Dr Felicity’s Topics: Barking Mad?
TRAINING TIP: REWARDING QUIET
I have a dog that barks – Bruce. He barks so much that I have to keep him inside most of the time. He barks at birds, he barks if a car on the main road passes our driveway a little bit too slowly. He barks if our big, silent dog is looking over the fence – just in case there is actually something there that’s worth barking at. Bruce is slowly driving us mad. Telling him, or sometimes yelling at him, to stop isn’t fair on him and quite frankly just isn’t working. Sound familiar?
I have discussed Bruce’s behaviour with several other veterinary professionals and the consensus is that barking behaviour cases are challenging and can take a long time to correct. Usually, the first step is identifying triggers. Triggers, however, often start as one thing but then the baking becomes unwittingly reinforced, often by the owner, and the behaviour becomes more generalised. I think this applies in Bruce’s case because he never used to bark excessively until Scrap started barking at hovering birds of prey. The birds started doing laps of the paddock near our house after the grass was cut one year and the barking began. Scrap has a very strong prey drive and directs much of her energy towards ferreting out snakes and mice. Her energy influences Bruce, but his main aim in life is to protect his family so he directs his energy differently in the form of “alert” barking.
I have considered whether there is a compulsive (psychological) element to Bruce’s behaviour but if I take him to work he will sit quietly in a cage all day, look adorable and just wag his tail furiously whenever I walk past him. Given his behaviour is completely different when he is not at home I suspect a strong learned component with the barking, as opposed to a compulsive behaviour. This makes some sense to me because Scrap eventually lost interest in the birds but Bruce still barks at them, perhaps now having learned that they are worth barking at. He will actually bark at anything in a tree that he thinks shouldn’t be there. I have even caught him barking at seasonal fruit! He now also barks at any time that he perceives a disturbance however small, either heard or seen.
It has been suggested that the barking may be a form of self-soothing behaviour that Bruce has learned because there is something in our outside environment at home that stresses him. I think stress could be a large part of the problem because Bruce definitely wants to alert us whenever he senses a potential threat. He also does not take kindly to some visitors. The trouble is, removing triggers or attempting behaviour modification around triggers for Bruce is almost impossible given the barking has become so generalised. It is very possible that this reflects a dog who always feels stressed by his environment. I may have reinforced the barking behaviour with negative attention by telling him “no!” because the aim of his barking is possibly simply to get a response from his master. Whether the response is positive or negative could be irrelevant to him!
If the barking is a self-soothing behaviour with a strong motivation to bark then addressing triggers is unlikely to work. I’m thinking about trying something completely different. I recently learned of a training technique that just might work. It’s all about rewarding QUIET.
This training technique is counter-intuitive to me because the first step is to teach your dog to bark on command! Teaching a dog a new command involves reward so how does this work? The idea is that you then also teach them to be quiet on command, rewarding the bark minimally and rewarding the quiet with a big chewy reward. Once there is quiet, you give the chewy reward after just a few seconds. Over time, gradually increase the period of silence that is required to earn the treat. This technique is supposed to put emphasis on rewarding the quiet behaviour rather than punishing the barking. I feel like this could really work with Bruce because punishing an undesirable behaviour often causes stressed dogs to be more stressed and rarely works well. If stress is part of the problem then it makes sense to me that a reward method is likely to be much more successful. I’m going to give it a go!