Barking in Dogs
Is barking a normal dog behavior?
Barking is a normal and natural behavior for dogs. Dogs use barking to communicate with other dogs, other animals, and people. Barking can mean the dog is happy, frustrated, bored, anxious, excited, fearful, alarmed, territorial, and more. Sometimes dogs also bark for medical reasons. Many pet owners like to work to reduce barking in their pets. Understanding why the dog is barking, and what you can do to help, is the first step in changing barking behavior.
What should I do if my dog is barking?
If your dog shows any of these signs, please consult with your veterinarian. Your pet may need medical treatment or need help from a skilled professional who can provide coaching for your family.
- Barking, especially prolonged barking when left alone
- Barking at night when ordinarily the dog would sleep through the night
- Staring off into space or acting disoriented when barking
- Barking that is very difficult to interrupt directed at strangers or other animals, especially through a window or fence
- Barking that you are concerned could escalate to a bite
Is there any way to prevent barking?
Making sure a dog’s needs are met, including a quiet place to rest, positive-reinforcement training, plenty of daily mental and physical exercise, and plenty of daily social attention from the family, are great first steps to prevent nuisance barking.
Avoid leaving dogs alone for long periods in a yard. Sometimes, visual barriers such as fencing, curtains, blinds, privacy film on windows, etc. are good tools to prevent unwanted barking.
Positive socialization so your dog is comfortable with a wide variety of sights, sounds, locations, animals, people, and experiences will also help prevent unwanted barking.
Once a behavior is established and has been repeated, it will take longer to reverse that behavior in the future – so prevention is extremely helpful.
How can I train my dog to change his barking behavior?
The A-B-C Method
Dogs, like any animal, do what “works.” They will repeat behaviors which have a favorable or meaningful result. When we are working to change or improve a dog’s behavior, we need to consider what the behavior accomplishes from the dog’s point of view – and how we can modify that event so the dog’s behavior will change for the better.
Using the A-B-C method to consider why the dog is barking and how to change the barking is often helpful.
A = Antecedent. What happens immediately before the barking?
B = Behavior. Barking is the behavior in question, but it is probably accompanied by other behaviors, too!
C = Consequence. What happens during or immediately after the barking? This is the “result” from the dog’s point of view.
Creating a training plan means identifying A, B, and C – and considering how A and C can be changed so B will change. Each training plan will be unique to the dog and the family, but most barking can be prevented or reversed using a positive reinforcement-based training approach.
Example: Barking at the mail carrier.
Remember, your dog can only see the world through the window or gate. He does not have the ability to consider that the mail carrier is already planning to visit only for a moment and will visit each house. Consider the A-B-C’s for barking at the mail carrier.
A = The mail carrier appears
B = The dog barks
C = The mail carrier disappears
In this example from the dog’s perspective, barking is an effective way to get the mail carrier to move away. Barking is one way dogs will ask for space, or try to move another person or animal away from their space. Changing barking at the mail carrier can often be as simple as placing a privacy film on the windows or closing blinds when the mail carrier is scheduled to pass by. This changes both the A and the C of A-B-C – so the B (barking) will probably change, too!
How can I prevent my dog from barking at certain situations using the ABC method?
Dogs are most likely to bark at things they find exciting, unfamiliar, overstimulating, or that provoke feelings of fear or anxiety. Getting dogs off to a great start helps prevent some unwanted barking.
Prevention starts with making a plan for positive exposure to common causes of barking and using positive reinforcement to show the dog what you would like them to do instead of barking.
Example 1: Doorbell Rings
In this example:
A = Doorbell sound
B = Come and sit or go to mat
C = Treats and calm happy praise
Sample training plan:
- Decide what you want the dog to do instead of barking. (for example, come sit near you or go to their dog bed or mat and wait).
- Teach your dog to do this behavior if they do not already know how. Use plenty of treats and praise, and work in an environment away from distractions at first.
- Start introducing the doorbell in a gradual way. Using a phone app or recording, it is easy to play a doorbell sound very quietly at first – then as the dog is ready for it, louder and louder.
- Play the doorbell sound quietly.
- Prompt the behavior you want such as sitting near you or going to the mat. Provide plenty of treats and calm happy praise!
- Repeat a few times per day, gradually increasing the intensity of the doorbell.
- Move the doorbell sound closer to the actual door of your home.
- Once the dog is proficient at coming and sitting when they hear the doorbell sound, have a friend help by standing outside to ring your doorbell so you can practice opening the door to let in a guest.
- Remember to provide plenty of rewards and attention for doing the wanted behavior of coming and sitting or going to mat.
What if your dog makes a mistake and begins barking? That is okay – simply calmly redirect the dog to the behavior you want and try again at an easier level of the exercise next time.
What if the real doorbell rings and your dog has a barking episode? Calmly remove your dog to another room before opening the door. Consider placing a note card near the doorbell telling guests to wait patiently while you put the dog away, or to text or call rather than ringing the doorbell.
Example 2: Seeing a Stranger on a Walk
A = Stranger appears/is visible
B = Look at owner quietly/pass by quietly (advanced)
C = Treats and calm happy praise
Sample training plan:
First, make sure your dog knows how to look at you. Call his name in a calm, happy voice and quickly feed 2-3 high value treats. Move away a few steps, call his name, and quickly feed 2-3 treats. Repeat this exercise moving in all different directions until your dog turns to look at you when you say his name.
- On a walk, when you see a stranger, call your dog’s name in a calm happy voice.
- When he turns to you, deliver 2-3 treats.
- If he looks back at the stranger, simply call his name quietly again and reward each time he looks away from the stranger.
- As he becomes good at this, the dog will start automatically checking in with you when a stranger appears. Always reward this right behavior!
- While you are passing by a stranger, speak calmly to your dog and offer praise and rewards for staying close to you and quiet.
- Resist the urge to allow your dog to run up to other dogs and people while on walks, even if your dog is friendly! This can lead to frustration later when your dog cannot greet every person, creating a barking problem.
Example 3: Barking at you for attention
A = You are present but distracted and your dog wants attention
B = Dog barks
C = You look at or interact with the dog, even if it is to tell the dog to stop barking
From the dog’s point of view, this is effective because the barking results in attention. To prevent this, avoid responding by providing attention when your dog barks. This can be tricky at times, and not always practical, but whenever possible be mindful about accidentally rewarding attention-seeking via barking.
If your dog is barking for attention, look away, lean away, and walk away if at all possible. As soon as your dog is quiet, provide calm quiet attention and special praise for good behavior. If your dog barks at you repeatedly, make sure his needs are met such as food, water, elimination breaks, attention, etc. He might be trying to tell you something important!
A = You are present but distracted and your dog wants attention.
B = A polite “ask” you like. Examples might include come and sit, sit and look at you, lie down, or go get a toy! You get to choose the behavior you want.
C = You provide attention
It is important to notice correct behavior when dogs do it, so we can respond and reinforce the wanted behavior. Sometimes, this means rewarding dogs for “doing nothing,” such as walking near us quietly or lying on a dog bed. Rewarding calm behavior will help it happen more and more often. Always be on the lookout for wanted behaviors and try to find at least 50 times a day to interact with and reward your dog for wanted behaviors. Watch for times your dog comes up to you and sits, downs, or brings a toy. Respond by rewarding with attention, petting, calm praise, or toy play.
How can I reverse problem barking?
Reversing problem barking means figuring out the Antecedent – what happened right before the barking? And figuring out the Consequence – what function does this behavior serve from the dog’s point of view. Getting attention? Declaring territory? Getting more space from something scary?
Your dog might need training for how to cope with the Antecedent without barking. You might need to prevent exposure or have detailed training plan for specific situations created. Your response around the dog may need to be changed to make sure the Consequence is not helping to maintain the barking. Does the barking result in attention? Does barking at another dog and straining at the lead get the dog there more quickly and relieve frustration? Changing the A’s and C’s will change the B’s! Take barking off the B list.
"Sometimes problem barking is really challenging to reverse."
Sometimes problem barking is really challenging to reverse. If you are having trouble finding the A-B-C’s, if the barking is long-standing or quite intense, or if you are feeling frustrated, reach out for help from your veterinary team. They can work with you or refer you to a helpful professional coach.
What about technology to deter barking?
There are many gadgets available to address unwanted barking. Shock collars, spray collars, vibration collars, ultrasonic noise emitters, loud surprising noise makers, muzzles to hold the dog’s mouth shut, etc. are all on the market to reduce barking. These tools all rely on the use of punishment and should be avoided because they can have negative emotional fallout for the dog. The shock, sound, or spray needs to be so unpleasant it will stop the dog’s behavior, which can present ethical concerns. Punishment can also lead to an increase in anxiety in some dogs. Products can malfunction and punish the dog at the wrong time, or fail to work when the dog barks. Another dog in the room or another loud sound can also trigger many of these products.
"Products can malfunction and punish the dog at the wrong time,
or fail to work when the dog barks."
Fortunately, there are also reinforcement options for addressing barking through technology. Products like the Pet Tutor come with a sound sensor and an App to program. The sensor listens for progressively longer periods of quiet and rewards your dog for remaining quiet even if there is no one there to train! Video surveillance systems with built-in treat dispensers allow owners to observe their dogs and trigger treat dispensing when dogs are doing right behaviors even when we are outside the home.
What about surgery?
Debarking or devocalization is a surgery to make a dog’s bark quieter or silent. Devocalization is a major surgery and can have serious side effects both short-term and long-term. Most of these side effects make it difficult for the dog to breathe. In addition, a number of patients will begin to bark again within months after the surgery. For these reasons, many professional organizations and governments have declared using this surgery to reduce a dog’s voice unethical and, in some cases, unlawful.
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