I love it when my dogs bark as someone drives up to the farm, and I’m not alone in appreciating being alerted by a dog. Masai villagers keep dogs, they told me, because they bark when lions try to break through the thorn bush barrier to kill their cattle. Tulip, our Great Pyrenees in years past, began low, deep barking whenever she heard coyotes. In addition, her barks saved her own life one cold and snowy night–she would have died if she hadn’t barked at just the right time to help us locate her, trapped under a log in the woods.
In other words, barking is good. It’s a wonderful way of communicating, from alerting us to visitors, to signaling “help!”, to intimating individuals with dangerous intents. So yup, barking is great. Until it’s not.
Few people have a problem with a dog barking a few times. It’s how to stop the barking once one has been alerted or warned that is the challenge. This must be the derivation of one of my favorite book titles ever: HELP! I’m Barking and I Can’t be Quiet, by Daniel Estep and Suzanne Hetts of Animal Behavior Associates. Of course, it’s not the dogs who are bothered by continuous barking. It’s us. When I recently asked blog readers what they’d like to talk about, “problem barking” was number one on the list.
Aware that too much barking is a problem for many of us, I thought it would be interesting to review what a range of experts say about the issue. I delved into all the books in my library that have sections on barking. Initially I was planning to review everyone’s advice but quickly realized that I could spend many hours doing so, and most everyone’s advice came down to a few suggestions, most of them very general. I’ll just summarize by saying I was a tad surprised at how little detail there actually is on teaching dogs to stop barking–lots of advice was so general that I doubt any novice training could use it effectively. But then, stopping a dog from barking isn’t easy. If it was, I suspect I wouldn’t have gotten so many requests to address it.
It makes sense that “barking” is a tricky issue because first, there are so many different types and contexts that elicit it. From “Yo, put my dinner bowl down already” to “Oh No No No, the UPS monster is walking up the driveway,” the motivations for barking are numerous and varied.
I thought it would be helpful to begin thinking about how to deal with problem barking with advice from one of my all-time favorite classics, Karen Pryor’s, Don’t Shoot the Dog. With a tip of the hat to Ms. Pryor, here are her 8 ways to deal with any problem behavior:
Method 1: Shoot the Dog. Effective, but a bit draconian. In our case, a riff on this method would be exchanging your dog(s) for one or several Basenji’s. Except, Basenji’s still vocalize and the sounds they make are, well, weird. Or you could get a cat, a lizard or a hedgehog. Individuals of these species are easy to teach to stop barking, because they never start.
Method 2: Punishment. As Ms. Pryor reminds us, (positive) punishment is a very common and human response, along with being ineffective and the least benevolent way to handle the problem. In my experience, yelling is probably the most oft-employed and the least effective method employed by owners when dogs won’t stop barking. I describe yelling at your dog to stop barking as doing little but barking back. Since barking is contagious, how would this cause your dog to stop? I found that it helps Willie and Maggie to stop barking when I join them at the window, look in the same direction as they and very quietly say “Yes, I see that. Thank You.” That is literally the opposite of yelling at dogs to stop them from barking, and I swear it seems to help them settle down.
Other popular punishments include spraying with water or “bark collars” that shock the dog when it barks, either automatically or because the owner hit the button. I am not a fan of “bark collars,” and that is putting it mildly. (I’ll leave it at that for now; I started writing more and realized it needs an entire blog. But see Turid Rugaas’s book Barking: The Sound of a Language for an important reminder that barking is an important part of canine behavior.) With rare exceptions, Method 2 is a lousy one. Moving on.
Method 3: Negative reinforcement. As example of this would be to stop yelling when your dog finally becomes quiet. You’ve taken something away (your yelling) to increase the frequency of your dog being quiet. Except, see Method 2 for a reminder that yelling is basically barking and accomplishes little but a sore throat for you. Dogs can seemingly bark forever without getting tired, but yelling is no fun for most of us. Moving on. . .
Method 4: Extinction, or letting the behavior go away by itself because it is never reinforced. This actually can be an effective method for many problem behaviors. It’s a tricky one with barking or whining however, because dogs seem to be able to do this for eons and eons with barely a pause. But, it could be effective for dogs who have learned to bark to get your attention. Just be prepared for the “extinction burst” when they bark five times as long before finally giving up.
Method 5: Train an incompatible behavior. This is one of my favorite methods of influencing behavior. I’ve trained Willie and Maggie to stop barking when visitors come by teaching “Enough,” which to Willie, probably, means “move away from the window, come over to Trisha.” I’m not even sure he equates it with “no barking” (it’s hard to teach a negative after all–ie, “Don’t think about red!”). But I don’t care, because all I care about is the behavior. I say “Enough,” he stops barking, although I sometimes have to work to keep him from starting again. I deal with that by asking Willie to go pick up a toy after he gets a treat. Harder to bark with a toy in your mouth…
Barking appears to be almost involuntary for some dogs in some contexts (note I said “almost”) and I think it’s up to us to help them find ways to do something besides barking. This is, of course, especially tricky with barking because dogs can do any number of things while still barking. Sheila Booth in Purely Positive Training suggests teaching puppies “Quiet” by putting a tab of peanut butter on the roof of their mouth in association with the word. I’ve never tried this but it sounds like it has potential: Dogs can’t bark when they are sucking on peanut butter. But be careful that it doesn’t contain Xylitol and don’t use too much. Anyone tried it?
Method 6: Put the behavior on cue (and then never ask for it). I’ve suggested this to several clients, and did it myself with one of my Border Collies years ago who was a problem barker. Also a possibility, but it does feel like going backwards to some people, and can be a bit harder than it sounds.
Method 7: Shape the Absence, or reinforce “anything and everything” that is not the undesired behavior. I’ve never tried this method with barking, but can imagine it working in some contexts. Anyone want to jump in here?
Method 8: Change the motivation. This might be described as another way of using classical conditioning to change an animal’s interior motivation or emotional state as a way of changing external behavior. A Functional Analysis perspective on this is to change the Antecedent conditions in the ABC formula of Antecedent, Behavior, & Consequence. (See Dr. Susan Friedman in her Living and Learning with Animals course and her many seminars and workshops for an in depth analysis of using clear and humane science-based methods to influence behavior. I’d advise moving heaven and earth to attend as many as you can.)
I’d guess that I’ve used this and Method #5 more than any other two, both in my career as a behaviorist and as a dog owner myself. In the case of barking, it works beautifully for dogs who are alarm barking because they are nervous about visitors. If visitors toss treats before entering, the dog begins to associate visitors with good things instead of threats, and the fearful barking is replaced by tail ways and silly grins. (See The Cautious Canine for details on how to do it.)
I trained “Enough” by first manipulating the environment or antecedent conditions to make success more likely. I simply loaded up with treats, walked to the door where visitors enter and knocked on it. Willie started barking, and as he did I said “Enough,” and moved a treat to his nose. And by that I mean one inch away from it, or less. When he focused on the treat, I used it to lure him away from the window just one step and then gave him the treat.This was all relatively easy, of course, because there was no real visitor and no other trigger for the barking than my knocking twice on the door.
That was step one; the next steps involved asking him to move further away from the window before getting a treat, or doing it when there was someone standing outside the window. I started with friends who wouldn’t mind standing there for longer than usual while we did the training. Each step was done one at a time, and gradually I began to put the elements together. I should say here that Willie still struggles not to bark when people are at the door; he does what I ask but then a bark will burst out of his mouth as if he belched. I actually feel for him, he clearly is trying, but I’m asking something very hard for him. That is part of why I help him by asking him to go get a toy. Nothing wrong with a little distraction.
I should add here that I also taught the BCs to run into a back room into their crates when visitors come. It was easy to teach, and it feels as though it is easier for the dogs to do than stand at the door and not bark. (Willie at least.) Just another example of teaching an incompatible behavior and changing the environment–they are much less likely to bark if they are standing at the window watching visitors get out of their car.)
It’s much easier for Maggie to stop barking when asked, but Tootsie has some barking issues too that we’ve basically ignored for a while. Writing about barking has motivated me to get working on polishing things up–so thank to all of you who asked me to write about it. I’ll keep you posted.
The last thing I want to say about barking to those of you who struggle with it is to first write down in detail exactly what barking bothers you, what elicits it and what you’d like your dog to do in its place. And please join in with your own experiences: What barking bothers you, what doesn’t? How have you handled it? What has worked best, or not worked at all?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: High summer here–Day lilies, raspberries, daisies, mosquitos, gnats, & Japanese beetles are all competing for attention.
We’ve had more rain recently (2.5 inches one evening), and I think I’ve learned the derivation of the old-time phrase “We’re in clover now.” It means “having a life of money and comfort,” but I never thought much about where it came from until the frequent rains turned our pastures into buffets of green, leafy white clover. We’ve never had so much good food for the sheep, and after many years of having to feed hay as early as July, it feels like we’ve won the lottery. If you lived in the country and relied on your one dairy cow, perhaps a pig or two and some sheep, being “in clover” would make you feel rich. We sure do.
You can see the clover blooming at the hooves of the lamb flock in the photo below. I snapped the picture because the second new ewe with lambs is now shedding, and has developed into her own version of “scraggly ewe,” albeit with even more style than Meryl Sheep. Any bets on how long it took that huge piece of wool/hair on her right to detach from her body? (Hint: She often stepped on it.)
I went through all the great ideas for new sheep names here and on Facebook, and here are my favorites: Hairietta, Gypsy Rose Ewe, Chenille, Anew Ewe and wait for it . . . Banana. Banana is just so ridiculous that it makes me laugh every time I think of it. But I think I’m going with Hairietta, just seems to fit her perfectly.
Meryl Sheep, by the way, is doing great. She’s all shed out, except for a tiny fluff of wool above her tail. She’s the one below on the left… looking somewhat like a two-headed ewe, but actually flanked by her two lambs, who are growing like weeds. By the way, the only thing growing faster than the lambs are the weeds, who are also growing like, uh, weeds.
Here’s a shot of the garden behind the house. Finally all the grunt work of spring and early summer is paying off.
I especially love the day lilies.
Hope things are good at your place too.