Barking is a behavior that is so inherent to dogs that it can be difficult to change. Dogs bark for reasons like boredom, frustration, excitement, attention seeking, guarding, greeting, play, or anxiety. To change the behavior, you must first determine why your dog is barking and then address that issue.
Punishment, like penny cans, spray bottles, leash corrections or yelling may stop the behavior momentarily, but it’s not a permanent fix. And dogs frequently associate the trigger with the punishment – meaning that your dog may now develop a fear of other dogs, people, sounds, or whatever else he was barking at when punished. Instead, learn to manage the situations that cause barking and teach your dog an alternative behavior.
If your dog barks for attention, it’s not to annoy you. Rather, your dog is expressing an unmet need or simply doing what’s worked before. Do you yell “quiet” or toss your dog treats after he barks to try to keep him quiet? If so, you’ve created a pattern of bark-bark-bark, treat and attention in an endless cycle. Think about when your dog barks for attention and how you could change that routine. Maybe prepare frozen Kongs or an interactive toy ahead of time to occupy your dog while you’re on that zoom call. You might even try short practice calls, so your dog can get used to the sounds and the change in your voice, as he chills out in his crate or pen or on his mat. Make sure your dog gets attention without barking for it. Spend time training or playing with your dog, and give your dog opportunities for exercise and mental stimulation each day. For ideas, see Boredom Barking below.
Some dogs bark because they are bored. They need toys, exercise, and companionship. Get some interactive toys that are like puzzles for your dog to solve or that drop treats as they are rolled or pulled; these are stimulating and fun for your dog. Our suggestions include: the Dog Pyramid, Dog Dizzy, Bob-A-Lot, Everlasting Treat Ball, Kibble Nibble, and Nina Ottosson puzzle toys. In our webinar Engage the Brain, Tire the Body, Stefanie Strackbein discusses many activities that will provide outlets for your dog’s energy. Shay Kelly’s book, Canine Enrichment, includes many more ways to mentally challenge your dog through puzzles. You can spend time with your dog and alleviate his boredom at the same time when you work on training, tricks, or games. Take a look at these two books: Play with Your Dog by Pat Miller and 101 Dog Tricks by Kyra Sundance.
Barking Outside in the Yard
If your dog barks at everything outside his fenced yard, bring him in. Dogs will bark at what they can see but can’t get to. They bark to scare things away, to protect their space, to express frustration that the squirrel can climb higher than they can, or, as just described, from boredom. Leaving your dog outside for extended periods of time is an invitation to bark.
Anytime your dog is outside, make sure he has activities that will keep him occupied, such as a raw bone or bully stick; a stuffed, frozen Kong; treats scattered in the yard or other scent games. Look at our webinar on at-home scent games by Jacy Kelley, a noted Nose Work instructor and judge. If your dog’s mind is occupied, he will be less likely to bark, dig, or engage in other “unwanted” activities.
It’s also a good idea to ask your immediate neighbors to let you know when they’re having people over, so you can make sure your dogs are in ahead of time. This is a win-win situation; your neighbors will be happy to comply, and you’ll be able to prevent the barking before it even starts.
Barking From Windows
A dog barking from inside the house or apartment is an even more common scenario. If you have a dog that barks at everything outside your window, your best solution is to keep him from looking out. First, let’s admit that from your dog’s point of view, barking works, even from inside the house. When the UPS man or a jogger appears, your dog barks, and the interloper leaves. Your dog doesn’t know that they were going to leave anyway; he thinks they left because he scared them away.
Managing access is one way to address the issue. You could use a baby gate to block off the room with that big picture window. For smaller dogs, sometimes just moving the furniture away from the window will do it. Another option is to cover the window with curtains, blinds, or “decorative window film” by Artscape (available at Home Depot or Lowe’s) that can be put up with static cling. The “rice paper” or “etched lace” designs are barely noticeable from outside. You will still be able to see out, but your dog won’t, and window film lets in light. Sometimes, a white noise machine or music can also help by blocking the sounds of people or animals passing. See additional suggestions under “Barking at Sounds”.
Often, your dog is simply letting you know that there is something outside. So, another approach is to let your dog practice what is to him an instinctual behavior, while training him to leave the space instead of continuing to bark. Go to the window, label what your dog is barking at, acknowledge their concern, and then remove your dog from the window area with a reward or game in another room. This requires consistency and patience on your part as your dog learns this alternative behavior. A positive reinforcement trainer will be able to assist you in teaching your dog this or other pattern games that will address excessive alert barking.
Barking at Scary Things
Some dogs bark because they are afraid or anxious around something (like a vacuum cleaner or leaf blower). In these cases, it is especially important that you be patient. To help these dogs conquer their fears, we suggest using a method called de-sensitization and counter-conditioning. The point is to change your dog’s emotional reaction from “that’s scary” to “good things happen when I see (scary object)”. To accomplish this, you pair what the dog is afraid of with treats, introducing the feared object in baby steps. For example, if your dog is afraid of vacuum cleaners, take out the vacuum cleaner, treat, treat, treat, and treat again, and put the vacuum cleaner back without even turning it on. Once the dog gets excited to see the vacuum cleaner because he knows he is going to get treats, bring the vacuum cleaner out and turn it on for two seconds, treat, treat, treat, and put it back. Progress to normal vacuuming as gradually as necessary so that your dog is always comfortable and happy to see the vacuum cleaner.
With this type of training, correct timing is essential. Your dog must see the “scary thing” and THEN you give treats. This creates a “scary thing = treats are coming” association. If you are continually feeding treats before the scary thing appears in an attempt to keep the dog distracted, you risk creating a “treats = a scary thing is about to happen” association. Our webinar on desensitization and counterconditioning
can help you better understand the process.
Barking at Sounds
If your dog reacts to/barks at sounds, you can first try a white nose machine, box fan, or music. There are even CDs designed to calm dogs available from www.throughadogsear.com and www.harpofhope.com (the Animal Therapy edition).
More likely though, you will need to desensitize your dog to the sound that scares him. And, yes, even though your dog may bark aggressively at the sound of a truck or motorcycle, it’s almost certain that he is doing it to drive “the scary thing” away. To desensitize your dog to a particular sound, try playing tapes of the offending noise at a very low volume, treat, treat, treat, and treat again, until your dog is okay with the noise at that volume. Gradually turn up the volume. There are even tapes made for this purpose. Legacy Canine carries some at https://bit.ly/3u8zBWz.
Another method is to label objects and noises that your dog is worried about. Create groups of labels (e.g., all people are “neighbors”, all motorized vehicles are “trucks”, etc). Every time your dog shows any interest in something they hear, give it a label (“that’s just a truck”), using a happy, sing-song voice and give your dog treats. Your dog will begin to think that a truck is a truck is a truck and is nothing to be concerned about.
With noises, however, you have to keep in mind that there are often other factors, too. For example, if your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, it may also be the electric charge in the air or the darkening skies that bother your dog. You can find out more in our webinar on sensitivity to sound.
Barking on Walks
Barking on walks is often a fear reaction. By barking aggressively, your dog can scare the other dog (or stranger) away. And, as in the other cases, if your dog can practice the behavior, it is more likely to continue. So, your first line of defense is to turn around, go another way, cross the street, or wait behind a car.
However, you can also work on changing your dog’s reaction to other dogs. Start this process by staying far enough away from the other dog so that your dog notices the other dog but isn’t barking. Treat, treat, and treat again, until the other dog is out of view. Do not move any closer to the strange dog until your dog is comfortable at that distance. If your dog is reacting to the other dog, you’re too close and moved too fast. It can be difficult, but also try not to tense up or tighten your hand on the grip. Take deep, calming breaths. If your dog can feel your anxiety, it will make him feel even more anxious.
As with Barking at Sounds above, labeling can be used together with this training technique. Any time you see or hear a dog – whether on television, barking from a house or yard, or on the sidewalk – say “it’s just a dog” and give your dog treats. As said earlier, though, make sure your dog is at a distance where he can notice the other dog without reacting. Don’t let the other dog approach yours directly. Remember to label even those dogs your dog is fine with, so that he associates all dogs with the idea that “it’s just another dog. Nothing to worry about”.
This is a complicated issue, though, so consider taking our (or another) reactive dog class and watch our webinar video on walking your reactive dog.
Barking When Left Alone / Separation Anxiety
Dogs may also bark when left alone, which can be a major issue with neighbors in apartments or townhouses. Plus, your dog could hurt himself trying to get out of his crate, windows, or doors when you’re gone. On our website, we have a separation anxiety handout, as well as videos of previous webinars on separation anxiety. Just remember that you never want to punish a dog for what he did while you were gone. Your dog isn’t misbehaving out of spite; it’s a fear reaction that he can’t help. In some cases, with fears or phobias, you need medication along with a behavior modification plan.
Barking at The Door
Barking at doorbells or guests because your dog is excited is another common complaint. The easiest thing to do is to put your dog in his crate or another room with a Kong or sterile bone that has been stuffed and frozen with his favorite treats. Often, you can let your dog out to greet your guests after everyone is in and seated. This is a much less exciting time for your dog than the initial entrance. Please make sure first that none of your guests are afraid of or allergic to dogs.
If you intend to leave your dog out, keep a leash by the door to put on your dog whenever someone rings the bell. Ask your visitor not to pet, look at, or talk to your dog unless he remains calm, and give your dog treats for calm behavior.
You could also teach your dog a behavior that is prompted by the sound of a doorbell, like “sit” or “going to place” (the crate, a dog bed, or another room). You would have to first practice with friends or family members ringing the doorbell, instead of expecting it to work the first time a guest comes over.
Remember, though, that if your dog barks because of fear, not excitement, give him a safe place to go where he can relax, and let him stay there. Use a white noise machine, box fan, or music to help block out the sounds of company.
Some Breeds Just Bark More!
Some breeds are simply more prone to barking. These are the dogs that bark at everything and nothing. Small terriers that chased animals down holes, for example, had to bark so their owners could find them. Now they are our pets but still barking up a storm. You can follow some of the advice above once you figure out when it is that your dog barks, but it may also be a good idea to teach a “quiet” cue.
Teaching an Alternative Behavior
We have probably all yelled “Quiet!” at a barking dog, even though we haven’t taught the dog what “quiet” means. Your yelling may also sound like the human equivalent of barking – “Oh boy, my human is joining in on the fun!” There are a number of ways to teach the “quiet” cue.
There is always a split second between barks when you can reward your dog for being quiet. Or if you can’t seem to catch that moment, you can try this: Say “quiet” as you hold a smelly treat at your dog’s nose. Since your dog can’t sniff and bark at the same time, he will stop barking long enough for you to mark the behavior (with a clicker or “yes”) and reward him. What may happen with some dogs, though, is that your dog barks, you interrupt him, he stops barking, and you give him a treat in such a predictable way that your dog barks because he knows the treat will come. So, you must stretch out the length of time before you give your dog a reward or ask him to do other skills and reward him for those.
Teach your dog a phrase (like “enough” or “quiet”) that means “pay attention to me because a spectacular treat is coming”. The phrase you use can be anything, as long as you use it consistently. Say the phrase, wait for your dog to look at you, then reward him. Start by saying the phrase when your dog is already paying attention to you. Then say it when your dog is doing something else that isn’t that important to him. Finally, say the phrase when your dog is involved in another activity. As your dog’s response becomes more automatic, try it when he’s barking to see if he will still look your way for that wonderful treat. If so, your dog has learned an automatic response that can interrupt his barking (as well as other unwanted behaviors).
If you have taught your dog “touch” and he really loves it, that’s another incompatible behavior that can cause your dog to turn back and come to you. I know that’s hard to believe, but dogs (okay, at least one) have been known to turn back from barking at a deer and run back to their person because they know they will earn a treat. Besides, it’s a fun game!
Catch your dog being quiet in situations when he would normally bark, mark the behavior and give your dog treats. This means that you have to be alert to that moment just before your dog starts barking. This also means that, when possible, you should keep your distance from your dog’s barking “trigger”.
Key Points to Remember
- When you are initially teaching your dog to be quiet, you will need a lot of very special treats, cut into small pieces. Cut back on meals. You can’t over-reward when teaching a new cue, especially one that goes against your dog’s instincts. As your dog demonstrates that he understands, you can give the treats randomly. Pull them out again, though, if you know that your dog will be overwhelmed by the desire to bark, like when a construction crew pulls up across the street. That’s just too much temptation for your dog.
- You cannot teach a “quiet” cue when your dog’s barking is out of control. At that point, your dog is reacting, rather than thinking; and it’s unlikely that he’ll respond to cues.
- Don’t rush it. Teaching any new behavior won’t happen in one session. And if you start using a cue before your dog is certain what it means, you can ruin the cue. If you have been yelling “quiet” to your dog, find a new word to use.
- Teaching your dog behaviors like “go to place” or “touch” gives your dog an alternative to barking and gives you a chance to reward your dog for appropriate behavior.
- Whether you use a clicker or “Yes”, a marker is a way to tell your dog that he has just done what you want. Once your dog learns that a marker is followed by a treat, you can mark a behavior, whether or not you asked for it. However, do not use a marker to get your dog to come to you when your dog is barking. He probably will, but you have just rewarded your dog for barking. You can find videos showing how to teach “quiet” on You Tube Kikopup’s Channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/kikopup/.
- You can distract your dog by throwing treats on the ground or by making a game of running away from the trigger on walks. These won’t be permanent solutions, but you can use these approaches to quickly stop the barking on walks.
- Understand, though, that if you just suppress your dog’s barking and ignore the reasons he barks – boredom, attention seeking, etc. – those issues could show up in another unwanted behavior. So, take the time you need to figure out why your dog is barking and manage that situation as much as possible. Management includes keeping a distance from your dog’s trigger,
We have a webinar video on barking at https://youtu.be/A2mTdEDVPWI
The Bark Stops Here by Terry Ryan
Barking: The Sound of a Language by Turid Rugaas
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This material is not intended to be a substitute for professional help when dealing with dogs with intense or potentially dangerous behavior issues. Consider consulting a positive reinforcement trainer or animal behaviorist for situations that you feel are dangerous or that you don’t feel equipped to handle. A list of recommended trainers and behaviorists can be found on our website, www.YourDogsFriend.org.