Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bark, Bark, Bark!

People often ask me how to stop their dog's excessive barking. The answer depends on why the dog is barking. It's helpful to learn the differences between the various types of barking. Below are some common reasons that dog bark, along with potential solutions:

Attention-Seeking or Demand Barking
Dogs will often bark at their owner in order to demand something specific, whether it's attention, food, or access to a physical area. Nobody wants their neighbors to complain about the barking, so we dog owners often immediately give our dog what he's asking for in order to stop his barking. Although this may stop the barking temporarily, we are inadvertently teaching our dog that he can get what he wants by barking. Another way that dog owners attempt to quiet down their dogs is to yell at them to shut up. While this may work (i.e. your dog is scared of punishment or your dog is barking temporarily for territorial reasons), it may also encourage the barking because your dog doesn't speak English and he thinks you're screaming, "Keep barking, Fido!"

The simple solution to demand barking is to ignore your dog when he's demanding something. You may have to put up with extra barking for a few days while your dog makes a last ditch effort to get what he wants, but if you stick to the "no attention" program, your dog's demand barking should fade away from lack of reinforcement. You can also praise or give your dog attention a few seconds after he stops barking. Just make sure he doesn't learn to chain the behaviors (bark first, then be quiet, then get rewarded)!

For some dogs, ignoring their barking will not work, because they are extremely persistent, or they will end up getting their reward at some point anyway, such as when they bark for their meal at meal time.  In this case, you can try the time-out method.  Let's take mealtime as an example.  Have your dog drag a leash so you can easily take him away if needed. Begin preparing your dog's meal.  The instant your dog starts barking, verbally mark it, e.g. "Time Out!", then lead him away from the food preparation area with his leash.  Stay away for 30 seconds or so.  Come back to the kitchen with your dog and continue preparing the meal.  If your dog barks again, call the Time Out again immediately, and take him away.  This example would be easier to implement if 2 people did it together, one person preparing the meal, the other person walking the dog away for time-outs.

The time-out method shows the dog that if she demand barks, then she will get her reward taken away.

Boredom and Frustration Barking
Under-exercised and under-stimulated dogs will often bark for no apparent reason. They won't direct their barking at anyone or anything in particular, but they may bark for prolonged periods of time in order to get their frustration out. I see this happen with dogs whose owners are very busy with work, and the dogs are left at home alone all day with nothing to do. Exercise is probably the best solution for this. A tired dog is usually a good dog. Before leaving for work every day, take your dog for a nice walk, jog or swim. You can also do mentally challenging games like nose work. If you don't have much time and you have a high-energy dog, go on an off-leash hike with your dog. Your dog can burn twice as much of his energy as regular leashed walking, and it takes a lot less time. You can also hire a dog walker.

Another thing that might help is to give your dog a food-puzzle/chew-toy such as Premier's Busy Buddy or Kong, to keep his mind occupied while home alone. These types of toys work especially well for food-motivated dogs.  You can read my blog article about food toys for more info.

Excitement Barking
It's an endearing quality for a dog to bark every now and then to let you know how excited he is. But what if he does it all the time, i.e. when he sees another dog, when he's waiting for his food, when he's about to enter the dog park? I would treat excitement barking in the same way as demand barking (above).

Let's say your dog is barking in excitement when he's about to enter the dog park. Simply stop and wait for your dog to stop barking and calm down. Move towards the dog park only when he's calmed down (repeat as necessary).  If you notice over time that this doesn't curb the barking, you can add the time-out method - as soon as he starts barking, mark it verbally (e.g. Time Out!) and walk away from the dog park.  Re-approach the dog park after 15-20 seconds and repeat the steps.  Don't be discouraged if it takes you a long time to get into the dog park the first several times!

Alert Barking and Territorial Barking
Two kinds of barking that are quite different from demand, boredom and excitement barking are alert barking and territorial barking, which are quite natural things for dogs to do. We probably all want our dogs to alert bark if an intruder comes into our property, but at the same time we don't want our dog to constantly be alert barking.

To some extent you can manipulate the environment to curb the amount of barking. For example,  you can put up a visual barrier so that your dog can't see passersby through the gate or window.  Or you can play music in the house so that your dog won't react to every little noise he hears in the neighborhood.

We can also train our dogs to stop barking when we ask them to.  Acknowledge or thank your dog when he alert barks, and then reward him for stopping.  For some dogs, a verbal praise and acknowledgement will be enough. Other dogs may require treats. Just make sure you recognize if your dog starts "manipulating" you, i.e. barking at nothing in order to stop barking at your request, and then get a treat!

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Shock Collars, Citronella Collars and Debarking
I do not recommend the use of anti-barking shock collars because in addition to harming your dog and potentially having negative side effects, they don't solve the underlying problem of your dog's barking. They now have less harmful anti-barking citronella spray collars, which could be used as a temporary solution if, for instance, your landlord is threatening to evict you because of your dog's barking. But even the citronella spray should not be used as a long-term solution.

Debarking a dog is not a humane solution for barking either. It may take care of the symptoms, but it doesn't change the underlying reasons for the barking. Let's all educate ourselves so that we can use humane and effective techniques instead!

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