I'm sure you've asked this question and searched endlessly online for an answer and as a trainer, it is one of the most common questions I am asked. Excessive barking can literally drive dog owners barking mad! Sadly, there is no magic off switch, however, determining the cause of the barking and how you usually respond, can be a step towards reducing the barking.
So firstly why is your dog barking?
Is he barking because he's excited? Is he barking at mealtimes for food? Is he barking when you get the lead and harness out? Is he barking at the neighbour’s cat? Is he barking at other dogs? (if this is the case please see my other posts on dog reactivity)
You may feel that your dog is just barking all the time, however, try to determine what precedes the barking and what the consequences are. Try keeping a little journal and write down when your dog is barking so that you can record your dog’s behaviour and monitor progress. Once you start doing this, you will begin to recognise your dog’s triggers and this will help you manage the barking. Your dog may have many triggers on a daily basis but still record each one, so that you know which areas to work on.
Although it may be irritating to us, barking is a natural behaviour. It is part of your dog's self-expression and since many dog owners do not understand canine body language, it may be the only form of communication that actually works.
So how does barking become excessive?
In order to fully understand why your dog is barking, we have to consider what the result or consequence is following their barking. Before we consider some examples we need to remember that dogs learn through association. You may have heard of Pavlov’s dogs. This experiment discovered that repeatedly feeding the dogs after the sound of the bell caused the dogs to salivate at just the sound because an association between the bell and the food was created. This resulted in the dogs always salivating in anticipation of food after hearing the bell.
So to apply this to a practical experience, if your dog started barking at meal times and each time you put down their food, what does your dog learn? He learns to associate the barking with receiving food. If he continues to bark and you regularly oblige by putting food down, he will find the barking rewarding. You have just positively reinforced a negative behaviour by rewarding an unwanted behaviour. Behaviour that is rewarded is often repeated.
Another example is your dog barking at the sound of the doorbell. Why does your dog bark when he hears that sound? Well what is the end result? Usually, exciting new people enter the home and shower your dog with attention and fuss. Therefore, your dog associates the sound of the doorbell with this exciting experience and becomes over excited every time he hears it.
One final example, is your dog barking at other dogs? Now, it is not the easiest to determine the motive behind barking at other dogs without a professional trainer observing your dog’s behaviour, however, say for instance your dog is afraid of other dogs, what is the usual consequence to him barking? You likely move away or the other dog moves away. Your dog will associate his barking with the scary dog moving away, which is a desirable result. Thus, your dog will learn that barking makes other dogs go away and this behaviour is positively reinforced.
Do you see that your dogs barking can be reinforced either by you or something in the environment that creates a positive consequence? A behaviour rewarded, is a behaviour practiced and a behaviour practiced is a behaviour learned.
So the million-dollar question is, how do I stop the barking?
Well, hopefully you can look at the data you have recorded and see the consequences of the barking in each scenario. If your dog barks for food, don't reward the behaviour by giving them the food. Put the food back and walk away. The moment your dog stops barking return to putting the food out. If your dog starts barking again, repeat the exercise over and over until you can put the bowl down with no barking. By doing this, you are removing the reinforcement of the barking and positively reinforcing a new behaviour; no barking.
Many dog owners may ask their dog to do something like sit for their food, however, some dogs will become frustrated and bark even more. I believe actions speak louder than words, so I think simply rewarding no barking is the quickest way for your dog to learn how to behave to get the food. After all, he can still bark while he's sitting.
If your dog is barking at the sound of the doorbell, you can train your dog to do something else to replace the behaviour.
For example, you can train your dog to go to a specific place at the sound of the doorbell. How do you do that? Practice ringing the doorbell (you could use your phone to begin with and work towards the real doorbell) and then lead your dog away from the door with a very tasty treat. Place the treat on the mat or bed or the place you want your dog to go to. Repeat this until your dog happily goes to this place. It is more than likely that your dog will bark for the first few sessions because the barking is a deeply ingrained behaviour but keep practicing and you will soon see improvement. Gradually your dog should begin voluntarily going to the spot without you leading them there, after you ring the bell.
Once your dog is confident with this, start increasing the duration your dog stays in that spot by adding a stay or settle cue. This will take a lot of practice, however your practice sessions will change your dog’s expectations after hearing the doorbell, thereby changing his behavioural response.
Alternatively you can introduce a mutually exclusive behaviour. What is that? A mutually exclusive behaviour means replacing a behaviour with another behaviour that cannot occur at the same time. For example, if you teach your dog to fetch a toy at the sound of the doorbell, he can no longer bark because his mouth is full. Genius right?
Many dog owners have found this strategy particularly effective. You can reward your dog for fetching the toy with another more special toy, a really tasty treat or an exciting play session. The reward you choose should be based on your dog’s personal preferences.
What about if my dog is barking at other dogs? When it comes to barking in this context we need to consider what emotions are driving the behaviour. If your dog is fearful of other dogs and barks to keep other dogs away, keep a safe distance away so your dog doesn't feel the need to bark. Start taking tasty treats out on every walk, because you are more than likely going to see dogs. Then reward your dog for being calm even if the other dog is 50 feet away. (To clarify, you need to determine the distance your dog can cope with. This is called your dog's threshold. If you expose them too close, your dog will react and any training opportunity will be lost. Set your dog up for success by staying below your dog's threshold and rewarding any behaviours that are positive.)
On the other hand, if your dog is barking because he's excited you have to be careful that you don't reward that behaviour by allowing him to drag you towards the dog. Again, you need to start at a good distance away from the other dog and reward calm behaviour by giving a treat moving a little closer and by closer I only mean 2 feet or so at a time. Reactivity is a complicated behavioural issue, regardless of the reason behind it and often dog owners need professional help to address the behaviour. (If your dog is reactive and you need professional help, feel free to contact me to arrange a training consultation.)
Something I must stress to you, is to never punish your dog for barking. There are many gadgets and collars that promise to stop your dog barking, such as e collars that produce a unpleasant high pitched noise, spray collars that spray citronella in your dog’s face and shock collars, which produce a rather painful electric shock. You may have even been advised to hit your dog or spray water in their face when they bark.
Using aversives to address barking does not work long term because it’s not teaching your dog anything and it doesn't address the real reason behind the barking. Aversives are only effective if they remain extremely unpleasant for your dog, however repeated use of aversives gradually desensitises them to the aversive and the behaviour returns. E collars can also be set off by other dogs barking nearby, thereby punishing your dog for something he hasn't even done!
Aversives have been proven to cause anxiety and can create new behavioural issues, such as aggression and phobias. It also damages the relationship you have with your dog because you are punishing them for communicating. Imagine if you are inadvertently rewarding/reinforcing the barking and then they are being punished for it. Not a very fair situation is it?
Positive reinforcement is incredibly effective. You know that now because you have learned that it is capable of creating deeply ingrained behaviours. Unlike, aversives and punishment, positive reinforcement has no negative side effects and it strengthens the bond between you and your dog. So use it to reward behaviour that you want to see.
Finally, we need to factor in your dog’s genetics. Have you chosen a breed of dog that is known to be vocal? Beagles, dachshunds, huskies, collies, hounds and pretty much every breed of terrier known to man are recognised as being very vocal breeds. Therefore, consider if your dog is a breed that is predisposed to barking. If they are, that doesn't mean you should throw in the towel. It just means that you may need a bit more patience and you will need to give your dog much more opportunities to practice their training. To a certain degree, you have to accept that your dog will bark if he is genetically predisposed to, however, that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. Consistent positive training can and will effectively reduce excessive barking.
So although barking can be irritating, we need to recognise that it is a natural canine behaviour and a form of communication and self-expression. Remember, that you need to determine why your dog is barking, what is reinforcing it and how to reinforce a new behaviour. Please don't ever ignore your dog.
You may think that you are hearing your dog bark, but are you truly