Do you sometimes find certain quirks, such as perhaps your dog’s excessive barking, annoying? With our pups, when we figure out the ‘why’ of this behavior and provide for the underlying need, we can often help curb excessive barking.
Why is Your Dog Barking?
Behind every behavior is a need. Barking is a normal, common, instinctual form of communication. If your dog is barking to alert you about something, you’d be wise to first make sure that all is right with the world. Your dog could be barking for a very good reason! However, it is often misinterpreted as a dog being aggressive/annoying/pushy, etc., and then the dog gets in trouble. Poor pup! Being able to express species-specific innate behaviors is fundamental to canine welfare.
So, when addressing a challenging behavior issue, the initial step dog guardians can take is understanding why the dog is behaving in a certain way. Dogs bark for a variety of reasons; it’s similar to humans talking, yelling and screaming due to various purposes and emotions. The way a dog communicates, especially through body language and vocalization, can tell a person a lot about his or her emotional state — happy, excited, fearful, upset, or tired.
For your inquisitive canine, barking might mean they are experiencing boredom and finding other ways to expend excess physical and mental energy, are hungry and want to eat, are under the impression you might be going somewhere they want to go too, or they are scared of something and looking for someone they trust who can provide safety.
Barking at Triggers - Changing the Perception
The goal when working with reactive dogs is to help them change their perceptions, or how they feel towards certain triggers. We can and should help our dogs slow things down and take time to think before reacting to triggers.
An option for helping dogs to enjoy the presence of certain stimuli is playing association games. For instance, if your inquisitive canine barks at people walking their dogs past your place, you and your pup can play a game in front of a window, open door, or in the yard while waiting for other dogs to walk by, where the presence of another dog indicates to your dog that treats and happy attention will be flowing freely. When the other dog disappears, the flow of treats and fun stops. To be clear, you are not rewarding barking and lunging behavior. You are helping to change your dog’s emotional state from “I’m upset and frustrated” to “Wow! This is awesome!”
You’ll know your inquisitive (and smart!) canine ‘gets it’ when he looks at a passing dog, then looks at you for his treat! As the training progresses, your job is to ‘catch your dog in the act’ of being quiet and reward him BEFORE he reacts. Ideally, the sequence is eventually: Trigger > Fido is quiet > Throw a party! Soon, he is associating these triggers with fun and games and encouragement, instead of frustration.
Another strategy is to avoid giving pups access to areas and situations that would likely increase undesired vocalizing. So, if you want to prevent dogs from barking at passersby while in the yard, the simplest answer is, keep them out of the yard. If that is not a viable, or fair, option, pet parents who want to allow their dogs to spend time in the yard can monitor and reward dogs for partaking in alternate behaviors such as sniffing around, lying down and relaxing, playing fetch, or engaging with an enrichment activity on their own.
Similarly, if you are struggling with leash reactivity – barking and lunging at dogs (squirrels, cars, etc.) on walks- depending on the degree of reactivity and distancing behaviors, you can take this “Do this instead of that” approach here too. For example, when you’re out walking together, when another dog (or bicycle, or jogger, etc.) appears, gently ask your dog to ‘Watch me’ instead of tracking the distraction, then reward him generously for his focus on you. In this situation, you can alternatively ask for any other behavior your dog knows. By redirecting your pup to do something else that is more productive and pays off in a fun way, in time, you’ll not only have an easier time walking together, but you’ll also get the side effect of a positive conditioned emotional response (good vibes!) around these triggers — a total win-win for all.
With patience and persistence, eventually, instead of the guardian-dog team tensing at the sight or sound of another animal, or a vehicle, they’ll embrace the opportunity to practice new, fun skills together with confidence.
More Enrichment and Training Ideas
You can also use additional management strategies to help prevent your inquisitive canine from barking up the wrong tree. At home for example, you might need Fido to be more composed in specific situations, such as when you’re in a Zoom meeting. Providing a safe, enriching environment can help. Fun activities and interactive food toys really can work to prevent boredom-related issues such as barking (chewing and digging, too!).
Training is important in helping to manage behaviors and harness excess energy in much more productive ways. Since behaviors that are rewarded are repeated, when you reinforce good choices your dogs make, they are more likely to repeat those behaviors instead of the ones you don’t want! It’s easy to be engrossed with so many other things we forget to “catch dogs in the act” of doing what we want, but when it comes to excess barking, remember to pay attention and reward dogs when they are being quiet, especially around triggers. With repetition, they should learn that when they hear or see the “trigger,” that they come to you for reinforcement — even without being asked.
Avoid Common Mistakes That Can Make Barking Worse
Sometimes I hear from clients something along the lines of, “I’m always yelling at my dog, ‘No! Stop it!’ but he keeps barking.” If your dog is barking and you bark back to tell him “No!” but he keeps barking, it’s possible you are inadvertently reinforcing this behavior with your attention. Instead of barking back, spend time teaching and reinforcing your dog for quiet.
Additionally, it’s vital to avoid training equipment designed to punish, shock, or startle a barking dog (or any dog). These devices might be intended to suppress an unwanted behavior, but there’s a risk of not only increasing the behavior but the development of fear and aggression as well. Aversive training tools can also cause physical harm to your pet. Be sure to use humane, force-free training techniques that motivate dogs, help keep them engaged, and allow them to learn to trust whoever is working with them. The goal is to promote the human-canine bond while helping to avoid the development of negative conditioned emotional responses, such as fear and anxiety.
With a force-free philosophy, we can turn challenging times into moments to grow and deepen our bonds with dogs, especially the ones who may just need it most, our reactive, or under-stimulated friends striving to communicate and connect with us. After all, isn’t your buddy’s friendly enthusiasm one of the many reasons you appreciate him and find him so gosh darn cute?! Rather than “fix” your dog, can you appreciate who he is and take a moment to relish in his zest for life! (We could learn a few things from our dogs!)