One of the greatest challenges for dog guardians is preventing and managing barking and “how do I stop my dog from barking?” is one of the most common questions I get in my inbox.
There are many ideas, approaches and methods that are geared towards preventing, managing and stopping barking. A few of the problems with many of techniques discussed is that they end up suppressing the emotional aspect of barking, rather than helping a dog feel better and they often require use of aversive consequences which can be detrimental to the dogs well-being.
Research around suppressing emotions in humans has shown that this is linked to addiction and mental health disorders in humans and since dogs have the same nervous system that we do, we know that the same goes for our dog family members too. We have to let our dogs express themselves and help them when they are having a hard time.
If we don’t acknowledge the alert bark, we are not respecting our dog’s communication and emotions and if you suppress it through punishment, this could lead to other issues in the future.
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.
This protocol involves backchaining the sequence of cues, or in other words, you start at the end and work backwards to teach the full protocol. If you are a seasoned clicker trainer you have likely heard the term backchaining before, but if you're new it might not be something you are familiar with. This is a great technique for training more complex behaviour chains that involve several steps such as fetch and even go to place.
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.
Let's get started teaching this protocol.
How to Train the Thank You Protocol
It is very important to understand that the time to start teaching this protocol is NOT when your dog is frantically barking out the window. When they are in this state of mind they can’t think, focus or learn so the key to success will be to start introducing the last part of the sequence when they are already being quiet.
Step One - Train The Done Cue: Anytime and every time your dog is being quiet say your done cue, “all done” and then mark with your clicker or YES and give a treat. This would be especially important if you catch your dog sitting quietly at the window looking out but not barking.
I highly recommend catching this when it happens naturally, but also sometimes purposely sitting next to your dog by the window so that you can be ready for it and can reward a quiet gaze out the window. But also when your dog is just quietly looking at a person or sitting on the steps quietly. You’ll want to practice this in many different situations.
Most people want to train their dog what not to do, but we know that this is not enough information. Humans are the ones with an agenda for the dog but dogs can only learn from knowing what they should do! So it’s not JUST about no barking, it’s also about teaching them what they should do instead. To be prepared, have treats in containers around the house and by the windows so that you are ready to reward the quiet when it happens!
The done cue also means turn away from the thing you are barking at and return to or pay attention to me. So I like to add in a bit of movement to encourage my dog to come towards me for their reward. This will be really helpful later when you are out on a walk and your dog barks at something or someone.
To build on this step, you will watch for the moments of quiet or simply looking out the window, say your done cue and then take several steps running backwards to get your dog to turn away from the window and come to you for their reward.
This would look like this: Your dog is quietly looking out the window, you say “all done” and then when they look at you (because you’ve played this before so they know that cue means cookies), you will run backwards to get them to move away from the window (in the future this will move them away from the thing they are barking at) and then give them a reward. Wait 3-10 seconds before delivering the reward to make sure you are not giving it to them while they are barking, but when they are calm.
Practice, practice, practice to really establish a great understanding that the cue “all done” means turn away from what you are doing and return to me for a reward.
When you are confident you have taught this response then you are ready to start this protocol while your dog is engaged in barking. Don’t rush the process. Learning takes time, patience, effort and practice!
Step Two - The Protocol in Action:
- You hear your dog bark
- You calmly get up and quietly go over to your dog where they are and gently stroke their shoulder as you tell them “thank you” so that you can acknowledge their communication and let them know that you see it too. Eventually you will not have to get up and go over to them, but this will be critical in the initial stages of this protocol.
- Count out 1-2-3, take some deep breaths yourself if you’re feeling irritated by the barking and get ready to give your “all done” cue with love and cheerfulness
- Now say, “all done” and then run backwards towards another room where you have rewards ready and accessible.
- So if you have practiced the all done cue enough and your dog has an understanding of this, they will turn away from what they are paying attention to, and come to you for their reward.
- Make sure that when they do it, you are really happy and proud of them because our dogs feel everything, the good, the bad and the ugly. So if you are frustrated they will feel it even if you THINK you’re not showing it.
- Mark with your clicker or your YES when they turn away from whatever they were barking at and then reward them when they get to you.
- Now here is the important part: rather than just letting your dog go back to the window and bark again, prevent this by blocking their view of whatever made them bark and use management to keep them busy on another fun activity. This is important because you want “all done” to really end the barking behaviour and not just be a temporary distraction.
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 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 work with excessive barking:
- Teach your dog to speak on cue. Say what? You want me to teach them to bark MORE when I want them to bark less? Well yes…
- You can teach your dog to speak on cue and then also use the “all done” cue to end the barking. You’ll reward the quiet after 3-10 seconds of no barking.
- Put your dog's bark on cue, and then never cue it. This is a technique established by world renowned animal trainer, Karen Pryor.
- Prevention is KEY: closing the blinds, blocking arousing views, not leaving your dog unsupervised outdoors or tied up outside. Not allowing fence fighting or running by being outside with your dog on a longline until they are better equipped for being in the yard when it is distracting.
Why Do Dogs Bark?
Dog’s don’t bark to annoy you and they don’t bark without a reason. They bark:
- For attention or to get you to notice them.
- To express emotions such as fear, stress or anxiety.
- To express frustration or anger.
- To communicate to you and others.
- To alert you that they see or hear something
- Due to boredom, lack of guidance or understanding,
- Due to lack of human interaction or
- When a dog is put in a situation that they are not ready for
So really, barking, and behaviour in general, is just about communication. Listen, validate, support and teach your dog what they SHOULD do in that situation by being consistent, clear and calm.
Also as a last note, your dog’s daily habits can and will contribute to their overall capacity for coping with stress and adapting to change. So ensure your dog’s canine needs are being met, they are getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, providing them with enough enrichment that will enhance the quality of their life, the right amount of physical activity and spending a lot of time in the green zone of relaxation and calm.
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