Excessive Barking – a very frustrating problem! One of the reasons it can be so frustrating to try and solve is that barking is a self-reinforcing behaviour – it just feels good to do it. That’s a problem because behaviour that’s reinforced will continue and if you aren’t the one in control of the reinforcement, it’s difficult to solve the problem. But wait, all is not lost! You can solve this tricky issue, but . . . . it does require a commitment to do it right and to put the time into the training.
Why do dogs bark? Well, dogs bark for many reasons – fear of things, alerting to things, excitement and over-arousal, demanding attention, boredom, or frustration. It is, of course, one way that dogs use to communicate with us and with the outside world. It’s not something we should ignore or shut down completely without some understanding of the reasons behind the barking. They are, after all, trying to tell us something. For this article, I’m going to focus on a most annoying barking situation – dogs who bark for attention.
Barking is the most irritating of the various attention-seeking behaviours. What does barking for attention look and sound like? It literally seems like your dog is yelling at you to do something while looking right at you – “give me something to do!”; “get up and play with me!”; “come and feed me!”; “rub my tummy!”; “my ball is under the couch!”; “this toy is too hard!”; “here’s my ball – throw it!”. It sounds just like what it looks like – demanding, repetitive barking with a single tone that’s often higher in pitch than barking at other times. The energy behind it just “feels” like a demand for something vs. “someone is at the door” or “I’m afraid of that person”. If it’s ignored and continues, the barking tends to get louder but remain the same tone.
One way to stop unwanted behaviours is to simply ignore the behaviour – remember that behaviour that’s reinforced will continue, but behaviour that isn’t reinforced will stop. That’s great in theory (and does work with many behaviours) however; it’s very difficult to ignore a dog who is “yelling” at you as loud as they can for attention! It’s particularly difficult if they happen to have a very high-pitched bark that’s painful on the ears. Also remember that the very act of barking, for that dog, may be reinforcing so all your ignoring may be for nothing!
The other interesting and very challenging thing about behaviour is that random reinforcement strengthens behaviour. In other words, those few occasions when you just can’t stand it any longer and give in to your dog, or even get angry with him, can and often does, strengthen the behaviour of barking. While getting in trouble may not seem particularly reinforcing to us, it can be to some dogs – at least they’ve gotten your attention. Darn – your dog has just learned that 712 barks equal success!!
So how can you combat this most annoying problem?
Being proactive is always the best first choice. From the moment you get your dog – whether it as a puppy or an adult – make a pact with yourself not to give in to the barking when it’s a demand for attention. Learn what that looks like in your dog and train yourself and your family to recognize it and ignore it when it begins. If you start early with a young dog who hasn’t practiced much yet, you can be successful just ignoring the behaviour.
If you already have a very barky dog, then the proactive way to deal with this is to begin marking and paying the behaviour of “not barking” or “silence” (which also includes whining) – well before any barking is likely to take place in any given situation.
For example: if your dog tends to bark at you when you sit at your computer doing some work (“I’m bored – play with me now!”), plan in advance and have your Clicker and plenty of yummy, tiny treats with you before sitting down.
As soon as you take your seat, begin Clicking and treating “silence”.
Toss your treat for your dog to run and get and make sure you toss it somewhere easy to see and get. Be prepared to get up and point it out if they miss it – you don’t want to trigger frustration barking!
Use treats that are easy to see like orange cheese bits or that make a slight noise when they hit the floor like crunchy kibble, so they can track them easily. I’ve learned not to use “round” treats that roll under furniture!
Click and treat rapidly – as soon as your dog finishes eating and turns his attention back on you, Click and treat again.
Keep doing this for 5 or 10 minutes, and then give your dog a stuffed kong, bone or captivating chew toy to keep him happily occupied for a short period of time while you take a break from the training.
Be prepared to begin working on “silence” again as soon as he appears to be on the verge of finishing with his kong.
Yes, you are not getting a whole lot of work done during these training sessions! However, if you do lots of proactive training like this for awhile, then you can start pairing back the rapid Clicking and treating and have longer pauses between. How long you need to work will depend on your dog and his level of patience. You can also begin to pair back the frequency of training sessions but give your dog a kong more often. Next is to begin inserting bigger pauses between the time the entertainment toy is finished and the next training session begins. Remember to use your voice to give your dog positive feedback for his patience – especially when you begin inserting longer pauses. Your voice can help fill the pauses and begin the process of reducing the need for Clicks and treats as his skill of being patient increases.
Make a list of all the times your dog tends to begin demand barking so you can plan training sessions around those times of day. My dogs can sometimes get demanding when: they haven’t yet had any exercise; one is busy the other isn’t; making meals or preparing kongs; after dinner time; they’ve had a big hike and come home a bit wired. My goal is to teach my dogs to simply wait patiently and fun things will eventually happen. Yelling at me to “hurry up and do something” will accomplish nothing and, in fact, may ultimately result in some good things temporarily coming to a screeching halt.
Once you’ve had lots of early training sessions and are now beginning to lengthen the pauses and the time between training sessions and entertainment toys, you may experience moments when barking kicks in briefly. If this happens, just temporarily lower your expectations and take a step back in your training. If you’re lengthening pauses, make the pauses random vs. simply making them longer each time. Ensure that your reinforcement and entertainment toy quality is good enough to meet challenge of the situation. Don’t forget to verbally praise and provide positive feedback during the whole process.
The good news is that all the training and entertainment toys are mentally challenging which will make your dog tired, too, as an added bonus.
Good training involves both training and management. You can’t change behaviour without a good mix of both.
When you are not able to combine a training session with the situation that can trigger demand barking from your dog, keep some stuffed entertainment toys on hand so you can give him something to do as an alternative. We have at least 5 (to 15!) stuffed kongs in the freezer at any given time for just such occasions. We also have lots of chew sticks and various treat-dispensing toys that can quickly be filled and dispensed. If you’re in a hurry to get a project done and simply can’t spend time training, give him something he loves to do instead and keep it coming so barking doesn’t start.
Yes, these training tools and tips involve using a lot of food. There is absolutely nothing wrong with your dog getting all his meals as training or entertainment toys! However, make sure that you are carefully monitoring your dog’s weight. Cut back on his meal portions to compensate. If you have a small dog or one prone to weight gain, get creative with your treats. Find low calorie treats that your dog loves – dehydrated veggies; low calorie, grated cheese; shreds of chicken breast; bits of tinned, low salt, tuna in water; low calorie cat kibble (cat kibble is usually much smaller than dog kibble). Get creative with your treat dispensing toys and learn how to stuff a kong that lasts as long as possible. My personal record with a food-stuffed toy is 4.5 hours (yes, I timed it)! Of course you also have to work on building your dog’s desire to work that hard for that long….
What’s important about any episodes of demand barking is what you do after it stops. If you reinforce your dog for silence immediately after the barking stops, there are some risks involved! Even though you think you’re marking and paying “silence”, many dogs think you’re paying – “bark, then stop”. Therefore, “barking” becomes tied into the behaviour of “silence”. It’s very similar to dogs who jump up on their humans – in order to get the “Good Girl!” praise from us for putting 4 feet back on the ground, they must jump up first – it becomes a cycle of behaviour and so the jumping continues. Instead, wait for or ask for an additional behaviour before reinforcing “silence” – barking stops, ask for sit or high-five, Click then treat – then continue your training for “silence”. Asking for an additional behaviour interrupts the sequence and focuses your
dog on something else for a moment.
As always, when you are working to change or train behaviour, keep it positive! Demand barking can quickly become fear-based with aggressive behaviours creeping into the equation if you start to employ punitive tools or methods to curb barking. Shock collars, “barking collars” that squirt air or citronella, or other punishment-based barking “fixes” are not appropriate for any barking problem (or any other problem, frankly). Have fun with it – because training should always be fun for you and your dog!