Modifying Your Dog's Barking Behavior
How to train your dog to stop barking without punishment. Whole Dog Journal will assist you in achieving an almost bark-free home.
[Updated February 15, 2017]
There’s a lot of talk these days about the fact that dogs are primarily body language communicators. It’s true, they are. But as anyone who’s spent time with them knows, dogs also have a pretty well-developed ability to express themselves vocally. Dogs bark. Some bark more, some bark less, and a few don’t bark at all, but most dogs bark at least some of the time.
The Reasons Dogs Bark
As the owner of four dogs, two of whom are very vocal, with a third quite willing to express himself on occasion, I can testify to the domestic dog’s ability to speak. Interestingly, while wild puppies bark, wild adult dogs rarely do, at least not to the degree our canine companions do.
Canine genetics plays a large role here, of course. Over the millennia that we humans have been selectively breeding dogs, we’ve purposely bred some dogs to be loud, others to be quiet.
At the “more” end of the continuum, the scent hounds are programmed to give voice to announce the presence of their quarry. Thus Beagles, Coonhounds, Foxhounds, and others in this group are quite vocal - although they do tend to bay rather than yap. Most of the herding breeds are easily incited to bark. Skilled at telling a recalcitrant sheep or cow to back off, these Type-A workaholic dogs also delight in playing the role of noisy fun police. Many of the toy breeds also have a well-deserved reputation for barkiness as do the terriers.
In the “less-barking” category, the guarding breeds tend to reserve their formidable vocalizing for serious provocation. Sight hounds also lean toward the quiet side, preferring to chase their quarry rather than bark at it. Then, of course, there’s the Basenji -a somewhat primitive African breed of dog who doesn’t bark - but he sure can scream!
Another reason wild dogs bark less than our own furry family members is that they are less likely to be subjected to environments that encourage barking, such as fenced yards with potential prey objects (skateboards, joggers, bicycles) speeding tantalizingly past just out of reach; or humans who inadvertently - or intentionally - reinforce barking.
Different Kinds of Dog Barks
Dogs bark for various reasons. If you want to modify your dog’s barking behavior (either decrease it or increase it) it’s helpful to know what kind of barking your dog is doing, how the behavior is being reinforced, and what to do about it.
• Alert/alarm barking
This is the dog who saves his family from a fire, tells us that Timmy’s in the well, scares off the rapist, barks at the dogs on Animal Planet - and goes bonkers every time someone walks past on the sidewalk outside the picture window. Alarm barkers can save lives - but sometimes their judgment about what constitutes an alarm-appropriate situation can be a little faulty.
You can manage alarm barking by reducing the dog’s exposure to the inciting stimuli. Perhaps you can baby gate him out of the front room, move the sofa away from the windows so he can’t jump up and see out, or close the drapes.
Outside, you might consider putting slats in the chain link fence to cut down on his visual access to the world surrounding his yard (better yet, install a privacy fence) or put up an interior fence to block his access to the more stimulating parts of the yard. Given that alarm barking will inevitably occur, it’s also useful to teach him a positive interrupt - a cue, other than “Shut up!” that you can use to stop him in mid-bark. (See “The Positive Interrupt,” to the right of this page.)
However, your dog might be barking because something really is wrong. Before you use that positive interrupt, take a moment to see what your dog is barking at. Perhaps your house really is on fire.
• Demand barking
This behavior is more likely to annoy you than your neighbors, but it’s annoying nonetheless. A demand barker has learned that he can get what he wants - usually attention or treats - by telling you. It often starts as a gentle, adorable little grumble, and can quickly turn into insistent, loud barks - your dog’s way of saying, “I want it, NOW!”
Demand barking is easiest to extinguish early. The longer a dog successfully demands stuff, the more persistent he’ll be if you try to ignore him. However, ignoring him is the best answer to this behavior. No treats, no attention - not even eye contact. The instant the demand behavior starts, utter a cheerful “Oops!” and turn your back on your dog. When he’s quiet, say, “Quiet, yes!” and return your attention - and treat - to him.
Watch out for extinction bursts and behavior chains. When you’re trying to make a behavior go away by ignoring it, your dog may increase the intensity of his behavior - “I WANT IT NOW!” This is an extinction burst. If you succumb, thinking it’s not working, you reinforce the more intense behavior, and your dog is likely to get more intense, sooner, the next time. If you stick it out and wait for the barking to stop, you’re well on your way to making it go away. You have to be more persistent - and consistent - than your dog.
A behavior chain is a series of behaviors strung together. Your dog may learn to bark once or twice to get you to turn your back, say quiet, and feed him a treat. His short behavior chain is “bark - then be quiet.” To avoid this, be sure to acknowledge and reward him frequently before he even starts barking.
• Frustration/arousal barking
Often confused with anxiety barkers, dogs who have a low tolerance for frustration will bark hysterically when they can’t get what they want.
Unlike the separation anxiety panic attack, this is simply an “I WANT IT!” style temper tantrum similar to demand barking, but with more emotion, and directed at the thing he wants, such as a cat strolling by, rather than at you.
You can use the positive interrupt to redirect a frenzy of frustration barking. If you consistently offer high value treats in the presence of frustration-causing stimuli, you can counter-condition your dog to look to you for treats when the cat strolls by (cat = yummy treats) rather than erupt into a barking fit.
• Boredom barking
This is the dog who’s left out in the backyard all day, and maybe all night. Dogs are social creatures, and the backyard dog is lonely and bored. Boredom barking is often continuous, with a monotonous quality: “Ho hum, nothing else to do, I may as well just bark.” This is the kind of barking that’s most annoying to neighbors, and most likely to elicit a knock on your door from a friendly Animal Control officer.
The answer here is obvious, and relatively easy: Bring the dog inside. Many outdoor barkers are perfectly content to lie quietly around the house all day, waiting for you to come home, and sleep peacefully beside your bed at night.
If your dog isn’t house-safe, use crates, exercise pens, a professional dog walker (or volunteer one - you’d be amazed at how many people would like to walk a dog, but not own one!), lots of exercise, even doggie daycare to keep him out of trouble, until he earns house privileges. You can also enrich the dog’s environment, by giving him interactive toys such as food-stuffed Kong toys that keep his brain engaged and his mouth busy.
• Stress barking
Stress barkers are fearful, anxious, or even panicked about something real or anticipated in the environment, such as the actual approach of a threat, or isolation distress/separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety (SA) is manifested in a number of behaviors, including nonstop hysterical barking and sometimes howling. This is a complex and challenging behavior both to modify and to manage, as true SA is a real panic attack in response to being left alone; the dog truly cannot control his behavior. SA usually requires the intervention of a good positive behavior consultant, and sometimes pharmaceuticals.
If your dog is barking due to stress, fear, or anxiety, consult with a qualified professional behavior counselor who uses positive modification methods, and try to manage your dog’s environment to minimize his exposure to stressors while you work on a program to counter-condition and desensitize him.
• Play barking
This is a common behavior for herding dogs - the cheerleaders and “fun police” of the canine world. As other dogs (or humans) romp and play, the play-barker runs around the edges, barking, sometimes nipping heels.
If you’re in a location where neighbors won’t complain and the other dogs tolerate the behavior, you might just leave this one alone. With children, however, the behavior’s not appropriate, and the dog should be managed by removing him from the play area, rather than risk bites to children.
If you do want to modify play-barking behavior, use negative punishment - where the dog’s behavior makes the good stuff go away. When the barking starts, use a time-out marker such as “Oops! Too bad!” and gently remove your dog from the playground for one to three minutes. A tab - a short 6 to 12 inch leash left attached to his collar - makes this maneuver easier. Then release him to play again. Over time, as he realizes that barking ends his fun, he may start to get the idea. Or he may not - this is a pretty hardwired behavior, especially with the herding breeds. You may just resort to finding appropriate times when you allow play-barking to happen.
• Greeting barking
“Yay, Mom’s home! Mom’s home! Mom’s home!” If your dog hails you with hellos when you return after an absence, it’s time to shift into ignore mode. Stand outside your door and wait for the cacophony to subside, then enter calmly; no rousing hug-fests or “I love you! I missed you!” sessions. When your dog is quiet, then calmly greet him. If he starts to bark again, mark the barking with an “Oops!” and ignore him again.
You’ll need that calm response when his loud greetings are directed toward arriving guests, too. If you use loud verbal reprimands you add to the chaos and arousal; your dog may even think you’re barking along with him!
Instead, use your positive interrupt to invite your dog to you, and calmly put him in another room or on a tether - then greet your visitors. You may want to tape a note to your door advising guests that you are training your dog and it may take you a moment or two to answer the door, so they don’t give up and go away.
Uncontrolled barking can be frustrating to humans. I know this all too well, with several vocal dogs in my own personal pack. However, our dogs sometimes have important and interesting things to say.
There was the time I was engrossed in writing an article and our dogs were alarm-barking ferociously. Resisting the urge just to tell them to stop, I reluctantly got up to investigate. No, the house wasn’t on fire, but I did find our horses running down the driveway toward the road.
You want some control over your dog’s voice, but don’t lose sight of the value of his vocal communications; he may be trying to tell you something important. If you ignore him you might find your horses on the highway, the house burned to the ground, or Timmy in the well.
Pat Miller, CPDT, is Whole Dod Journal’s Training Editor. Miller lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. She is also the author of The Power of Positive Dog Training and Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog. For more information, see “Resources,” page 24.