It’s quiet in my house at the moment. I look at young Lucy sleeping on her foam bed on the floor next to my office and appreciate the moment of calm. The compact one-year-old Cardigan Welsh Corgi lying at my feet, like so many herding dogs, is vocal. She barks when she’s excited. She barks when she’s playing. She barks when she wants something. She barks to alert us to visitors. She barks out of frustration. She barks when she hears a dog bark on TV. She barks when her sister Katie, our 13-year-old Australian Kelpie, gives her a dirty look. Not just any bark, mind you, but a shrill, high-pitched bark that grates on your nerves like a drill in the hands of a sadistic dentist.
When we were in the final stages of completing her adoption from the Humane Society of Washington County in Hagerstown, Maryland, Animal Care Supervisor Debbie Porterfield approached me with an expression of concern on her face.
“That little dog you’re adopting… she’s… ummmm… pretty vocal,” Debbie warned.
I shrugged. Dogs bark – so what’s the big deal? I could train her to be quiet, I thought to myself confidently. Little did I know…
Dogs do bark – some more than others. Like Lucy, they bark for a wide variety of reasons. Like Lucy, they are very good at annoying their owners with their seemingly uncontrollable urge to bark. Fortunately, like Lucy, most dogs can learn to control their barking – at least enough that we can live with them in relative peace and harmony. Some, however, are easier to teach than others
Why Bark? While dogs are primarily body language communicators, they also use their voices to share information with other members of their social group. We have genetically enhanced the domesticated dog to use his voice far more than his wild cousins, and some breeds tend to bark more than others. The herding breeds – Rough Collies, Shelties, Border Collies, Welsh Corgis and others, use their voices when necessary to control their flocks. They also bark easily when excited – often in their misguided herding efforts to control whatever activities are going on around them.
The scent hounds have been bred to give voice when they are on the trail of prey. Houndsmen thrill to the sound of a pack of dogs baying on the trail of a raccoon or a rabbit, and can identify their dogs by voice from a great distance. Some terrier breeds are notoriously barky; perhaps from generations of excited pursuit of rodents and other small prey animals. Likewise, many of the toy breeds are known to be “yappy” – serving double duty as door alarms as well as lap warmers. On the other hand, there are breeds that have a reputation for quiet. Many of the guarding breeds choose not to announce their presence, but instead carry out their duties with a quiet intensity. Chows, Akitas and Mastiffs are more likely to escort you off the property with a low growl or a short warning bark rather than a canine chorus. And of course, Basenjis don’t bark at all – they merely scream when they are displeased.
We’d all be pleased as peas if our dogs limited their barking to those situations for which they were bred to give voice, but they don’t. Those who have been genetically programmed to use their voices freely in one situation, are highly likely to use them freely in others as well. And so, we end up with “nuisance” and “problem” barking.
Don’t make the common mistake of yelling “Quiet!” (or worse) at your barking dog. This is likely to his increase excitement and arousal, adding to the chaos rather than achieving the desired effect of peace in the kingdom. If you do succeed in intimidating him into silence, you risk damaging the relationship, as he learns to be quiet through fear. Use your human brain instead, to figure out how to manage and modify your dog’s penchant for pandemonium. Fortunately, with a commitment of time and effort, training and management, most barking is controllable.
Boredom Barking: Perhaps the largest category of nuisance barking is caused by boredom. Boredom barkers are the dogs who are left out in their yards all day, and sometimes all night, with nothing to do but patrol the borders of their territory and announce the presence of anything and everything that might be of interest. Sometimes it seems they bark just to hear themselves bark – and perhaps they do.
Undoubtedly, the greatest numbers of barking complaints received by animal agencies are generated by boredom barkers. An owner goes off to work and leaves her dog in the yard, unaware that the barking is disturbing to neighbors. Another, snoring in oblivion, leaves the dog out in the back yard all night, while his lighter-sleeping neighbors toss and turn to the sound of the dog. Boredom barking often has a monotonous tone, and can go on endlessly for hours.
The Fix: Fortunately, there’s an easy fix for outdoor boredom barking. Most of these dogs, if left inside instead of out, are happily quiet in their human’s den. The complicating factor, of course, is the length of time a dog can be safely left alone in the house. Crates and exercise pens are good management solutions for dogs who haven’t yet learned good house manners, and dogwalkers – professional, or friends, family members and neighbors – can be enlisted to provide midday potty breaks if owners work long hours.
Boredom barking can also be reduced by enriching your dog’s life and environment; increasing his physical exercise and mind-engaging activities. A good daily tongue- dragging (his, not yours) off-leash run; a couple of sessions of “chase the Frisbee”; and some interactive games and toys such as stuffed Kongs, IQubes and Egg Baby Turtles, can minimize a dog’s need to speak his mind ad nauseum. (See “King Kong,” WDJ October 2000; and “Toys to Keep “em Busy,” WDJ May 2004) Play Barking: These are the dogs who can’t handle too much fun. They are the canine equivalent of cheerleaders – running around the edges of the game giving voice to their arousal while others play, sometimes even nipping at the players’ heels. Herding dogs are often members of this group. Bred to keep cows and sheep under tight control, they’re compelled to control anyone or anything that moves.
The Fix: This is such a hardwired behavior that it’s difficult to modify. You do have several options: 1. Accept and allow the behavior. Determine a time and place where the barking is least objectionable, and let the dog do it. When we are cleaning stalls in the barn in the morning, Katie and Lucy can chase each other around and bark to their hearts’ content. This helps them both be calm for the rest of the day. Of course, we live in the middle of an 80-acre farm, and potential complainants are far, far away. 2. Manage the behavior. Remove the barker from the playing field when others want to engage in rough-and-tumble or chase-me games. 3. Use negative punishment (dog’s behavior makes a good thing go away) – a gentle, non-violent form of punishment that can be effective if applied consistently. This allows your vocal dog to play, but stops the play when he gets barky with a cheerful “Oops, time out!” and a brief, 1 to 5-minute session in the penalty box. 4. Teach a positive interrupt (see Sidebar: The Positive Interrupt). Use it to invite him to you and briefly stop the barking when he barks, then release him to go play again. 5. Encourage him to carry his favorite toy in his mouth during play. As we discovered with Lucy, a mouth full of highly valued toy makes it difficult to bark. If she does, at least the sound is muffled. Katie still barks at her, but it reduces the cacophony by half. Caution: This is not a good option to select if your barking dog also resource guards his toys from other dogs.
Demand Barking: This is less annoying to neighbors, but it can be very annoying to you, the dog’s owner. Your dog is saying, “Bow Wow - GIVE it to me… NOW!!!!” Demand barking may be encountered in the early stages of positive training, as your dog tries to figure out how to make treats, play and attention happen. It often starts as a low grumble or soft “whuff,” and if not nipped in the bud can turn into a full-scale, very insistent and persistent bark.
The Fix: It’s easy to derail demand barking when it first starts by, ignoring the dog. When your dog barks for treats, attention or to get you to throw his ball, simply turn your back on him until he is quiet, then say Yes! and return your attention to him. His goal is to get you to give him good stuff. Your goal is to teach him that barking makes good stuff go away. At first, you’ll need to say “Yes!” after just a few seconds of quiet, but fairly quickly extend the period of quiet so he doesn’t learn a behavior chain of “Bark, be quiet for a second, get attention.” At the same time, you’ll need to reinforce quiet when he doesn’t bark first, again, to avoid the behavior chain.
It’s more challenging to extinguish demand barking when your dog has had lots of reinforcement for it. Remember, any attention you give him reinforces demand barking. Eye contact, physical contact, verbal admonishment – those all give him what he wants – attention! The process for modifying the behavior of a veteran demand barker is the same – remove all reinforcement. However, be prepared for an extinction burst – a period when the behavior gets worse rather than better. The behavior used to work, so the dog thinks if he just tries harder, surely it will work again. If you give in during an extinction burst, you reinforce the more intense barking behavior – and guess what happens next time? You’re right – your dog will offer the more intense behavior sooner, and it gets even harder to extinguish the barking. Oops!
Alarm Barking: This is Lassie’s “Timmy’s in the well!” bark. It means something is seriously wrong – or at least your dog thinks so. The alarm bark usually has a tone of urgency or ferocity that’s absent in most other barks. Because your dog’s judgment as to what constitutes a serious threat may differ from yours, after many false alarms you may fall into the trap of asking him to stop barking without investigating the cause. Don’t! This may be time a fire is actually smoldering in the kitchen trash can.
The Fix: Always investigate. It could just be the UPS man leaving a package on the porch, but it might be something serious. Sometimes Timmy really is in the well! Check out the cause of the barking, use a positive interrupt to stop the barking, and then reinforce the quiet. I also like to thank my dogs for letting me know something important was happening.
Greeting Barking: Dealing with inappropriate greeting behavior could be a whole article in its own right, but we’ll address the barking element briefly here. Your dog may be giving an alarm: “Danger! Danger! Intruder at the door!” or he may be barking in excitement: “Huzzah! Dad’s home!” or “Hooray! Company’s here!” The tone of the bark – ferocious versus excited – will tell you the difference.
The Fix: If you have guests arriving, the management/modification program is complicated by the fact that you are compelled to answer the door. Ideally, a second person answers the door while you use the positive interrupt to halt the barking. If there is no “second person” available, use the interrupt, secure your dog in another room or tether him, then go greet your guests. You can help minimize greeting barking by remaining calm when the doorbell rings – your dog may get excited and bark at your excitement.
By the same token, you can modify your dog’s vocal greetings when you return home by waiting outside the door until the barking stops, then entering and remaining very calm. If he starts barking again as you enter, ignore him until he is quiet, then greet him calmly. Dramatic homecomings only serve to feed his excitement and escalate his barking.
Frustration Barking: When Lucy first joined our family and we were using tethers to manage her cat-chasing behavior, she was a master at frustration barking. My husband mistook it for separation anxiety when she gave full voice as I left the room, but in fact she wasn’t panicked about me leaving, just frustrated because she wanted to come too. She still gives shrill voice to her frustration when we confine our dogs to the tack room while we move horses in and out of the barn, but she settles quickly, having learned that it doesn’t get her released any sooner. Frustration barking can be identified by its tone of shrill insistence.
The Fix: Frustration barking is a close relative of demand barking, but is more likely to occur when you are a distance from the dog, or when it is directed at something other than you. You handle it the same way. Ignore the behavior you don’t want (the barking) and reward the behavior you do want (quiet). A reward marker such as the Click! of a clicker, or a verbal “Yes!” is very useful to mark the quiet, since you are often away from the dog when the barking – and the moment of quiet – happens. As with demand barking, the more your dog has been rewarded for frustration barking in the past, the more committed and consistent you’ll need to be to make it go away, and the more likely you’ll have to work through a significant extinction burst.
Anxiety Barking: Hysterical vocalization is just one of several manifestations of separation anxiety (SA), often accompanied by destructive behavior, desperate efforts to escape confinement, and/or inappropriate urination and defecation (See “Learning to be Alone, WDJ July 2001, and “Relieving Anxiety,” August, 2001). Separation anxiety is a complex behavior – a full-blown panic attack, and to modify SA barking, howling or screaming, you must modify the entire anxiety complex.
The Fix: While it can be modified through a gradual program of counter conditioning and desensitization, SA barking usually requires the intervention of a professional trainer/behavior consultant, sometimes with the assistance of behavior modification drugs. If your dog’s barking is related to anxiety, we suggest you contact a good, positive trainer/behaviorist to help you with the complex and difficult anxiety behavior.
A dog’s voice can be a useful thing. They bark to let us know they need to go out, or want to come in. Some service dogs are trained to bark to alert their owners. Dogs warn us of intruders, and tell us of pending emergencies. I can think of numerous times when the Miller dogs’ barking served a valuable purpose. There was the time they let me know that our horses had escaped and were trooping down our driveway toward the road. I smile when I remember Dusty, our 8-pound Pomeranian, standing his ground, ferociously barking, preventing our 1,000-pound Thoroughbred mare from walking through a gate accidentally left open.
When Lucy’s shrill voice causes me to grit my teeth, I remind myself that there will be times when she, too, will use that same voice to tell me something important, and I’ll be glad she has a voice to use.
THE POSITIVE INTERRUPT
The positive interrupt is a well-programmed, highly reinforced behavior that allows you to redirect your dog’s attention back to you when she’s doing something inappropriate, like barking. Ideally, you want your dog’s response to the “Over here!” cue to se so automatic – classically conditioned – that he doesn’t stop to think whether what he’s doing is more rewarding or interesting than turning his attention toward you and running to you for a treat. He doesn’t think – he just does it, the way your foot automatically hits the brake of your car when you see taillights flash on front of you on the highway. Here’s how to program a positive interrupt:
1. Install the cue in a low-distraction environment. Use a phrase such as “Over here!” or “Quiet Please!” as your interrupt cue. Say the phrase in a cheerful tone of voice when your dog paying attention to you, then immediately feed him a morsel of very high value treat, such as a small shred of canned chicken. Repeat until you see his eyes light up and his ears perk when you say the phrase. 2. Practice with the cue in a low-distraction environment. Wait until your dog is engaged in a low-value activity – wandering around the room, sniffing something mildly interesting – then say your interrupt phrase in the same cheerful tone of voice. You should see an immediate interrupt in his low-value activity, and he should dash to you for his chicken. If he doesn’t return to Step 1. 3. Practice with the cue in a low-distraction environment – add distractions. Still in the low-distraction environment so you can control the distraction level, add moderate distractions – one at a time – and practice the interrupt. Gradually move up to major distractions in the low-distraction environment. If you lose his automatic response at any step, return to the previous step. 4. Move your lessons to an environment with real-life distractions. Go for a walk around the block with your dog on leash. Use the interrupt when he’s sniffing a bush, or eyeing a fast-food bag on the sidewalk. Start with mild to moderate real- life distractions if possible, but if a major distraction presents itself, including a stimulus that causes him to bark, give it a try! 5. Use the positive cue to interrupt barking. When your dog automatically turns his attention to you in response to your cue when confronted with major real-life distractions, you have a valuable tool for interrupting his barking. Be sure you practice occasionally with mild distractions as well, to keep the cue “tuned up,” and remember to thank him and tell him what a wonderful dog he is when he stops barking on your request.
Peaceable Paws LLC Pat Miller, CPDT, CDBC 301-582-9420 www.peaceablepaws.com
Pat Miller is a Certified Dog and Horse Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. She offers classes, behavior modification services, training clinics and academies for trainers at her 80-acre Peaceable Paws training facility in Fairplay, Maryland, and presents seminars worldwide. She has authored “The Power of Positive Dog Training,” “Positive Perspectives,” “Positive Perspectives 2,” and “Play With Your Dog.” Miller is training editor for The Whole Dog Journal, writes for Tuft’s University’s Your Dog, and several other publications. She shares her home with husband Paul, five dogs, three cats, five horses, a donkey and a potbellied pig. www.peaceablepaws.com