My dog Shadow is a barkaholic. If there were a 12-step program for such a condition, she would surely be a good candidate to attend. She likes to bark when she is happy and excited, when she is concerned, when she would like something from us, when something surprises her, when other dogs bark, and mostly, when squirrels run through the trees in our backyard. The squirrel bark is the worst—sharp and shrill and so loud that it makes your ears hurt.
The trouble with having a dog that barks a lot, is that there isn’t one easy answer for getting them to stop. People often see barking as a single problem; just last week I was asked by several students in my class, “How do I stop my dog from barking?” I couldn’t give a simple answer to this seemingly straightforward question. The solution to barking problems depends on understanding several factors:
- When and where is it happening?
- Why is it happening? What is that specific trigger?
- What is the dog getting out of barking? What is the dog’s reward?
And if your dog, like mine, barks in several different situations, has multiple triggers, and the reward varies, you may need more than one solution help dogs learn to live a quieter life. But once you can identify the when, where, why, and what, we can come up with a training plan to solve the problem. Here are a couple of quick examples of things we are doing to help Shadow with her barking.
For the excitement barking, we are working with her to settle easier and respond more calmly in a variety of situations. Some of the exercises we are using to do this include impulse control games, settle exercises such as mat work and relaxation protocol, and counter conditioning to reduce excitement.
When other dogs bark, I am working to teach Shadow an alternative response—something she can do instead of barking. Because this primarily occurs out in the world, we are working on her redirecting to us (using that auto-check-in that anyone who has taken my classes knows so well!).
With startle barking, we are using straightforward classical conditioning; things that surprise her make treats rain from the sky.
When Shadow barks at us for treats or attention or a ball toss (what I call bossy barking), we are simply removing the opportunity for reward. This has been the easiest barking problem to solve simply because we can control the reinforcement.
For barking at the squirrels, I am working with all of the techniques described above (because none alone was doing the trick). First, we are employing some management by limiting her access to the squirrels and by keeping her on a long-line when squirrels are in the yard so that I can easily stop her if she does bark. We are training her to be calmer around the squirrels with a combination of operant and classical conditioning. We are teaching her to call off of the squirrels rather than to fixate on them. Soon, I hope to add in a “leave it” type behavior to help her understand that the squirrels are really not her business.
With the techniques above, Shadow has gone from being a dog that barked in most situations to a dog that only very selectively barks and who is learning to bark less and less every day. I consider the excitement barking and the bossy barking have improved to the point that they are no longer a problem. The startle barking and barking when other dogs bark has dramatically improved, but is still something we need to stay on top of in our daily life. The squirrel barking is about 70 percent better, a huge improvement, but is definitely a work in progress. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.
If you have a dog that barks, start by considering the when, where, why, and what. You may be able to come up with a solution once you understand the triggers and reinforcements involved. But if you need help troubleshooting barking problems, please don’t hesitate to contact me for help.