By Joan Hunter Mayer
We love our pets! However, do you sometimes find certain quirks, such as perhaps your dog’s excessive barking, annoying? Learn how the art (and science) of humanely modifying your dog’s behavior can turn trying behaviors into ones you can dig. We’ll take you through four basic ingredients for dog training success: 1. Management 2. Training 3. Compromise, and 4. Acceptance. Let’s see how these concepts can be applied to help curb excessive barking.
MANAGEMENT – Barking Up the Right Tree
When addressing a challenging behavior issue, the initial step dog guardians can take is understanding why the dog is behaving in a certain way. Behind every behavior is a need. It might be they are looking for attention because they’re bored and want to play, are hungry and want to eat, are under the impression you might be going somewhere they want to go too, or scared of something and looking for someone they trust who can provide safety.
Consequently, dogs bark for a variety of reasons; it’s similar to humans talking, yelling and screaming due to various purposes and emotions. With our pups, when we figure out the ‘why’ and provide for the underlying need, we can often manage the environment to help prevent them from engaging in unwanted (to us) behaviors.
For instance, dogs who might be experiencing boredom at home often find other ways to expend excess physical and mental energy. While it can be challenging to help our dogs to understand that play time cannot be all the time, providing a safe, enriching environment for our inquisitive canines can help. Fun activities and interactive food toys really can work to prevent boredom-related issues such as barking (chewing and digging, too!).
Another management strategy is to avoid giving inquisitive canines access to areas and situations that would likely increase undesired behaviors. For example, if you want to stop your dog 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.
TRAINING – Teaching Life Skills to Help Dogs Adapt to Our Human World
Sometimes excessive barking in dogs is a matter of impulse control. At home for example, you might need Fido to be more composed in specific situations, such as when you’re in a Zoom meeting. Or, when out and about, even a social, friendly dog can sometimes appear off-putting when he is overly excited and squealing with delight! We can and should help our dogs slow things down and take time to think before reacting to triggers.
Training can help manage behaviors and harness excess energy in much more productive ways. Pet parents can teach new behaviors that will replace the ones you find irritating. An initial step in any dog training plan is determining what it is you want your dog to do. Simply, figure out what it is you want your pup to do (when she hears a knock at the door, sees a squirrel in the yard, etc.) and then lovingly teach her the skills she needs to succeed. You can use things she likes (aka motivators), as reinforcers. Since behaviors that are rewarded are repeated, when you reinforce good choices your dog makes, she is more likely to repeat those behaviors instead of the ones you don’t want!
To take that a step further, rather than ignoring your dog when he or she is doing something you like and want, capture and reward desired behaviors. In other words, catch her in the act of doing something that you want, then reinforce her for doing it! If you feel your dog is barking excessively, pay attention to her when she’s quiet, especially around triggers that would normally start the barking festivities.
Additionally, avoid common mistakes that can make the situation worse. For instance, 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.
Avoid training equipment designed to punish, shock, or startle a barking dog. These devices might be intended to decrease an unwanted behavior, but there’s a risk of not only reinforcing the behavior but the development of fear and aggression as well. 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 responses, fear, and anxiety.
COMPROMISE – Understanding Canine Behavior
Beyond what we can do to teach dogs to live harmoniously in our human world, knowledge of what is normal, species-appropriate behavior is important. Barking is a normal, common, instinctual form of communication. However, it is often misinterpreted as a dog being aggressive/annoying/pushy, etc., and then the dog gets in trouble. Poor pup!
As focused as we might want to be on training our canine pals to be infallible companions, sometimes it’s better for everyone when we negotiate and compromise.
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. Once guardians have a clearer understanding of their dog’s motivational drive, they can then decide if they want to give the pup a legal outlet for a behavior, completely redirect Fido or Fluffy to an alternate behavior, or agree on allowing a version of a certain behavior.
Although letting dogs be dogs might require you to compromise at times, being able to express species-specific innate behaviors is fundamental to canine welfare. So, how about allowing your dog to bark — but at a lower intensity, for shorter duration, during play, or when there’s a knock at the door?
ACCEPTANCE – Making the World a Friendlier Place for Inquisitive Canines
Do you want to spend hours, days, and weeks (or more) trying to decrease one annoying (not dangerous) behavior? Consider maybe adopting a different viewpoint. 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” it, can you enjoy the exuberance of your inquisitive canine? Is it possible to accept and appreciate who your dog is and take a moment to relish in his zest for life! (We could learn a few things from our dogs!)
Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara certified canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. As a specialty trained Family Paws Parent Educator (FPPE), Joan offers services both in-person and online for growing families. If you are feeling inquisitive and have dog training questions, we invite you to contact The Inquisitive Canine for A Pawsitive Approach for Positive Results ™.