a request that will allow him to do good. After you discipline, try to immediately ask for a trick (i.e. sit, down, pay, etc). When he does it, give him a few snacks in quick succession while telling him how good he is. Then suddenly it’s all positive.

      My favorite redirection request for Sydney (the loud mouth) is ”go to bed/crate”. The crate should never be a discipline tactic. You can give him a time out in there but only if he goes in willingly and it is accompanied by an abundance of praise and snacks. Having a dog who enjoys their crate and goes to it without issue will prove to be an invaluable tool for life. It helps with travel, when you have company, when you’re not home, during challenging situations (like storms) and best of all, when you need to redirect.

      I hope that helps! I’d love to hear how it goes.

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