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Barking

Barking

One of the most common concerns I hear from pet parents with their dogs revolves around barking. Although some people might prefer a dog to bark at home to alert them of potential intruders, that something has happened, or simply communicate that they need to go outside, others can find this behavior frustrating. Personally, I prefer my dogs do not bark in most instances and instead I like to have the ability to cue a bark from them instead. That being said, my dogs are not big “barkers” to begin with.

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What can you do if your dog is naturally a ‘barker’?

Step one is to determine the trigger. Why are they barking? This behavior can come from many different things, so it is important to narrow down the reason it is happening before we can even begin to work on altering the behavior!

In my experience, most barking dogs come from one of two categories. (Though this is not exclusive, there can be other reasons a dog barks!)

Fear/Anxiety
Excitement/Attention Seeking

 Now, these are examples of underlying reasons why a dog might bark, but they are not specifically “triggers”. A trigger is the sight, scent, smell, etc. of something that makes elicits the above reactions in dogs (fear/anxiety or excitement/attention seeking).

First and foremost, it is important to know and understand your dog’s history and background. If you have had them since they were a young puppy, you should know what they have experienced almost from the start. If you adopted an adult dog, sometimes you might not know what happened to them early on in life. Some things to first consider:

  • Did they spend the first 8 weeks of their life with their mother and litter?
  • Were there any scary/bad experiences in their past?
  • Have you or anyone else that has handled your dog(s) used aversive training methods/tools in the past? (Shock collars, prong collars, choke chains, punishment, etc)
  • What experience do they have with other dogs and people?
  • What is your dog’s personality? Are they particularly social? Do they prefer to have one or two close friends? Do they dislike other dogs or are they uncomfortable being the ‘center of attention’?

First, let’s do away with the aversive tools and methods! We do not want to pair fear/anxiety or excitement with pain or discomfort. Instead, pull out that bag of yummy treats and we will work to teach our dogs that the “trigger” means good things instead of bad!

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Fear/Anxiety
One of the most common reasons for barking is fear or anxiety. This might come from any number of things, such as a bad experience, confusion, frustration, a lack of confidence, or simply feeling “trapped”. So, the first step is to watch your dog. Learn their body language and pay attention to how they look when they are relaxed, when they are unsure, and when they are scared/uncomfortable. Some common body language signs of stress are:

  • Pacing or Shaking
  • Whining or Barking
  • Yawning (when not tired), drooling, and licking (with no food)
  • Dilated pupils, “Whale Eye” (whites of eyes showing), Ears down/back
  • Lowered body posture, stiff body posture, weight shifted forward or back
  • Excessive Shedding
  • Excessive Panting
  • Uncontrollable Bladder/Bowels
  • Avoidance or Displacement Behavior (sniffing the ground, licking themselves, scratching (when not itchy), trying to escape, etc.)
  • Hiding or Escape Behavior

These signs of stress often appear when a dog is faced with something that makes them uncomfortable, confused, or makes them feel insecure. This can be another dog, other people, noises, storms, fireworks, etc. One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that we do not want to make this stress worse! We want to help our dogs become more confident and secure, and the best way to do that is to teach them that those things that trigger stress actually mean good things happen.

So, what is your dog fearful or anxious about? Some common reasons are:

  • They had a bad experience with other dogs. This experience has made them see other dogs as a threat to their safety or your safety. When they bark, they are telling other dogs to ‘go away’ because they are uncomfortable. It is pretty similar to how a person would tell someone scary that is approaching them “don’t come any closer!”
  • They don’t have much experience at all with other dogs. Sometimes, our dogs have not had the opportunity to learn how to be a dog. This is most common in puppies that have spent their early lives in pet stores or were taken away from their mother and litter too soon. In those first 3-12 weeks of life, puppies learn valuable life-lessons on how to be ‘dogs’. They learn bite-inhibition (how hard is too hard to bite when they play!), how to interpret the body language of other dogs, etc. When they don’t have this time with their litter and with early socialization, they simply do not know what to do when they encounter another dog. This confusion can lead to barking and stress, especially if their barking receives yelling or discomfort from their owner.
  • They are shy or lack self-esteem. Dogs have different personalities just like we do! There are naturally confident and naturally shy dogs. They are also very social dogs, and some dogs that prefer to keep to themselves and a few close ‘friends and family’. One important thing to keep in mind is, this is ok. I don’t always want to interact with every person I see, and there are some situations where I might not feel comfortable interacting with other people. Our dogs are the same way sometimes! It is important to know, understand, and value your dog’s wants/desires just as much as you do your own.
  • They feel trapped. Could you imagine seeing or hearing something that you knew nothing about coming towards you and not being able to run away or escape it? When we put our dogs on a leash or confine them to a yard, we are keeping them from following through on their ‘flight’ instinct if they get spooked or are stressed. For many dogs, this lack of escape on leash can often be a trigger to bark because they are instead telling the scary thing to go away because they cannot flee themselves.

Faith

Excitement/Attention Seeking
What if our dog is confident and is simply barking for attention or because they are excited? There can be many different things that might cause excitement and attention seeking behavior in dogs, such as:

  • They want to play! Some dogs are very social, and when they are confined to a leash or cannot interact with another dog, that excitement and desire to play comes out as a bark because they cannot control themselves. However, it is important to note that not every dog you see on the street wants to play with your pup! Always make sure to ask another dog’s owner if it is alright for your dog to meet theirs before approaching. I, personally, do not recommend allowing dogs to play on-leash. This can frequently lead to tangled leashes and escapees or fearful reactions if they cannot separate themselves or if one dog suddenly gets uncomfortable/wants to stop playing.
  • They are lacking exercise. A lot of the time, our dogs are not getting enough stimulation and regular exercise in their day to day routine. This excess energy can come out as frustration or confusion because they simply do not know what to do or are overwhelmed and over-stimulated. Most dogs need multiple walks a day, plus both mental and physical exercise on a regular basis. Agility, swimming, running, puzzle toys, hide and seek, scent work, etc. are all examples of ways to help your dog get more exercise daily!
  • This type of barking often comes when a dog is confined to a yard and has little or nothing to entertain themselves with. First, a dog should never be out in the yard (even fenced yards) unsupervised. Second, give them fun things to do in their yard. Sandboxes make good positive dig spaces. Play fetch or hide toys/treats for them to sniff out! If they have ways to occupy themselves in the yard, they will be less likely to run or pace along the fence looking for something outside the yard to entertain them.
  • Attention Seeking. When a dog barks, people naturally look at them. In this way, barking is a naturally rewarding behavior for dogs. They bark, and people look at them in response. Oftentimes their owners will also tell them to ‘be quiet’, or ‘stop barking’, etc. This is often adding to the barking! Most of the time when we yell at our dogs for barking, they have no idea what we are saying and most likely think that we are joining in. When we give them this “attention”, we are rewarding their barking behavior and teaching them that barking gets attention!

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What can we do?

When it comes to barking behaviors, how do we stop them? This is a common question, and because barking is such a loud and interruptive behavior, most owners get frustrated and embarrassed whenever they take their dog out of the house. Unfortunately, keeping our dogs home all the time or confined to a yard just makes the problem worse. They do not get the exercise they need and the behavior tends to escalate or get more problematic.

So, what are some steps we can take to teach our dogs that barking is not the reaction we want from them in these situations?

  1. Start learning at home. It is not healthy or reasonable to expect our dogs to learn new things or impulse control in a distracting environment. If we are surrounding them with things that overstimulate them or make them nervous, they cannot focus on learning or working for rewards.
  2. Set them up for success. No one likes to lose a game every time. How frustrating is it when you are learning something new and you fail or do something wrong? Our dogs are the same way. When they are learning, it is important to set them up for success and make it easy for them to succeed. When they are more confident with a behavior, then we can work on gradually increasing the difficulty for them. But when we start out, we want to make sure the game starts at Level 1!
  3. Use Positive Reinforcement. Just like we want to set our dogs up for success, we want to associate the things they bark at with good things. The best way to do this is to practice from a distance. It is important to make sure that your dog is not reacting when you practice and reward. So, find a comfortable distance from the ‘trigger’ (dog, person, etc.) and work there. They see the dog/person = reward and praise. The more you practice, the more likely your dog is to look to you for a reward or praise every time they see another dog/person. Also, we want them to learn that when they see a ‘trigger’, they get good things from you!
  4. Teach a strong “Watch” cue. This allows us to ask our dogs for their attention before they react to the sight of something. The easiest way to teach the ‘watch’ is to start in a quiet place and follow these steps:
    1. Say “watch!”
    2. Mark (with a clicker or a “yes!”) when your dog turns their head to look in your direction.
    3. Repeat until they are doing this 90-100% of the time before adding distractions.
  5. Emergency U-Turn. Sometimes you simply cannot set your dog up for success. As much as we might try to control our environments and set our dogs up to avoid failure, sometimes something unexpected happens. You walk around a corner and are confronted with another dog or a stranger. Someone walks up to you with their dog without asking permission first. Sometimes you just need to get out of the situation. Just like the Watch cue, teach this in a quiet place with no distractions to start.
    1. Start on-leash in a quiet place. Walk with your dog forward, then suddenly stop and turn around to walk in the other direction while offering a treat/reward to your dog and saying “let’s go!”
    2. When they follow you and reach the treat while walking beside you in the opposite direction, mark with a click or a yes and let them eat the treat!
    3. Gradually increase distractions. The goal here is a quick turn without having to pull the leash to guide them.
  6. Manage the behavior to keep them from practicing it. Management is key to keeping our dogs from practicing unwanted behaviors. Whenever possible control your environment. When your dog is in the yard, give them fun things to occupy them and supervise. When you are on leash, try to stick to quiet times of the day for walks and avoid busy streets and places where your dog might struggle to focus on you. Use an easy-walk harness or a head halter to prevent leash-pulling. Remember, we want to make sure we set our dogs up for success and increase the level of difficulty for them at their pace!
  7. Work with a positive reinforcement trainer! Barking can be an overwhelming struggle to work with on your own. As a positive reinforcement trainer, I can help with private training sessions and work with you and your pet to tackle problem behaviors together.

If you are interested in signing up for group classes or private sessions, email me at trainer@springbrookanimalcarecenter.com for more information!

Victoria Buhler
Professional Dog Trainer
Approved CGC Evaluator
Veterinary Assistant

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