Why Dogs Bark
Dogs bark for many reasons. 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.
We can assume that when a dog is barking at a noise they heard, whether it is inside or outside of the house, they are most likely startled, worried or aroused by the noise. It's really important to understand that this type of response is not a choice and the dog is not purposely trying to be bad.
The barking is likely triggered from an automatic response within the nervous system and not a learned response based on reinforcement history. Although, it can be learned through negative reinforcement, likely it's an emotional response and the dog needs help feeling safe in that moment, not a consequence to influence a new choice.
Dogs who bark excessively can cause high levels of frustration for their guardians, especially if there have been complaints from a landlord, neighbours or a strata but the barking isn't only a problem for the humans. If your dog's barking is rooted in worry or stress, this can mean big problems for your dog as well. For example, not being able to properly rest and get enough sleep during the day due to excessive worry or stress can lead to or exacerbate existing behaviour challenges, slow down progress made in a behaviour support program and chronic stress can even affect your dog's health.
In fact, chronic stress at home that is expressed through constant barking, is usually one of the root causes of other behaviour issues that show little or no improvement, no matter how much effort you put in to working through a behaviour support plan. Imagine the situation when you work so hard to manage your dog's behaviour while out of the house by playing positive trigger engagement games and keeping your dog feeling safe with new dogs and people at a distance.
You've done so well in the moments that you are together, only to have your dog triggered by the sounds of people or dogs outside the home while your dog is at home during the day without you. Inevitably, not preventing the barking at home will slow your overall progress but even though it seems like a lost cause and nothing can help, there are ways to support dogs who bark and the guardians who love them.
The Partnership Solution
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 its 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.
The solution to excessive barking requires a commitment to ensuring your dog's needs are being met as a first step. Your dog has needs that if not met, could result in troublesome behaviour that expresses the imbalance they are experiencing in their internal environment. I know barking can be so difficult to live with, but the best way to start helping them is by ensuring your dog is getting a proper amount of sleep, the right nutrition, species appropriate enrichment, connection and love, emotional regulation, decompression and positive social experiences. To learn more about how to ensure your dog's needs are being met, enrol in CPU Online
today and start your journey to partnership with the Partnership Foundations Program.
Once you've addressed the hierarchy of canine needs, your plan to overcome excessive barking requires three important steps: prevention, partnership games and real life experiences that give your dog positive feedback until the challenge has been overcome.
Prevention is often the hardest part of a behaviour support program but it's also the most important. Your dog can't learn to not bark, if they are continuously triggered to bark because that just keeps the cycle going. You have to stop the response cycle from continuing to give your dog a chance to change their automatic response in those situations. Maybe I'm being a bit dramatic, but I feel that it is impossible to stop excessive barking if your dog gets to continue to practice the problem barking each day. That is why prevention of barking while you are home and while you are away, are keys to successfully overcoming this.
Simply put, to help your dog stop excessive barking, you must prevent your dog from hearing the noises that trigger the barking anytime that you are not there to support your dog and give them information that will help them feel safe. Before you swear at me and say this is easier said than done, let me give you some tips on how you can prevent your dog from hearing the noises that trigger his barking.
- Close the blinds or use other window coverings
- Turn on a fan or the TV to drown out the sounds
- Use calming music or a white noise machine
- Block access to the noisiest parts of the house while you're gone
- If you live in an apartment, block access to the front door and roll a towel up and put it along the bottom of the door
- Prevent access to any rooms where your dog can hear neighbours
- Close doors to rooms that are noisy
- If your dog is crate trained, you can create a calming, safe place in the crate in a closed room
Understandably, it can be very challenging to block all of the noises but reducing them is still extremely beneficial and helpful to support your dog's success. You may need to keep your dog in one particular room such as a comfortable bedroom or in the middle of the house with all of the doors closed and entrances blocked off until your dog is no longer bothered by the noises. At that point, you'll be able to increase the access to other parts of the house when you are gone as long as your dog is able to rest comfortably even if there are unpredictable sounds outside.
If your dog has separation anxiety or isolation distress, this can create a lot of additional problems that are linked together in a negative feedback cycle. The stress of being alone can exacerbate barking at noises which can then increase the stress of being alone. It's important to understand how different behaviour is linked together and is often not a behaviour problem at all, but rather related to emotional dysregulation and sympathetic nervous system activation.
The best thing you can do for your dog is set them up to fall asleep while you are gone. Dogs need around 18 hours of sleep each day and puppies need even more so your routine needs to be planned to provide the right type of activity, decompression and need fulfillment that helps your dog naturally feel satisfied and ready to relax into a blissful state of rest and digest. Learn more about healthy daily activities for dogs and puppies here.
Partnership Games & The Bubble of Joy
Barking is simply communication. Your dog might be telling you that they are upset, worried, aroused, bored, that they heard a noise, they want to go for a walk or maybe that they need to go to the bathroom. As important as prevention is, learning to understand what your dog's communication is trying to tell you is equally as important.
Once you understand why your dog is barking and what noises trigger it, you can create a plan to work through them with learning games that create joy and cooperation through partnership and connection. Once you've introduced the learning games away from the noises to create a bubble of joy and connection around you, you can start to include the noises slowly, in a controlled manner to expand that bubble to include other elements. This must be done only at a pace that allows your dog to succeed. Dogs don't learn what not to do, they can only learn through success so ensure success by progressing carefully.
Most guardians want to push their dogs too hard and the problem with this is that barking, particularly barking that is rooted in fear or worry, is strongly linked to survival and when you push too hard, the negative emotions will just take over and then the learning brain is no longer accessible. Instead of pushing your dog to do really hard things over and over, focus on the joy and the easy to ensure your dog is feeling really safe and connected and then add something hard for a moment and then go back to easy.
For example, I love to play The Connection Game with beginner dogs. This is a pattern game that is fun, dynamic and offers predictability to dogs who might feel overwhelmed with new things. So I would master this game without any noises and make it really fund and rewarding for my dog for several sessions before introducing noises. Then when we are ready to expand our joy bubble, I would start by playing the game for a few seconds, then I would quietly play a noise for a few seconds that usually triggers my dog and continue to play the fun game even as the noise stops.
You can find some videos on YouTube with noises, ask a friend to help or make them yourself if your dog barks at noises of jingling keys or feet stepping. You really want to make sure that your dog doesn't become startled by the sounds so keep the volume low and increase only as your dog is ready for an increase in difficulty or intensity of the environmental factors.
Always remember to focus on creating joy and keeping the games easy and slowly introduce harder elements and then go back to an easy level to allow your dog time to integrate and process the information you are providing. Start by playing the partnership games in your house, adding in elements of difficulty as your dog is ready for them and then you can you can move the games outside of your house to work around outside noises. This will take time to reverse and for a new emotional response to be established so expect to do several controlled sessions before you see any improvements in response.
Real Life Positive Experiences
Research in human relationships suggests that for every single negative experience, five additional positive ones are required to counteract the first. This information suggests that the ratio of positive experiences needed to help your dog overcome a negative one is 5:1. No matter the species, the mammalian nervous system is similar across the board and this means that our dogs are wired with a similar nervous system to our own and this allows us to relate to them on an emotional level.
To provide real life, positive experiences, you must give your dog positive feedback for every noise, 100% of the time until the program graduates on to the maintenance phase. If you are not able to provide this feedback, the prevention and management tools listed above must be used to keep your dog from barking. Although it may feel like this is impossible, when you are prepared it really isn't that difficult at all.
Be prepared by having treats placed in bowls or containers around the house that make it easy to deliver food quickly and efficiently if your dog hears a noise and follow the steps of the Thank You Protocol.
The Thank You Protocol is a guide to help families work through, diminish and potentially even eliminate excessive, non-alert type barking without using aversive methods. This protocol teaches your dog that it is ok to alert with up to 3 barks and that you can take it from there.
In this simple yet effective approach you are honouring your dog, showing them that you will listen to their communication, help them express themselves in a healthy way and then allow them the time to return back to a relaxed state and not continue to worry about other things in the environment.
What Does the Protocol Look Like?
The entire sequence of the thank you protocol is “Thank you”, “1-2-3” and “all done.“
We start by saying “thank you” so that you can let your dog know that you’ve seen what they are barking at, you are validating their communication and expression and then you’ll let them know that you can take it from here. By simply acknowledging your dog’s barking, rather than yelling at them to stop, you are validating the importance of their way of communicating.
Dogs only know how to be dogs. They don’t know how to be humans. And dogs bark to communicate. Instead of trying to suppress a very natural way of communicating for dogs, work with it so they feel validated and then effectively teach them when it’s ok to stop.
The next part of the chain is to count to 3. I like to count the 1-2-3 out loud, but you could count in your head as well. So you will allow them to bark in this window but once you give the "all done" cue they will learn to stop barking.
I love to use the cue “all done” or “that’ll do” but truly your done cue could be anything that works for you. Just make sure that it doesn’t sound like any other cue you use so that your dog can completely understand what it means. Some other ideas are quiet, shhhhh, or even COOKIES. You want to spend a lot of time conditioning the "all done" cue so your dog really understands it.
You will need to do this after EVERY noise and commit to it for 2-3 weeks to really see a change in your dog's response but the hard work will pay off in the future when your dog is comfortable with noises and you don't have to give treats anymore. It will be very important to make sure your dog is not barking all day at the noises while you are gone though, otherwise this could undo the work you've done.
Troubleshooting Problems with the Protocol
What if my dog doesn't stop barking when I say “all done”? The first thing to note is this likely means that you need to practice step one of the protocol more. Spend a little more time there and make sure it is really fun and rewarding for your dog when you practice.
Has your dog had a particularly stimulating day, experienced stress or didn't get enough sleep? We all have our own unique capacity for coping with stress throughout the day. Ensure that your dog is set up for success by giving enough time for rest, relaxation, decompression, play, chewing and connection. When our needs aren't met, we tend to react more extremely to situations that are not necessarily threatening. Giving your dog more time spent in the green zone means that they will have greater capacity for coping with triggers.
Next, were you able to stay calm, gently stroke your dog’s shoulder and give your cue in a happy voice? Or did you perhaps fall into the trap of feeling frustrated, touching firmly and yelling your cue? Your dog can FEEL everything and if you are frustrated this will likely only lead to increased arousal in your dog and if you yell, you may as well be barking alongside them. Stay calm, happy and supportive. You want to HELP your dog learn to express their alert barking in a healthy way and not become frantic. To help your dog you need to stay a calm, cool and collected role model.
Barking can cause quite the rush of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in dogs. It’s really important to help them come back down out of that state of arousal so if your dog continues to bark after you’ve given the “all done” cue, they don’t get a reward and instead they need to be given some relaxing time to cool off. Close the blinds, put them in their crate or take your dog into another room so they can decompress. And now you can reflect on the situation and figure out what went wrong this time so you can practice and set up for success.
The more you reward the desired behaviour of no barking, the more you will get that as long as your dog understands what they are being rewarded for. So proper timing of your marker and reward is very important as well as repetition and avoiding aversive methods.
Other Ways to Help With Barking
Put Barking 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 (or a conditioned verbal marker) 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:
- Ring the doorbell.
- When your dog barks, "click" and give a piece of food.
- Repeat this 5 times without a cue.
- On the 6th repetition, before you ring the doorbell say, "speak."
- Ring the doorbell.
- Like before, click and give a treat when your dog barks.
- Repeat until your dog will bark on cue, without the doorbell.
- Fade out the doorbell by giving the cue and waiting up to about 10 seconds for a bark, if your dog does it, click and give a treat to that smarty-pants. If not, use the doorbell to elicit the bark for a few more repetitions until he gets it without it.
Once you have a reliable speak on cue, and you've practiced it in many different contexts, you can begin to teach a cue for your dog to be quiet, using the steps below. Don't forget your clicker and treats!
- Start by giving your dog their cue to, "speak."
- Ring the doorbell, or use another prompt as you did when teaching her to bark.
- When your dog barks, don't click!
- Say, "quiet" softly (don't yell it or make it sound like a reprimand).
- Hold a yummy treat up to so your dog can see it.
- When he stops barking because he sees the treat, click and then give that yummy treat. Good Dog!
- Repeat the whole process again about 5 more times.
- Now when you repeat the exercise, give your quiet cue, and praise lavishly for 3-5 seconds of quiet. Only then click and give a treat. Repeat and have fun!
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.
Make Barking Predict Food:
I love the partnership game called: Go Sniff. It's so useful in a variety of applications including positive trigger engagement exercises.
The game is simple and easy to execute. The first step is to teach that the, "Go Sniff" cue means to find treats on the floor or ground. You will simply say, "go sniff" and then scatter some treats or yummy food on the floor. Repeat this several times to make the connection between the cue and the treat scattering event.
Make sure to do this away from any triggers several times to create joy with the game, and then you can start to play it with a trigger such as ringing the doorbell. You can see me using this game with Rosa as my toddler rings the doorbell. Make sure that your helper goes slow to give your dog a break and not overload their nervous system to the point that recovery is very difficult.
Remember to focus on easy and then slowly expand the bubble of joy to include other elements such as noises. After your dog hears the noise and gets the food go back to easy (no noise) for a few moments and then repeat the process. Don't overdo this. A few repetitions is all that is needed with lots of pauses in between to ensure the arousal levels don't continue to climb.
(I'd also make sure that your "helper" will follow instructions and not ring the bell too many times when you're not ready...haha...)
A Final Note
Being a loving leader means that you listen to your dog so in the future, if your dog hears an unusual noise and looks alarmed or alert, let your dog know that you hear them and are there to support them. Tell your dog you heard the noise as well by saying, "thank you" in a calm and reassuring voice and soften your facial tone to let your dog know that they are safe and there's nothing to worry about.
When you stay calm and regulated in these situations, overtime noises will predict you feeling calm and relaxed which will also help your dog to feel safe and calm when hearing noises in the future. If you become stressed out because your dog is barking, they don't understand why you're upset and they don't associate your feeling with the behaviour that they just did. All the understand is that your face is tense and. that means you are stressed and not open for connection which must mean there is a threat causing you concern.
Remain aware of your own emotional state as you interact with your dog. It's remarkable how much our dogs pick up from our body language when we aren't even aware of ourselves. In order for your dog to feel safe and calm, their caregiver must show them that they can feel safe and calm. It takes practice to change the response but it can be done. Hold onto hope and feel the love you have for your dog, then commit to creating a space that will allow them to succeed.