In the previous two posts on barking (June 6 and June 13), the important points were: 1) Barking is a natural activity for dogs, 2) some breeds bark more than others, 3) people can inadvertently reinforce their dogs’ barking by inappropriate methods such as yelling, scolding, laughing and punishment, and 4) dogs can also learn to bark by imitating their “friends.”
Okay, I know all of you are waiting eagerly for the solutions! Like I said in the other posts, teaching a dog to stop barking after it has become a habit is very difficult. And also as important, changing the way you react to your dog’s barking is just as challenging. Your dog has habits; so do you. And the reasons why your dog is barking also play a huge part in resolving the problem.
In this post, I’ll discuss alert or excitement barking. The next post will address territorial barking (usually outside) and the final post addresses fear and play barking.
Alert/Excitement Barking – In the House
I’ll bet that everyone who reads this post expects a magic solution to stop your dog from barking when he sees someone walk past the house or if someone comes to the door and enters the house. Sorry, there is no quick, easy and effortless solution that does not involve punishment (which jeopardizes the mental health of your dog and your relationship, so please try to avoid it). My first suggestion involves managing the dog’s environment.
Dogs bark because they get excited; their adrenaline rises. The very best way to prevent barking is to prevent the adrenaline from rising in the first place. How do you do that? If you have a dog who likes to bark at windows, ensure that he cannot be perched at the windows. Keep him away from the windows when you’re home, and when you cannot be home, close the curtains or shades. Pair this step with some training, which will be discussed below. So, that’s tip #1, remove your dog from the source of barking.
Same thing goes if you are expecting visitors to your home. Keep your dog away from the door, the scene of repeated excitement. Place your dog in a quiet room or outside, preferably with another person and even better, have the other person distract your dog by doing some obedience training or engage in play. You can even go as far as placing a sign on your doorbell asking people not to ring it – at least while you are in the process of re-training your dog!
Once your visitors are settled in and the initial excitement has ebbed, bring your dog out on a leash to greet them and have some treats handy. Calmly take your dog to your guests and reward him with treats and praise as he remains calm. If he gets excited, remember not to fuel the excitement by barking with him like so many of us tend to do: “Sit!” Down!” “Off!” We all try to get our dogs to obey but if he is in a state of excitement, you are just wasting your breathe and getting your dog even more jacked up. Instead, remove your dog from the room. Take him somewhere else and give him a Kong filled with treats. Sorry, I digressed… We’re discussing barking.
If you are not expecting guests and the doorbell rings, your dog is sure to bark. Stay calm and quiet and before opening the door, escort your dog to another room and close the door. The idea is to keep your dog from the excitement that happens at the door. Once you have worked on the training tips below, you can keep your dog with you as you open the door.
Okay, those are the management portions of controlling barking. Here are the training tips. And this will take time and work.
One of my all-time favorite commands to use for many situations where you’d like to get your dog’s attention is “Watch!” This word tells your dog to look at you. Some people also use the word “Look!” When I teach dog training classes, this is the very first thing I teach. It’s a basic foundation for getting your dog to listen to you.
For barking problems, you may want to employ the use of “Watch!” Or pick another word. It could be “Quiet!” but ensure that you’re not already using this word when you are agitated. Okay, begin training. Get some high value foods – canned chicken, cheese, hot dogs, liver bites – and work with your dog when you have some quiet time. When your dog is paying attention to you, say your cue, if it’s “Watch,” “Look” or whatever, and immediately feed the dog a small bit of treats. Continue doing this until you see that your dog is showing lots of interest as you give the cue. This is classical conditioning at its best, pairing a cue with a response. When your dog hears the cue, he immediately thinks, “Yum!” With enough practice, your dog will be conditioned to stop what he’s doing, look at you when you say the word and know that good things are coming his way.
Of course, this cue will work like a champ when there are few distractions once your dog gets it. That’s why it’s important to practice this exercise by gradually increasing the distractions. In other words, if you only practice when there are no distractions it’s not realistic to expect your dog to respond to you when the doorbell rings!
The trick to getting this combination of tips to work will be to keep your dog’s level of excitement low so that he does not bark. And if he does start to bark, you catch him in time to stop him with the practiced interrupt cue.
Any questions? Next time, I’ll get into outside territorial barking.