Problem barking is a very common problem. You are not alone!
There are many different types of barking, but it primarily falls into two categories: Barking at Owner and Barking at Other Things. If your dog is barking at you, they are likely “demand barking” and seeking attention, food, or other rewards that come from you. If your dog is barking at other things, they may be barking as a warning, barking for fun, or barking for any number of other reasons! Luckily, barking is a behavior…which means we can modify it and make it work for us AND them. However, it is not the easiest of behaviors to change…so hang in there.
This will focus on barking at things that are NOT you, the owner. This can be tricky, because we often want our dogs to let us know someone is coming up the drive, but we don’t want them barking like mad at every passerby or every leaf in the yard. The first step is to determine if your dog is barking to alert you, or if he is barking because he is scared and trying to run the object off. If your dog is scared, your first priority is to help them feel more comfortable and safe in their environment. Remember to take a breath and remain calm while you’re trying to work on this behavior. Taking a deep breath when your dog barks at you is not where the job ends. Merely ignoring a behavior is a hard way to get rid of it; it’s frustrating for you and the dog and, for that reason, likely to fail.
You should also remember that when a behavior has worked in the past, and then suddenly doesn’t work, it doesn’t simply go away. First it tends to intensify, and when barking intensifies, it can be impossible to ignore—especially if you’re on the phone, live in a condo, or have a headache. The dog barks longer and louder for the same reason you might kick a broken Coke machine. This phenomenon is known as an extinction burst. While you’re breathing deeply, you’re not ignoring the barking. Instead, you’re waiting for something you like better, an acceptable way for the dog to get your attention.
The first step in changing any behavior is to set up the environment so that your dog can be successful! If your dog is barking excessively out the window, try closing the blinds, drawing the curtains, or even covering the bottom half of the window so they can’t see out. You can even try taping parchment paper up to just above your dog’s head level as a quick and easy fix. Limiting the things your dog sees to bark at will decrease the barking. This also helps to prevent your dog from “practicing” barking. Barking is a self-rewarding behavior – which means it’ just plain fun for dogs! The more we can limit the opportunities for our dogs to practice barking, the more we naturally limit the barking being rewarded. Remember – rewarded behavior continues. Don’t forget to also make sure your dog is getting plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. A dog that has been on a long walk, played a good game of fetch, or is busy with a Kong or long lasting chew toy will be too busy or too tired to bark! 😉 Obedience or trick training are also great ways to tire out a dog.
Our next step is to become students of our dogs and look for ways to reward them for being quiet JUST before they start barking. This may be difficult if your dog barks at every little thing, but if you live in a neighborhood and your dog barks at each person that walks by, MARK and REWARD them for looking at the people BEFORE they bark. This not only makes looking at people and being quiet a rewarding thing, it also teaches them to look to you when they see something they might like to bark it. This interrupts the barking before it even starts. I suggest setting aside a few minutes a day to practice this. You can also MARK and REWARD for ears perking up at a sound, or any other sign that your dog is picking up on something outside they might like to bark at. They key to this is timing, and that takes practice, so don’t get discouraged if it takes some time to get it all down.
If you can’t pinpoint what your dog is hearing or seeing to set them off, then try calling their name when you see them perk up and prepare to rush to the door to bark. If you can get your dog to come to you BEFORE they start barking, then you have STOPPED them before they even get started. I suggest calling your dog’s name, asking them to come to you, and then asking for a follow-up behavior (such as sit, down, shake, etc). This routine will help ensure that your dog doesn’t think “Oooh! If I bark, I get to run back to mom for treats, then go bark some more!” If you ask for other behaviors, your dog’s brain should shift gears into listening to YOU, not the noises outside. This is also a great time to initiate a game of tug or fetch, or give them a bone to chew on.
If your dog knows commands or cues (such as SIT, DOWN, any tricks, CRATE, GO TO BED, etc), use those as your “follow up behavior” after you call them and interrupt their barking. Use something your dog knows really well – often “SIT” is the best place to start. Asking your dog to sit, and having them follow through, will make their little brains change gears from “Barking” to “listening to mom”. While dogs can bark and sit at the same time, oftentimes just asking them to do something else will REPLACE the behavior of barking.
If your dog is crate trained, you can also decrease problem barking by crating your dog for small windows of time throughout the day. Have a bunch of emails or housework you want to get done in peace? Place your dog in their kennel with their favorite toy or chew to keep them busy!
One last tip: Throw away your food bowl! If your dog barks and barks and barks….you need to get creative with ways to keep them busy. Get a Kong toy of the appropriate size for your dog, and feed them all their meals using this. I suggest getting at least two or three Kongs so you don’t have to keep re-using the same one. There are a lot of ways to stuff a Kong, even if you feed your dog raw food. You can even FREEZE the Kong with the food in it and it will take even longer for your dog to get their meal out of it!
You can also get a variety of FOOD PUZZLES at most local pet stores as well as online. You can even make your own at home! Again…this will burn mental and physical energy and keep your dog busy while they eat. It’s a great idea to make your dog work for their food, and many trainers advocate that this is the best way to feed your dog, and I agree!