Barking is a normal dog behavior. Some breeds are more vocal than others. However, there is only a certain amount of vocalization that we can all handle before we are pushed over the limit. The first thing we need to do when addressing barking is to determine the cause. Excessive barking can have a number of causes, including:
· Frustration-related – When a dog in frustrated with training or lack of reinforcement
· Stress-related – As a way to express discomfort or anger almost as if our dogs are saying “I need more space”.
· Attention-related – When our dogs try to get our attention
· Boredom-related – When our dogs have too much energy and use the vocalization to release some energy
When dogs bark from frustration – You will generally see this during training. You might be shaping a new behavior like settle on a mat and you get some barking mixed in. While some interpret this as a dog being “sassy”, it is actually because they are frustrated! What they thought they were supposed to do is no longer earning them reinforcement. We generally see frustration when a behavior is going through extinction (when a previously learned behavior becomes unlearned). No one wants to be frustrated or have a frustrated learning experience during training, if you are experiencing this you might enjoy my recent blog post “Frustrations in Training” so you can change your training set up and reinforcement to be more clear to your dog! Frustration barking can mean that you need to take a break, need to take a step backwards to reinforce the basics of a behavior or need to try a different technique or training environment.
When the barking is stress-related – You might notice your dog barking at other people or dogs during walks. You might also see this behavior through your front windows or through your fence line (reactivity). Your dog may also bark in conjunction with other stress signals (yawning, licking lips, showing teeth, or growling) around high-value toys or food items (resource guarding) or in relation to body handling or grooming. If the dog is fixated on something else and is barking, you might find it helpful to interrupt your dog with a fun or silly noise to help them disengage (not a scary or angry sound, which can further increase stress levels). I always pay the dog the moment of disengagement, letting the dog know that connection with me is a good thing. When dealing with vocalizations related to stress we need to make sure that we are respecting the communication. It can be so tempting to correct the dog in hopes that they just ‘knock it off’ because it may seem rude or unacceptable, especially when we feel they are guarding something or not allowing us to do something that we think should be painless to them. But it is very important that we avoid any corrections when we see this behavior as this will make their stress levels more significant. Instead, we need to use management to prevent the behavior from happening (like closing blinds to prevent window barking, giving high-value chews in an ex-pen away from us or other dogs to prevent resource guarding vocalizations, and giving sufficient space outdoors to prevent leash reactivity) and we need to compliment that management with positive reinforcement-based behavior modification training plans. The management will prevent the unwanted behavior of stress and barking to be rehearsed and the training plan can help to change the dog’s emotional response to the triggers, which will eliminate the barking.
Teaching your dog to pay attention on cue can help you interrupt stress-related barking and get their focus back on you! When the barking is attention-related – The dog will generally be at your feet, looking at you, and engaged. They may bark because they want to play, or train, or want you to get up and do something with them. In this circumstance, the dog’s goal is attention and saying “hello”, “knock it off”, touching them, or saying “shhhh, sit” will give the dog what they want, attention! In order to eliminate attention-seeking behavior, we need to make sure that barking no longer results in reinforcement – our attention. In the moment when your dog barks, ignore them (don’t look at, talk to, or touch). This will prevent your engagement from accidentally reinforcing the barking. The moment your dog is quiet you can engage and reinforce them for being quiet and/or settling with praise and food. If your dog rehearses a lot of attention-seeking behavior it can be helpful to show them other ways to get attention. Throughout the day when they are quiet you can reinforce quiet and relaxed behavior to increase the frequency that it is offered. If you find yourself in a cycle of ignore, attention, ignore, attention, then something else is missing. There is most likely a need that is not being met and you need to ask yourself if the dog is truly getting all of the outlets that she needs. And of course, it is important to get the whole family on board! If we decide we want to eliminate the barking for a quieter household, each family member needs to be consistent with how they respond in the moment. If one person ignores and pays the dog for being quiet, while another engages with the dog, we send mixed messages. This can not only confuse the dog and cause them to continue barking for attention, but it can also increase frustration and make the barking worse!
When your dog barks for attention you have to completely ignore them (don't look at them, talk to them, or touch them)! When the barking is boredom-related – Similar to attention seeking behavior, dogs will often bark from boredom, when the behavior will generally be intermittent and unassociated with any other activity. For example, this will not be in relation to seeing something outside. But this could be a few barks while walking around the home and then a few towards you. Boredom-related barking indicates that a need is not being met and can be addressed through providing mental and/or physical enrichment for your dog (a walk, toys, a food puzzle, etc.), but just as with attention-related barking, you may need to careful not to directly reinforce the barking itself. When the dog is displaying a large amount of attention-seeking behavior and boredom-related behavior we always want to make sure the dog’s needs have been met. Starting the day off with exercise and breaking up a full workday with enrichment and training can help give your dog more appropriate outlets for that energy and decrease the likelihood of that behavior popping up during the day. I also like to increase how much time I spend training relaxation. By reinforcing this behavior and putting it on cue, not only will it be easier for your dog to do this on their own, but it will also give you the ability to ask your dog for the skill down the road once it is established. You can provide Kongs, food puzzles and chews on the bed too, to help give your dog something ELSE to do instead of barking and to reinforce calm and quiet behavior.
When we start to address barking, we need to try to evaluate the purpose of the behavior because that changes how we respond and what training plans we implement. It is also helpful to look for patterns. Does this behavior happen at certain times of the day? As much as possible I like to be proactive instead of reactive so that the dog only has the opportunity to rehearse good behavior. For example, if nuisance barking always happens at night when you try to relax, I would add in a pre-evening training session or sniffing walk, guide the dog to the settle mat, and offer enrichment like a bully stick or frozen Kong. This can help you funnel that energy into something else BEFORE the barking time starts and give you more chances to reward calm and quiet during that time instead. Does your dog bark excessively? What do you think you can change in your routine to help your dog?
Learn how to use food to burn off that energy appropriately. When needs are met we see less barking for attention and from boredom!