At agility trials, dogs bark A LOT! During one trial I observed and I overheard how some of the trainers attempted to stop the barking.
Some trainers ignored the behavior, some yelled while others talked quietly to their dogs while they were barking. I overheard trainers saying that they used a can of pennies, citronella collars and shock collars to stop the barking. These are trainers who profess to be positive reinforcement trainers.
The thing I never heard any of the trainers say and never saw anyone do was to find out why the dog was barking. All the training techniques described above are techniques to stop the symptom of barking but they never address why the dog is barking.
If you had lung cancer It would not be acceptable for your doctor to only give you cough syrup to stop your cough. Anytime there is an unwanted behavior it is important to find the underlying cause or reason for the behavior. In some cases, an unwanted behavior can be the symptom of a medical problem. For example, if your dog who has been perfectly house trained starts having accidents in the house, he could have kidney problems or diabetes. No amount of training is going to stop this behavior unless you treat the medical problem.
Dogs bark for many reasons.
They bark for attention, if they are anxious or scared, they bark when they are excited or frustrated. You must pay attention to when your dog is barking so you can understand why they are doing it.
Once you determine the reason, you can help your dog stop barking. For example, if you look at or talk to your dog every time he barks, then you are teaching the dog to bark. Eye contact and talking to your dog can be very reinforcing to your dog- it is attention. If your dog is anxious when he barks, then consider using medications, preventing the anxiety and giving him something that distracts him from being anxious.
The steps to teach your dog to be quiet instead of barking are quite simple but are not easy.
First, you must be clear about why your dog is barking. This step is extremely important and can have many answers. If your dog is afraid of other dogs, people, bikes, motorcycles, etc., he may bark and lunge at them. If your dog barks when he is home alone, he could be experiencing separation anxiety. If your dog barks when he is doing something fun, he may bark out of excitement. A very common reason is to get attention. If your dog is barking for attention and you give it to him, you could be reinforcing the behavior (eye contact, whispers, yelling, laughing and many others can be a “reward”).
Once you have determined the reason(s) your dog barks, then you must try to prevent those situations from happening so your dog does not continue to practice the unwanted behavior (whether it is sitting or barking, your dog will “improve” the skill with repetition). This step can be tricky and you may need to be creative and use your imagination to create ways to prevent the barking from happening. For example, if you know that your dog barks at you when you sit at your desk, consider giving him a stuffed Kong or something to chew on while you work. This can help meet both of your needs- your need to work and his need for entertainment. If your dog barks when he is alone, you may need to put him into daycare or have someone stay with him until you can teach him to be comfortable alone.
Sometimes the prevention piece is all people need to help their dogs. However, in most cases, you need to teach your dog to do something other than barking. You may need to undergo a separation anxiety program, your dog may need medication to help ease the anxiety and/or you may need to teach your dog a new more appropriate behavior to do when he would want to bark. There are so many possibilities for this, you may consider working with a skilled positive, force-free trainer or behaviorist.
As you can see, punishing your dog for barking is not the answer. Punishment can make the barking worse and you are risking the chance that you will damage the bond between you and your dog.
Shannon has been a pet lover all her life and a dog trainer for over 20 years. She has spent her life observing, caring for and training animals of all kinds. She has worked in the Bird Department at Marine World Africa USA, and worked as an handler and trainer for an African Serval Cat at Safari West, a private zoo in Santa Rosa, California. She has participated in behavior studies including observations of bald eagles and addax antelope through the San Francisco Zoo and Safari West.
Her education includes a Biology Degree, specializing in Zoology from Sonoma State. She is a Registered Veterinary Technician, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (Knowledge Assessed), a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.
Shannon is currently serving as President for the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians.
Shannon’s dog training philosophy revolves around force free, positive reinforcement, however, her ultimate goal is for healthy happy relationship between pets and their people. Diet, exercise, environment and training all play a significant role in achieving this goal.
Shannon is currently the owner of Ventura Pet Wellness and Dog Training Center in Ventura, CA where she works with anxious and fearful dogs privately as well as teaching agility classes (Venturapetwellness.com). Shannon has also started a training website called Truly Force Free Animal Training (trulyforcefree.com).