“OMG! He won’t stop barking at me!”
I hear this complaint all the time with handlers and students. There are many reasons that dogs will bark AT their handlers–they may be over excited, they may be frustrated, they may be alarm barking, or they may be demanding things (attention, food, toys). Figuring out the type of barking is important in coming up with an appropriate plan of attack in reducing the barking. I don’t think it’s a realistic goal to get a naturally vocal dog (like Rio) to stop barking entirely but I think it’s very realistic to reduce the barking and teaching the dog when to stop the barking. I wanted to focus on one barking issue that I have encountered a lot recently and that’s demand barking.
Demand barking really consists of a dog who has learned that barking at you gets them resources. If I bark at mom and dad, they will give me a treat, ask me to sit and THEN give me a treat, will let me outside, will let me inside, will give me attention, will play with me, or will throw the ball. These dogs may see that their handlers have treats/food/toys and will just bark and bark at them OR they may just bark at them to get attention (positive or negative attention).
It’s really easy for handlers to inadvertently create a very serious barking issue with their dogs. When a dog is barking at them, they will likely try to make it stop and that generally means giving the dog attention (at the very least) or some type of toy/food. Dogs often pick the most inconvenient times to bark at their handlers–like when the handler is on a business call *cough* so handlers are really motivated to make the noise stop. But these moments of weakness are like the dogs getting jackpot rewards from a slot machine. The machine may not pay out often (handlers may not cave into the barking often) but, when they do it’s AWESOME for the dog and they will keep doing the behavior because once in a while it pays out BIG.
So what’s a person to do?
Well, increasing mental and physical exercise and introducing some relaxation tools or training can be really helpful but what I like to do is to teach an alternative to the bark.
I want to give the dog another option that will get him/her what she/he wants. I want them to learn what WILL consistently get them the things they want and that behavior ISN’T barking. I like to use a default down as the barking alternative because it’s stationary and noticeable for handlers.
I initially start in a boring room and cue a down 4 or 5 times in a row and very heavily reinforce them for the down each and every time. After the fourth/fifth down, I just wait and see what the dog offers. They may sit, bark, go find a toy, etc… most will eventually down and when they do I heavily reinforce that down. This is likely where you will get an INCREASE in barking because it’s what used to work… barking used to get them what they want so they are going to try it, try it again, and try it one more time to make sure it isn’t going to work. So, don’t do this at 11:30pm next to a shared wall in your apartment. When the dog chooses to down, give him an absolute party. Whatever it is that the dog wants more than anything at the moment, lavish him with attention. Repeat the process.
If the pup doesn’t down, I’ll cue it a few more times and wait again–if he still doesn’t down on his own, I’ll change the environment to an even MORE boring room or give the dog more time to decide to down. As the dog starts throwing downs left and right without being cued, I take it to more distracting environments. I want this pup to see that DOWN is the key to getting treats, attention, toys, etc.
As the ‘down’ gets a long history of reinforcement, the dog will start using it more frequently as a way to get reinforcement (because we don’t CUE the down, it never goes into stimulus control and the dog will just keep trying it because it has a history of working). We want to start working in boring places and move on to more and more exciting places and in situations that are increasingly likely to cause the dog to demand bark (like standing in the kitchen near the fridge) as the dog is successful with the downs.
Besides building up the value for the ‘down,’ handlers need to COMMIT themselves to not reinforcing demand barking with any attention (positive or negative): No telling the demand barking dog to “SHUT UP!!!,” no asking for a sit, no throwing a toy. Just wait for them to offer the down that has now been very very heavily reinforced and then reward like crazy. Having a dog who ‘demand downs’ is way less annoying thana a demand barker! 🙂