While there are many areas where we are working hard with our training and reinforcement with Topher, there are some areas where we’ve gotten…a little lazy. One of those areas? Barking.
Topher is a pretty quiet dog until people (or dogs) start walking by or entering our house. If either of those things happen, Topher turns into a lean, not-that-mean, barking machine. It’s a frustrating habit to break, especially when you’re also trying to juggle something like answering the door for a contractor. So many times, we’ve done the lazy thing: we calmly put Topher away in our bedroom and wait for his barking to subside before he can come back out.
However, this method of dealing with Topher’s barking habit is no way to actually stop unwanted barking. So, as we enter the fall season, a time when more people tend to end up at our house (friends, contractors, or otherwise), I’ve embarked on a mission to do more to curb Topher’s unwanted barking.
Why Do Dogs Bark?
Dogs bark for a reason—it’s just one of many ways they communicate. Studies have shown that dogs respond differently to different types barks. And, people as young as ten years old can decipher most types of barks, even when they can’t see the dog!
Still, what science finds fascinating, most owners find annoying. Hence why “bark control” devices are so popular. However, these types of devices don’t take into account why a dog is barking. It’s just not possible.
Think about this scenario: Topher sometimes lets out one big bark when he is startled awake. While this has a tendency to scare the crap out of me as well, I’m not going to punish Topher for being scared awake! But a bark control device would. And personally, if I got shocked or sprayed every time I was startled awake and made a noise…I’d stop wanting to sleep at all.
Managing Barking Positively
There are other ways to change your dog’s barking behavior, through positive reinforcement training. The goal of training this way is to reduce your dog’s excessive barking—it is not to eliminate barking entirely. It’s simply unrealistic to expect your dog to never, ever bark. To expect that is to cut off one way your dog is able to communicate.
You can start managing and changing your dog’s barking behavior by doing the following.
1. Manage Your Dog’s Environment
First, you have to prevent your dog from getting in more practice time with their unwanted behavior. If your dog spends all day barking at people through the windows while you’re not home, it will be hard to make a dent in that behavior even if you train nightly.
For example, if you’re hoping to keep your dog from barking at everyone passing by your house, you can try closing the blinds, putting window film on the bottom windows, or crating your dog in a room without windows to the front of the house, while you’re away.
2. Reinforce Properly
Excessive barking usually happens when the habit of barking has been incorrectly reinforced. For example, your dog barks at you, you admonish your dog, and then your dog keeps barking because it produces the desired effect: getting your attention.
If your dog is barking for attention, one of the most effective responses is to remove what they wants. For example: barking to be let out of the crate. Instead of reinforcing the barking by letting your dog out, stop moving towards it or move away until your dog quiets down.
3. Train A New Behavior
For dogs who aren’t necessarily barking to get attention from you, reinforcing can get pretty tricky. Unfortunately, barking is a self-reinforcing behavior for dogs: waiting for them to stop isn’t a great tactic. Instead, try using your dog’s first bark as a cue for them to do something else for you: sit, go to a specific place, etc. Only the new, reinforceable cue should be rewarded, so do not reward your dog for performing their cue AND barking.
A great way to start working on excessive barking is to train your dog to bark and be silent on command. Once they know both cues, your dog will be better able to respond, rather than spiraling into a barking frenzy.