Why Dogs Bark
Dogs who bark excessively can cause high levels of frustration for their owners but even though it seems like a lost cause and nothing can help, there are ways to modify this behavior and give owners hope. There are several reasons why dogs bark, some are acceptable, and some are not.
The most common types of barking include boredom barking for self amusement, alert barking to let you know something has been seen or heard that is out of the ordinary, attention seeking barking, frustration barking when a dog is confused, frustrated or stressed out and defensive barking to make something scary go away.
Look at the Whole Picture
Although on the surface excessive barking can be terribly frustrating and stressful to deal with, it is sometimes a symptom of a deeper issue such as boredom, stress or even fear. In many cases if you work on healing the root cause, the symptom will likely go away on it's own. On the other hand, if you simply focus on stopping the barking, the root could just surface in another way which may be worse than the initial problem. Treat the root cause not just the surface symptom.
Define the Cause and Train an Alternative
Often barking is just simple communication: "I need to pee." "There is someone at the door!" "I want to come in." Give your dog a voice, in a sense that if they have something to tell you, listen to them and then determine whether that particular barking was an appropriate form of communication. If their response to that circumstance is not how you would like them to react then chose a very septic alternative behavior to teach them. If you dog barks to tell you that he needs to go out and potty and you would prefer a less noisy form of communication you could teach them to ring a bell instead. Reinforcement is the key to learning so just interrupting an undesirable behavior isn't enough information for your dog. Instead, you could interrupt and cue another reinforceable behavior or teach a new behavior that is incompatible with the existing problem behavior.
Teach them to Bark and Quiet on Cue
I know it seems a bit backwards to teach them to bark when you want them not to bark, but the great thing is when you teach them to bark on cue, you can also effectively teach them to quiet on cue as well.
First, put the bark on cue. You'll need a clicker and some food reinforcement to do this. Start by using something that will make the dog bark, such as the doorbell and follow the steps below:
Once you have a reliable speak on cue, and you've practiced it in many different contexts (see my post on generalizing behaviours here.), you can begin to teach a cue for your dog to quiet using the steps below. Don't forget your clicker and treats!
Gradually lengthen the duration of silence up to a minute before you click and give a treat and repeat this game until your dog understands the cue, "quiet."
After practice and generalizing in as many contexts as possible, she will understand that in order to earn a treat, she needs to stop barking on the first cue and that even one bark interrupting the silence will earn her a missed reinforcement opportunity. We do not repeat ourselves and instead take away their chance for a cookie this time. As clicker trainers, we are firm and clear with our criteria, rather than being firm in our disposition. Save the treats for the best of the best responses only.
The biggest mistake you can make here is to use the cue for quiet in a real-life scenario before your dog is ready for it. You have to practice in as many controlled, or created teaching games, and in as many different environments as possible before trying it as life is rapidly happening.
Define and Remove the Reinforcement for Unwanted Barking
What makes working though excessive barking so difficult, especially dogs who bark for attention, is that it is a self-rewarding behavior. The more the dog does it, the stronger the behavior becomes and it feels good to them as well. Considering this, I rarely recommend waiting for the behavior to extinguish, instead I recommend removing whatever resource the dog is attempting to gain such as a toy, attention, getting out of the kennel, dinner served etc and then only present it again once the barking has ceased. The dog must understand that they control the consequence. So your timing has to be precise in order to tell the dog that their silent and patient waiting is what causes their toy, food or whatever to appear.
Keep a Controlled Environment
Anytime you are working through a training program, the key to your success will be your ability to control your environment to keep the undesirable behavior from being rehearsed and inadvertently reinforced.
For example, a dog that barks in the backyard when left unattended needs to be kept inside unless someone is able to be outside with her. If you have a dog that barks at every person or dog that walks past the window, keep the blinds drawn unless you are there to handle the situation or have a scheduled training session.
A Final Note
If you feel as though your dog is barking out of fear please seek the help of a skilled and certified professional dog trainer in your area. Fear can quickly turn into serious aggression if not dealt with appropriately by a trained professional who understands the science of behavior modification.
There are many causes of excessive barking but it is not a lost cause without hope for improvement. Just remember to remove the reinforcement for inappropriate barking and reward, reward, reward any desired responses you are seeking. If you set your dog up for success, you will see it happen.
I have spent the past 15+ years learning the science of how all things learn and mastering my art as an animal trainer, behaviour consultant and transformative coach. With my specialty in canine reactivity, fear, aggression and canine communication, I have many insights to share into understanding, preventing, predicting and changing canine behaviour.