Wednesday, January 25, 2012

About Barking - Part 2

Two major reasons why dogs bark are because they are under-, or over-stimulated.
Under-stimulation is boredom, in other words. The dog barks to solicit for attention and interaction. The simplest solution is to provide more stimulation, and typically it is exercise of the mental kind they are more in need of. Especially sensory sensitive dogs, often ones belonging to the herding group, can be under-stimulated on one paw if all they ever get are mindless physical activities, and over-stimulated on the other with the many sights and sounds in the environment, and in that case venturing to the park more often can make matters worse.

Exuberant excitement is expressed in barking and jumping - another common nuisance behavior. The dog is so happy that he can’t contain himself and releases his joy in dog typical ways. It is a common scenario when a pooch’s beloved and sorely missed person comes home from work. He hears the key in the lock and promptly freaks out in his crate, or mobs his person at the door.
Now, we’ve been told for years by both traditional and positive reinforcement trainers that we should not reward lack of impulse control or demand barking. We are told not to give in to our dog’s soliciting behavior; his signal that he wants something from us, because then we would reinforce that, and the dog would bark more, and be out-of-control more, and demand more, and may even become – quiver - dominant and challenge us for the steak we have for dinner that night. Okay, that stretch of thought typically only traditional trainers come up with.
In any case, I disagree. For starters, in a functioning relationship each member should be allowed to solicit for what they want. It doesn’t mean they always get it, but they should be able to ask and be acknowledged. And yes, I too prefer a polite gesture to a spit-loaded bark in the face, but that can be taught. In fact, in a good functioning relationship dogs are generally subtler and polite(r). As far as excitement goes, of course dogs should be allowed to get excited. Cesar Millan’s expectation of “calm submission” at all times and in every circumstance is unrealistic, unreasonable and impossible for any organism. Once again, some people demand more from dogs than what we highly-evolved humans are able to do. Have you ever been in a hockey arena or football stadium? So, a dog sometimes being jubilant is normal, and we should neither ignore nor subdue him, but channel the expressions into ones that are less annoying and more acceptable.
There is another problem with ignoring barking when it starts. Rarely does a dog stop right away just because a person doesn’t pay attention to it. To the contrary, he becomes frustrated because nobody listens and turns it up a few notches, and the now more intense vocalization most people find difficult to ignore. In real life, at one point the person does give it attention, perhaps negative one, but attention is attention and maintains behavior, and when that happens the dog learns that “crazing out” is the way to get noticed.
Confined dogs, for example when in a crate, can be especially noisy because there is added restraint frustration. Eager to get out, the pooch quickly charges up when no one opens the door, and he might bark himself into state of extreme agitation. A layperson will be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a minor, passing tantrum and true anxiety that intensifies out-of-control behavior at the moment, but can also contribute to secondary problems. And even if the dog has learned that the door only opens if he stops barking, being quiet is nothing but a trick and not authentic calmness. It is fake, and typically followed by an explosion of unwanted actions as soon as he is freed: bark-bark-whine-bark-bark → quiet tension → you open the crate door → dog pops out and begins to mouth, bark and jump. So, nothing is accomplished.
I suggest opening the crate door immediately and regardless what the dog does, and then direct him into a short, interactive game. You can toss a handful of small treats away from you and tell him to find them, send him to the toy box to fetch a ball and then play for a minute or two, teach him to target your hand or perform a few tricks he likes. That is structured attention right away, gets your dog out of the barking and into the thinking mode, and brings four-paws-to-the-floor in a positive way.
And if you’re of the swift sort and manage to open the crate door after two or three barks, or are able to at least quiet your dog till you reach it, then barking two or three times, followed by patiently waiting till you set him free, becomes a habit. Everyone should be able to tolerate a couple of barks. If you can’t stand any vocalization, don’t get a dog.
The same rules apply when a dog just can’t wait to get out the door to have some fun with you. He might sit quietly, staring at the door for it to open, and perhaps is even trained to let you exit first, but if it’s just a trained trick and he is internally charged up, he will pull the moment he steps on the driveway or sidewalk. Again, you gain nothing. Instead, wait for attention and offered eye contact before you open the door, give the let’s go command when you exit together, and engage your dog right away into a quick game of chase, or find the treats, or target, or whatever you like, and then continue the walk with not only a calmer dog, but also one who is likely more focused on you.
Giving attention and redirecting into a fun and acceptable behavior after 2-3 barks works regardless why the dog is yapping it up. It doesn’t matter if he greets you cheerfully at the door, or sees someone walking by the house. In that case a “Brutus, it’s just aunt Jenny get your ball” can move and keep the dog away from the window. In the beginning, you might have to guide him away, perhaps with a leash, but if you use the same words consistently you’ll eventually be able to direct him from the distance. And if you always redirect into the same activity, at one point the whole sequence of: person passing by, dog barking trice followed by getting a ball, will be automatic.
True, in a technical, operant conditioning sense we reinforce an unwanted behavior – barking - if we pay attention to it and if the dog gets what he wants, but from a relationship point of view I think we should do it anyway. Baby Signs® found that crying and tantrums decreased when what babies and toddlers’ tried to convey was understood. I feel that is the same with dogs. Their frustration outbursts won’t escalate if we respond to the initial bark, instead of snubbing them and their attempt to connect with us.

Barking occurs when a dog perceives an associated cue that announces a fun event and he can’t wait to get on with it. Going for walks turns Will’s crank, and she has learned that me drinking coffee and then using the bathroom happens every morning just before we head out. As soon as the toilette flushes, Will starts barking, impatiently wanting to go outside. Because it annoys me, I ask her in a down position after two barks, and she obeys that because it is well practiced. Down is incompatible with barking – at least with Will, which means that when she follows orders she shuts up as well. Then I fit her harness on, reinforcing the quiet, and open the door. It didn’t take long before Will stopped barking altogether, as if to avoid the extra delay the down position brought on.
Events that the dog connects with another that follows are predictors of fun stuff, but also unpleasantness and discomfort, and that can also trigger barking. For example, putting on a certain kind of shoes, or grabbing the car keys, are precursors to your leaving for work and can provoke barking, jumping and nipping with a dog who has separation anxiety.

I am not discussing outside run or fence barking, and barking at the end of a chain, because I believe that dogs should not be put in situations, often constantly, that cause stress, anxiety and frustration they then release in behaviors nobody wants. It is not the dogs' barking that is the problem here, but peoples' uncaring actions.

Restraint frustration is often the underlying issue why dogs bark at the end of their leash, or flip out when grabbed by the collar. Primarily the root is fear and anxiety, but sometimes it is because the pooch wants to socialize, greet and play, or herd and control, and you and the leash are holding him back. Which one it is can be difficult to discern for the layperson, and I recommend hiring an experienced and positive dog pro to help you sort things out. I will talk about leash reactivity sometime in the near future.
One more reason for barking I want to point out is that a sense of competition towards another animal, commonly referred to as jealousy, can also provoke barking, jumping or general pushiness. In its root it is anxiety. I wrote a blog post about Intraspecific Competition and how to approach it.
And dogs also bark when they are anxious, or ambiguous about a person, including one they live with.

I had canine clients who bark a whole lot because several, sometimes all of the above, reasons apply. They are mentally under-stimulated and demand bark, but also sensory over-stimulated and in a chronically low-level aroused state, caused by where they live, and/or by the activities their humans choose for them to participate in. In addition, often they were given attention to when in a full outburst, when their people couldn’t stand it any longer, but the attention was punitive which created anxiety, or at least ambiguity, and that always compounds the problem. Ceaseless barking sometimes goes on for years and is a well-established behavior, and therefore not an easy task to modify. But I believe that even with those tough cases improvement is possible, but there is no quick fix. Modification requires a lot from people: patience, consistency and sometimes lifestyle and routine changes, at least temporarily.


  1. An excellent Blog. Thanks for keeping us so informed and providing us the correct solutions to our problems. So that we can all live in a very harmonious home. I look foward to reading your Blogs each and every time.

    1. Just wondering, do you think it is normal if the dog doesn't bark?

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  2. Kylee, it depends. Most dogs vocalize sometimes, but I have also met ones that rarely bark. It is great if they are so relaxed and laid back, but if the dog is shut-down and won't bark in fear to being corrected, then I'd do something about it.

    Also, there are breed differences. Some dogs are naturally quieter than others.

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