Excessive barking problem? Local animal behaviorist offers safe, humane solutions
Flickr photo courtesy of Stuart Heath
One thing that universally irritates dog owners and non-dog owners alike is excessive barking.
Owners can, at times, feel helpless as to how to take care of the problem. In cases when neighbors are affected by it, they are commonly left feeling vexed and may avoid venturing outside so as to not instigate the noise. The good news is that there are safe, humane solutions to curtail the behavior, regardless of the situation and what side of the proverbial fence that you're on.
Excessive barking has reasons. Before any action is taken, it's a good idea to schedule a visit with your veterinarian to rule out any medical problems, especially if there is a sudden change in behavior. Once that is done, the next step is figuring out what the patterns are that lead to the behavior.
Camille Ward - an animal behaviorist and dog trainer in Ann Arbor - has a few suggestions for pet owners to get the ball rolling. I had the opportunity to meet with her a couple of weeks ago to get to the bottom of this subject. The first step: keeping track, perhaps in a journal, of things like who, what, when and where will clue you in as to why your dog is barking.
Is the dog barking to seek attention? Is the dog excited? Might he be frustrated, bored or in a state of fear? Some dogs bark due to separation issues. Territorial barking is common, too.
The approach to take depends on the reason behind the behavior. The first rule of thumb is to never reward the unwanted behavior. Secondly, as in all training techniques, timing is important. And remember: dogs do what works for them. If you give in, Spot will know that his behavior has paid off. Also, never hit your dog; it’s not productive, and you’ll posture yourself for getting bitten.
Why dogs bark
Dogs sometimes bark for our attention. If you have a dog that is barking to get your attention when you're busy with a quiet activity, Ward suggests saying a word like "phooey," then standing up and leaving the room momentarily. Hopefully, Spot will realize that barking didn't get your attention, it only caused you to leave the room.
Some folks remark that their dogs bark when guests are over and it's clear that the dog barks for attention in this case, too. Ward has a fun tactic to resolve the issue: stuff a Kong toy with a mixture of his favorite yummy treats, canned food, bits of cheese - whatever your dog responds to - and when your guests arrive and before the undesirable behavior starts, hand him a stuffed Kong. He'll be occupied and not worried about what's going on with you.
Another common scenario is excitement barking. I think that most dog owners can attest to the fact that our dogs greet us excitedly at the door, no matter how long we've been away. Some dogs, however, show their enthusiasm in this case by barking a little too much. Ward said a great way to handle that is to teach your dog to carry around a toy when you come home - he can't bark with a toy in his mouth.
Teaching speak and quiet commands
Another approach: teaching your dog a "speak" command, and a "quiet" command. This allows you to better communicate with your dog as to when it's appropriate to bark and when it's not. You'll need a helper to do this. Say "speak," and have the helper ring the doorbell. When Spot hears it and barks - only allow this a few times - then give praise and tell him "quiet" as you dangle Spot's favorite food treat (liver treats are very appetizing to most dogs) under his nose.
He'll have to stop barking, as he can't lick the treat and bark at the same time. He will correlate the praise and the awesome treat with quiet behavior. Work on it over time by repeating the exercise and extending the amount of time that Spot has to remain quiet to get his treat.
If a bark or two occurs, go ahead and command “quiet." If the excessive barking ensues anyway, dangle a yummy treat under his nose to distract him away from the action and toward you before giving him the treat.
When all else fails
Ward notes that there are a couple of situations that need professional assistance: fear/phobic barking and separation/alone barking. To treat the behaviors behind such barking, a qualified behaviorist needs to be contacted to create an appropriate plan, which will consist of desensitization and counterconditioning.
Other teaching methods
Ask most people what their biggest pet peeve is when it comes to dogs and they'll say: "There is a dog in the neighborhood that barks constantly!" Your dog can learn that when people and other dogs pass by their yard, that it’s not a reason for them to posture themselves into “territorial mode."
Through the method of counterconditioning and desensitization, Ward explains that your pooch can see others walk by and associate it with something positive. You will in the process transform your dog’s emotions — and modify his motivation to participate in his barking behavior. This methodology is not a quick fix. It takes patience, and time to set into place.
Begin the training by gathering a leash, a bait pouch (available at pet stores) and the pet's most favorite treats. Go out into the yard after Spot has been attached to his leash, far enough away from the fence so that he can see if someone walks by, but not so close that he will feel the need to retort.
As soon as you see someone walk by, give the command to “sit," and start feeding him treats as the person comes into their line of sight. Give lavish praise and continue dispensing treats as long as the person remains in view - and as long as Spot doesn’t bark. Stop giving treats when the person is no longer in sight.
Repetition is important, so continue practicing - and over time you will be able to, very slowly, move closer to the fence, closer to the diversion, keeping in mind that you need to work at the dog’s pace to will allow him progression and self-control.
Working with the neighbors
Ward, who earned her Ph.D. from University of Michigan studying cognition and the development of social behavior in domestic dogs, is founder of About Dogs, LLC in Ann Arbor. She offers dog training (both group and private) and behavioral consultations. Her approach — demonstrated in the previous examples — is centered on developing the relationship between human and dog, from the dog's point of view.
She referenced a situation with her own dogs — one that many of us have experienced — barking at neighbors surrounding their yard. Springtime can be a little disconcerting for dogs, Ward explained. We’re all stuck inside our houses in the cold winter months and when spring makes its appearance, everyone’s outside doing their thing — and that means the dogs, too!
The lapse in contact with the neighbors confuses the dogs, hence the barking: “You’re a stranger!” or “There’s a person; I need to bark!” Ward enlisted the help of her neighbors, who would hang out in their backyard to work in the garden. Setting a positive plan into place, she asked: If I give you this box of treats, will you, when the dogs start barking, just toss a handful over the fence to them, and then just walk away?
After a few tries, the dogs did just as Ward expected. They associated the neighbors with something good happening (treats) and the barking ceased. Now, the dogs go over and just sit by the fence quietly when they see their new friends. This has been successful because there was, first and foremost, action taken by the dogs’ owner; recognizing that there was an issue going on. After positive communication between the human counterparts and cooperation by the neighbors, the solution came to fruition.
Dogs need activity
Dogs get bored and frustrated when the are left outside all day by themselves, and for that reason, Ward emphasizes that, due to their social nature, it’s not a wise idea. Many owners feel that they cannot leave their dog inside when they are gone, perhaps due to housebreaking issues or behavior problems. Barking issues can begin in this situation, too.
The key is to address the behavioral issues, so that it’s possible for them to be included in their people’s daily activities - something that they love. Interaction with their “pack” and exercise is integral for their well-being. Play games, offer a game of chase and have exciting toys on hand that keep their attention. Rotating the variety of toys keeps boredom at bay!
The topic of anti-bark collars is hot right now, and it is a source of concern for both Ward and myself. The problems that we’ve both seen range from misfiring (spraying of the citronella solution or electric shock when the dog isn’t even barking), and the possibility of the dog developing a new, sometimes higher-pitched vocalization that bypasses the function of the shock collar.
This approach does not address what is motivating the barking behavior. In many cases, other behavioral problems manifest instead, like destructiveness - and then you’ve a bigger problem on your hands. Ward does not advocate the use of electric shock collars, in any case. She stresses that anti-bark collars should never be used in cases where a dog is exhibiting aggressive or fear-based behavior in any scenario, as more serious problems can emerge. A skilled animal behaviorist should always be called in to help in cases of aggression or fear.
In using positive methods that reward good behavior and promote self-control, excessive barking can be addressed successfully.
For a great recipe to make your own homemade liver training treats, click here.
Lorrie Shaw is a pet blogger, a regular contributor to AnnArbor.com and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has extensive experience with animals including dogs, amphibians, exotic birds and cats, and is always interested in fostering healthy dog behavior. Contact her via e-mail