Dogs are infamous for two things, their historic feud with cats, and barking. If your dog isn’t a barker, count yourself lucky! For the majority of you with rather “chatty” dogs, there are a few things that we can do to address this rather bothersome behavior. As discussed in the article “How to Stop a Puppy From Biting”, there are three basic steps to altering a dog’s behavior: address the source, react properly, and give an alternative.
With any troublesome behavior, what you suspect may be the cause could be entirely incorrect. If the behavior is severe, dangerous, or becomes worse, please seek the help of a professional to assess the true cause of the behavior. For our purposes I will address the two main sources of barking and how to properly address them; “boredom” and “SQUIRREL!”
A dog that is barking at you, or barking randomly at nothing, is most likely bored and seeking attention or expressing their frustration. For more on how to identify and reduce dog boredom, check out “Combatting Dog Boredom With Mental Stimulation“. Alternately, a dog barking at nothing may also be ghost hunting, please proceed with caution. All jokes aside, a dog standing around barking at you can become a serious annoyance. If you believe your dog is bored and seeking attention it is important to make sure they are getting enough mental stimulation and interaction with you. Attempt to preemptively show your dog affection when they seek it from you.
As a dog trainer and owner I have seen countless examples of dogs approaching their owners, tails a-wag, to be completely ignored. In most of those cases the dog expresses its frustration in some way, such as barking, biting at clothing, or grabbing one of their toys. If your dog chooses the more vocal route, it is important to react properly in order to avoid accidentally reinforcing the behavior.
Let’s give a specific example, an incorrect response, and a correct response. Gabby is giving her dog Lucky a back scratch, and when Gabby stops to answer a text message Lucky whines. Gabby goes back to scratching Lucky, but when she stops again a few minutes later Lucky begins barking incessantly. Gabby accidentally reinforced Lucky when he whined initially by going back to scratching him. Because she scratched him again when he whined, Lucky began barking when she stopped the second time, expecting a similar response. The best way to ensure you do not accidentally reinforce a “bad” behavior is to practice the Least Reinforcing Scenario, or LRS. In this case, your LRS would be as follows; when the dog barks, don’t look at them, tell them “no” or “stop” (or “shut up!”), and don’t pet them.
When a dog is seeking attention, any type of attention can be enough to potentially reinforce that behavior and make it more likely to reoccur. Instead, we want to wait until they cease barking, and only give them attention for things that we like. In this situation the thing we like is just standing/sitting quietly, so a second or two after the dog stops barking we can go back to giving them attention. Dogs are smart, but they don’t make extended connections, so your dog will not start barking, just to stop barking and get attention. Simply ensure we aren’t reinforcing them for barking, make sure they are getting plenty of mental stimulation, and getting attention if they are quiet.
The dreaded dog barking out the window. This behavior is a tad more complicated than your simple attention- seeking pup. For this type of barking it is very important to keep your dog properly mentally stimulated. A dog that is looking for something to keep them interested, who has seen fun things outside before, is going to go sit at the window and look for things to bark at.
Unfortunately for us, barking is a self-motivated behavior, meaning that when your dog is barking at a squirrel outside the action of barking makes them feel better. The squirrel doesn’t have to react, you don’t have to react, and your dog will still want to bark next time they see a squirrel outside.
For this situation we have to change the chain of behavior that is occurring. Instead of “I see squirrel” … “I bark at squirrel” … Repeat, we add a new element into the chain. When your dog sees something outside, preferably before they start barking, we redirect their attention back to us. Call your dog to you (make sure you practice this when your dog isn’t distracted first) and give them a treat, again dogs cannot make extensive connections so you aren’t reinforcing for barking. If repeated frequently enough the behavior chain becomes “I see squirrel” … “MAYBE I bark at squirrel once or twice” …“I go to Mom/Dad and good things happen”.
By changing the chain of behavior your dog will automatically come to you when they see something distracting, they might bark a few times as they do so but it will not be nearly as extensive. Once they start to do this consistently, phase down the treats, make sure you tell them what a good boy/girl they are, and remember to give them a treat every once in a while. If we keep them properly mentally stimulated, and make sure we are working with them on the right way to react, they will continue to improve.