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A Logical Approach to Unwanted Barking

Barking is one of the most common complaints of dog owners and their neighbours, yet it is a perfectly natural canine behaviour. It can serve as a territorial warning signal to other dogs and pack members. Dogs may vocalize when separated from their pack or family members. Barking also occurs during times of indecision, anxiety, or frustration. Medical problems can also contribute to vocalization, especially in the older dog.

How can barking problems be prevented?

Socialization and habituation — get puppies used to as many new people, animals, situations and noises as possible. This will minimize the amount or intensity of alarm barking. Barking should only be allowed to alert owners and then be controlled and stopped before the dog becomes agitated and out of control. Owner control, training and leadership are essential (see our handout on ‘Puppy training – taking charge’).

How can I stop my dog barking when I leave?

Effective crate training techniques when your dog is first obtained should decrease the dog’s anxiety when it is left alone in its crate (see our handout on ‘House safety and crate training’). Your dog should gradually be taught to spend longer periods of time away from you. Obtaining two dogs may provide company for each other and may reduce distress vocalization and departure anxiety. If your dog has been barking when you leave for some time, he may be suffering from separation anxiety and you should consult your veterinarian for treatment options.

My dog constantly barks. What does she want?

Attention getting barking can be problematic and is often reinforced by owners giving in to their dog’s demands. Allowing a barking dog indoors, or feeding, patting, praising, playing with, giving a toy, or even just going to a barking dog to try and quiet it down, are just a few examples of how an owner may unknowingly reinforce barking. Never reward barking with any type of attention, even occasionally since it usually will make barking more likely to continue.

How can I train my dog to ‘quiet down’ on command?

Training the dog to a “quiet” command is an invaluable aid for controlling undesirable barking. In fact, most owners accept their dog’s barking as normal and even acceptable. However, the barking becomes problematic when it gets too loud, too frequent, or will not stop on command. Therefore, to train the dog to quiet down on cue, you must find an effective means of quieting the dog, which should be preceded with the command. Just loudly telling your pet to ‘be quiet’, will probably not be understood, especially if silence does not follow the verbal command. In fact, yelling may just add to the noise and anxiety, thereby encouraging your dog to bark more. Therefore you must be able to associate silence with whatever command you are using. (Yellow denotes new wording)

Another method to teach a “quiet” command is to wait until your dog is barking, say to a doorbell and while he is barking place a very tasty food treat by his nose. Most dogs will stop barking to sniff the treat. At the same time you must say the word you will use for quiet, such as ‘silent’, ‘hush’ etc. When the dog is quiet (as they will be because dogs cannot sniff and bark at the same time) you can praise him, say ‘good, quiet’ and give the treat. Again, as with all new tasks, numerous repetitions are necessary for lasting learning.

Alternately, distraction or remote punishment devices (see below) can be used to disrupt the barking. One of the most effective means of interrupting barking and ensuring quiet is a remote leash and head halter. A pull on the leash disrupts the dog and closes the mouth, which should also coincide with a verbal command such as ‘quiet’ or ‘hush’. Quiet behaviour can then be reinforced first by releasing and then giving a reinforcer such as praise or food if the dog remains quiet. Soon the dog should associate the closed mouth and the word prompt with the absence of noise and begin to stop barking when given the verbal prompt alone.

Another practical technique for teaching a dog to cease barking on command is to first teach it to begin barking on cue. Use a stimulus that will cause the dog to bark and pair it with a ‘bark’ command. Numerous repetitions allow the dog to associate the word ‘bark’ or ‘speak’ with the action. Dogs that bark on command can then be taught to turn off the barking by removing the cue or stimulus, and giving a ‘hush’ or ‘quiet’ command just before the barking subsides. As soon as your dog is quiet, give a favoured treat or reward.

It can be difficult or impractical to teach a dog to be ‘quiet’ on command if the barking cannot be predicted or ‘turned on’ or if it is too intense.

How can I train my dog to be quiet without having to constantly tell him or her to quiet down?

The key is to reward the behaviour that we want (i.e. quiet and settled) rather than to constantly pay attention to the behavior we don’t want (barking). Each time you attend to the barking dog, you may be able to quiet it down (as discussed above). However, when you are unsuccessful you may actually be inadvertently rewarding the barking (by giving the dog attention or treats to quiet it down) or may be aggravating the problem with yelling and punishment (which can make the dog more anxious and more likely to bark). The goal of training should be to teach the dog what you want it to do (for rewards) rather than to try and teach it what NOT to do. By providing a daily routine that provides sufficient play, exercise and training, followed by set times where the dog is taught to settle and nap or play with its toys in a bedding area, your dog can be reinforced for quiet times, rather than for play soliciting, attention getting and barking behaviours.

What are my chances of correcting my dog’s barking problem?

Chances are good for most barking problems. But the household situation in which the dog resides may make it extremely difficult to correct completely. Even a small amount of barking could disturb a sleeping baby, or upset neighbours, (particularly in apartments or townhouses). When trying to resolve barking problems, the motivation for the barking behaviour is an important component. Some stimuli are so strong that it will be difficult to stop the barking behaviour. You need sufficient time to implement the correction training.

What can I do to correct my dog’s barking problem?

The treatment program must be based on the type of problem, your household, the immediacy of the situation, and the type and level of control that you require. A good behavioural history is important to determine cause, motivation and potential reinforcing stimuli for the barking behavior. Treatment plans need to consider the following:

  1. Ensure that your dog is not being rewarded inadvertently. Some owners in an attempt to calm their dog down will actually encourage the barking by giving attention, play, food or affection.
  2. Ensure that your response is not aggravating the problem. For example yelling at a dog that is barking due to anxiety or as a territorial response is only likely to increase the dog’s barking and anxiety.
  3. Sometimes the home environment can be modified so that the dog is kept away from the stimuli (sounds and sights) that cause barking. Exposure might be minimized by confining the dog to a crate (if the dog is used to a crate) or in a room away from doors and windows, or by covering windows so that the dog cannot look outside. Additionally, privacy fencing may be helpful for dogs when they are outdoors. Dogs that bark when left alone outdoors may have to be kept indoors except when the owner is available to supervise. Trigger sounds such as doorbells or telephones that might have become conditioned stimuli for barking should be altered to change their sound.

Until effective control using a reward based training program, it is unlikely that the dog will quiet down on cue. Increasing interactive play periods and exercise, crate and confinement training, halter training and obedience classes may need to be implemented before bark control training can begin.

Once you have sufficient control and the dog responds to obedience commands and handling, it should be possible to train your dog to cease barking on command. Training the dog to cease barking on command can be accomplished with lure reward techniques, distraction techniques, or halter and leash training as described above. Regardless of the technique, rewards should be given as soon as the barking stops, so that the dog learns that quiet behaviour earns rewards. It is most important to associate SILENCE with the command used. Over time the behaviour should be shaped so that the dog is required to stay quiet for progressively longer times, before a reward is given.

Once the owner has sufficient control with training and the quiet command, it may then be possible to begin a retraining program in the presence of the stimuli (people, other dogs) that lead to barking. Training with a head halter and leash often provides a tool for implementing the techniques safely and effectively especially indoors or when the owner is nearby. The stimulus should first be presented to the dog from a distance (e.g. children riding bicycles on the street while the dog stands on its porch), and the dog given a quiet or sit-stay command. Although the halter and leash is generally all that is required to control the dog and achieve the appropriate response, the dog could also be disrupted using a device such as an ultrasonic trainer or shake can. Training sessions are then repeated with progressively more intense stimuli. This type of training can be effective, but progress can be slow and time consuming.

Pets that are barking for other reasons (fear, separation anxiety, or compulsive disorders) will require treatment for the underlying problem.

Should I punish my dog when he/she keeps barking?

Punishment is seldom effective in the control and correction of barking problems. Excessive levels of punishment can increase anxiety and further aggravate many forms of barking, while mild punishment merely rewards the behaviour by providing attention.

What anti-barking devices are there and are they effective?

Owner-Activated Products: These products are most useful for getting the pet’s attention (disruption) during quiet command training. Ultrasonic devices, audible devices, water sprayers, a shake can (an empty soda can with a few coins sealed inside) or even a favoured squeaky toy might be used to get the dog’s attention and temporarily stop the barking. However, without concurrent retraining techniques and an owner with good control, many dogs will soon begin to ignore the devices. However, if the device is used to interrupt the barking and the quiet behaviour is then reinforced, the pet may become less anxious and less likely to bark in the presence of the stimulus, or at the very least will quiet much faster on command.

Bark-Activated Products: When barking occurs in the owner’s absence, bark activated products (in conjunction with environmental modification and retraining) are often the most practical means of deterring inappropriate barking. Bark-activated products may also be a better choice than owner-activated devices, since they ensure immediate and accurate timing. Off-collar devices are useful for training the dog to cease barking in selected areas, such as near doorways or windows, (or for dogs that bark in their crate or pen). The Super Barker Breaker emits an audible alarm.

Bark-activated collars are useful when barking does not occur in a predictable location. Audible and ultrasonic training collars are occasionally effective but they are neither sufficiently unpleasant nor consistent enough to be a reliable deterrent. There are also collars that emit either a citronella or unscented spray each time the dog barks and is sufficiently unpleasant to deter most dogs. Although these may be effective in the owner’s absence, they may soon become ineffective without concurrent training. One problem is that barking that is highly motivated may be too intense to be deterred for any length of time by the citronella spray. In addition, if the reservoir empties out or the battery “runs out” then the dog may learn to bark while wearing the collar and even when refilled the collar may no longer be effective. Therefore, when using a citronella spray collar it is advisable that the owner be present so that as soon as the dog stops barking, the owner can direct the dog into an enjoyable pastime (e.g. play, tummy rub, favourite treat) as long as the dog remains quiet. In this way, the quiet behaviour is reinforced, and any anxiety about the stimulus (people coming to the door, people coming to the yard, other dogs) can be gradually reduced. In fact, in time some dogs may begin to associate the arrival of new people or other dogs, with something positive (counter-conditioning).

Most importantly, bark collars only work when they are on the dog. Most dogs will learn to distinguish when the collar is on and when it is off. When they are not wearing the collar, most dogs will bark.

Is debarking surgery effective?

Surgical debarking is a drastic and often permanent method of eliminating barking. Varying degrees of vocalization may return as the surgical site heals and scars. However, devocalization does not address the underlying motivation for barking and is unlikely to reduce the intensity or frequency of barking itself. Devocalization is therefore _not _ a consideration except where the owners are confronted with the need to relinquish their pet if vocalization cannot be resolved. In these cases the risks and humane issues will need to be weighed against all other possible options, and all other options must have been exhausted.



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