Treatment of Excessive and Inappropriate Barking (in a nutshell)

This is a very basic introduction to behavior adjustment training. Not all situations are alike or as simple as this example. This is simply a guideline to the technique I utilize because of it's outstanding results when used appropriately and professionally.

The first question I ask my clients is, what type of barking do they think it is? With a confused look on their face, the response is usually, "Uh…the loud annoying kind?"

Many dog training professionals agree that there are about six types of barking. Personally, I don’t see it so black and white, especially when dealing with dogs. We can only theorize with education and experience what the causes could be. I am not 100% comfortable with one label over another, but the six types of barking are as follows:

  • Excited Play
  • Fearful Alarm
  • Dominant
  • Territorial
  • Boredom
  • Leaned

Fearful barking should be considered as learned barking and most of the time it is. Fears are learned, right? There has been an association made somewhere along the line to fear a certain stimulus and associations are a channel of learning! Dominant barking usually comes from territorial dogs and territorial dogs are typically dominant. Wait, wouldn’t territorial barking be from a territorial dog? Sure… Boredom barking is also leaned barking since attention is given to a barking dog most of the time. Attention is attention no matter if it is rewarding or punishing.

“I bark, and the humans pay attention to me. So anytime I want attention, I’ll just bark!”

Anytime attention is given to a dog that is barking for it, the association is only supported and made stronger. With any type of barking that you want to curb the same rule pertains, reward alternate behaviors! You’ll see better results rewarding good behavior than punishing the bad.

Ex. My dog barks at cars passing by the house while he is outside.

When you start training of any kind, but especially reactive counter-conditioning, it is important to work under the dog’s behavioral threshold. Working under this threshold, allows the dog to focus on you or not to overreact depending on what you are trying to accomplish. In this case, the behavioral threshold would be the dog acknowledging the car from a distance but he is still in control. The way we find where the threshold is located is by essentially paying close attention to the distance at which he starts to bark, lunge, and etc. Once that distance has been determined, start working farther away, at 5, 10 or 20 feet. It all depends on the dog!

Now say we are attempting find that threshold and it takes a few attempts until we get out from being over it. It’s no big deal as long as you handle the situation appropriately by attempting to get the dog’s attention with some mild to moderate prompting like kissing sounds, a butt tap, shaking the leash, or just turning and walking or jogging away from the trigger. Remember not to yell at the dog because it’s futile and doesn’t help the situation at all! Keep the process upbeat and as enjoyable as possible.

Once we are in the behavioral threshold, a place where the dog notices the stimulus but is still able self sooth, this also known as a choice point. To bark or not to bark. We want to capture the dog at this moment, at this choice point. Dogs and people alike tend to make illogical associations to things. Admit it! You have feared going into a swimming pool after watching Jaws… What seems logical to one person may seem downright silly to another. The dog has been partaking in the nuisance barking for sometime and perhaps the association has been made that “I bark at the car, and the car goes away.” To us humans, the car is obviously en route to a destination but the dog has made the association that the barking makes the car leave the perimeter of his territory. The reward/payoff in this situation is increased distance between the dog and car. More specifically, it is a functional reward.

It is very important that we pinpoint what exactly the functional reward is. Is it increased distance? Or in another example, is the functional reward attention? The whole purpose of this type of training is to give the dog the same functional reward but with a replacement behavior to get it.

Barking-> Functional Reward of distance

Replacement Behavior -> Functional Reward of distance

I start by setting up situations where we can start training and rewarding replacement behaviors. In these exercises it is extremely helpful to use a friend that can drive their car by for the exercises. It is much easier and efficient to know when and how a car will pass by rather than relying on chance if you’re in an area with minimal traffic at that time. It is important to note that during the course of training, the dog should never be allowed the opportunity to entertain the inappropriate behavior you are trying to condition away. Heavily manage the environment or you will be spinning your tires and essentially undoing your hard work thus far.

While under the behavioral threshold, wait for a car to come into view or cue your friend to start driving. When the dog acknowledges the trigger (the car), wait for an appropriate replacement behavior. A replacement behavior can be but is not limited to the following:

  • Glancing away
  • Sniffing the ground
  • Yawning
  • Relaxed body posture-open mouth, tail neutral, ears neutral
  • Just about any behavior that is not barking or engaging with the trigger. You can almost feel whether the dog is or isn’t about to engage in inappropriate behavior.

Now mark that behavior with “Good” or a click from your clicker, if like those things… Now it is time for the functional reward. Walk or jog away from the stimulus. (you are increasing distance between the dog and the trigger with the same functional reward but with a desirable behavior!) Once at a distance you and the dog are comfortable with, give a bonus reward of a treat, praise, or favorite toy.

choice point under the threshold->wait->mark replacement behavior->functional reward->bonus rewards

Remember to not over do it with the bonus rewards since the functional reward should be the main reward. As with anything worth doing, the process takes time and patience. This is rehabilitation and it surely is a process. Eventually you can start phasing out the bonus rewards and will see that the dog will create distance on his own or end up being completely fine with a passing car. Remain consistent and set the dog up for success!

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