Barking is a behavior that is so inherent to dogs that it can be difficult to change. Dogs bark for reasons like boredom, frustration, 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.
If your dog barks for attention, rule number one is to ignore him. Don’t look at him, talk to him or interact in any way until he quiets down. If you give in to a demand barker (which is very tempting to do because the barking can be annoying), you are actually teaching him to bark. And when you yell at your dog for barking, he thinks you are joining in, which then encourages him to bark even more. Make a point of giving your dog lots of attention when he isn’t barking so he knows that he doesn’t need to demand your attention to get it. And if your dog does start barking, turn your back, walk away or close your door.
Some dogs bark because they’re 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. 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 (Dogwise Training Manual) by Pat Miller and 101 Dog Tricks: Step by Step Activities to Engage, Challenge, and Bond with Your Dog 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 is an invitation to bark. 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. One idea is to use a baby gate to block off the room with the 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 “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. Sometimes a white noise machine or music can also help by blocking the sounds of people or animals passing by. See additional suggestions under “Barking at Sounds” below.
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.
Barking at Sounds
If your dog reacts to/barks at sounds, you can first try a white nose machine or music. There are even CDs designed to calm dog available from www.throughadogsear.com and www.harpofhope.com (the Animal Therapy edition). More likely though, you will need to de-sensitize 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 de-sensitize 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; check www.legacycanine.com or www.scarednomore.com. With noises, however, you have to keep in mind that there are often confounding factors. 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. If your dog fears thunderstorms, try wiping your dog down with an anti-static dryer sheet, such as “Bounce”, before the storm hits. It also helps some dogs to be in a quieter room that feels safe or in a bathroom (because it’s grounded) during storms. Others may feel comforted by a tight t-shirt or “thundershirt”, sold at some local pet stores or at www.thundershirt.com.
Barking on Walks
Generally, barking on walks is 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 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. This is a complicated issue, though, so ask us for a write-up on reactive dogs and consider attending a reactive dog class to work on this issue specifically with your 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. If your dog works to get out of his crate, windows, or doors when you’re gone, it’s most likely a case of separation anxiety. We can provide you with a write-up with ideas on what to do. 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 Doorbells
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. 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 a treat 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, not when you really need the behavior. Another idea is to arrange for a friend or family member to ring the bell, walk through the house (ignoring your dog), and immediately leave. If there’s a back door, that’s even a better exit route. Your friend would keep repeating this behavior until your dog wonders what the big deal was about the doorbell ringing in the first place. Of course, keep your dog on leash, so that he can’t scoot out the door. 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 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 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 your dog barks, but it may also be a good idea to teach a “quiet” cue.
Teaching a “Quiet” Cue
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 cue “quiet”.
Say “quiet” as you hold a smelly treat at your dog’s nose. Since he can’t sniff and bark at the same time, he will stop barking long enough for you to 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 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).
Teach your dog to “speak” on cue, so you can distinguish it from “quiet”. Jump around, make “woof” sounds, knock on a door, or do whatever else you know will make your dog bark. When he does, mark the behavior with either a click or “Yes” and give your dog a treat. When he is clearly looking at you and barking to get a treat, you’re ready to add the word, “speak”. Now, make a quick zip movement across your lips, which will startle your dog into a lull of quiet. Add the word “quiet” when you know your dog will stop barking when you do it. Now that your dog has learned cues for “speak” and for “quiet”, you want to go back and forth between the cues and reward your dog when he does what you’re asking.
After you are able to say “speak” to elicit your dog’s barking, take advantage of the moment of quiet to say “quiet” and smear peanut butter on your dog’s snout. While your dog is busy licking off the peanut butter, you will have a few moments to click for your dog being quiet. Then go back to speak, then back to quiet, repeating until your dog knows the difference between the two cues.
Catch your dog being quiet in situations when he would normally bark, mark the behavior and give your dog a treat. This means that you have to be alert to that moment just before your dog starts barking.
Key Points to Remember
- Remember that when you are initially teaching your dog to be quiet, you will need a lot of very special treats, cut into small pieces. 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 to the house 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. Teaching “speak” gives you an opportunity to teach “quiet” when your dog is not overly aroused.
- Don’t rush it. Teaching a “quiet” cue won’t happen in one session. And if you start using it 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 when you train this cue.
- Training a “quiet” cue teaches 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 associated with 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/.
- If you just suppress your dog’s barking and ignore the reasons he barks – boredom, attention seeking, etc. – those issues will likely show up in another unwanted behavior.
The Bark Stops Here, Terry Ryan
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