Any behavioral treatment program for dogs must be based on the type of problem, your household’s needs and schedules, the immediacy of the situation, and the type and level of control that you require. A good behavioral history is important for determining the cause of the problem behavior, the motivation, and the reinforcing stimuli for the barking behavior.
Treatment plans need to meet some of the following conditions:
- Ensure that your dog is not being rewarded inadvertently. Some owners, in an attempt to calm their dogs, will actually encourage the barking by giving attention, play, food, or affection while the dog is barking.
- Ensure that your response is not aggravating the problem. For example, yelling at a dog that is barking because of anxiety or because it is protecting its territory (home and grounds) is only likely to increase the dog’s anxiety.
Limit Motivation for Dog Barking
Sometimes the home environment can be modified so that the dog is sheltered from the stimuli (sounds and sights) that cause barking. Exposure might be minimized by confining the dog to a crate (if the dog has been crate trained this will be easier to implement), or confined to a room away from highly trafficked areas like doors and windows. Windows might be covered so that the dog cannot see outside, and privacy fencing may be an option for dogs that are allowed time outdoors (such as in a yard).
Dogs that bark when left alone outdoors may need to be kept indoors except when the owner is able to supervise. Trigger sounds, such as doorbells or telephones, that have become a part of the dog’s ingrained reaction should be changed or altered so that they are not provoking a response.
Using Rewards for Dog Training
Until an effective reward based training program is begun, it is very unlikely that the dog will learn to quiet down on command. Begin by increasing exercise and play, along with crate and confinement training. Halter training and obedience classes may also need to be implemented before bark control training can begin, particularly if your dog is well past puppy age and has become a habitual barker.
Once you have sufficient control and the dog responds to obedience commands and handling, it should be relatively simple to train your dog to stop barking on command. Treatment plans include rewards and praise, distraction, halter and leash training, and in some cases, prescription drug treatment.
Regardless of the plan, rewards, usually in the form of a treat, should be given immediately after the barking stops, so that the dog begins to associate quiet behavior with rewards and praise. As the treat is being given, use the command word you have chosen for “quiet.” The command word may even be “quiet,” but mainly, keep the word simple and use it consistently. It is important for the dog to associate SILENCE with the command being used.
Over time, the plan should be shaped so that the dog is required to stay quiet for progressively longer times before the reward and praise are given. Your final goal is to train your dog to quiet down without receiving a treat, though you will always give praise. Getting to that point may take some time.
Breaking the Dog’s Motivation to Bark at Stimuli
Once you have sufficient control by using the quiet command and reward plan - the dog is consistently obeying the command – the next step is to begin a re-training program by placing the dog in the presence of the motivating stimuli (people, other dogs, sounds) that lead to barking.
These encounters should be controlled by you. Ask a friend to stand in for the people stimuli, a friend with a dog to stand in for dogs (close to the property, outside a window, etc.), a family member or friend to ring the doorbell/knock on the door.
Training with a head halter and leash can be effective for implementing this plan safely. The stimulus should first be presented to the dog from a distance (e.g., children riding bicycles on the street while the dog is kept on the porch), while the dog is being given a quiet or sit-stay command by you. Although the halter and leash is generally all that is required to control the dog and achieve the appropriate response, you can also use it in conjunction with distraction.
This plan uses a device such as an ultrasonic trainer or shake can (a can filled with coins or other noise making objects) to distract the dog, to take attention away from the stimuli, breaking the habitual response. Do this every time the dog focuses on the stimuli. As the dog responds less frequently to the stimuli, continue to repeat the sessions, with progressively more intense stimuli (e.g., bringing the stimuli closer to home). This type of training is effective, but progress can be slow and time consuming. Much patience and persistence must be given to this project.
Medical Treatment for Dog Barking
Dogs that are barking for other reasons, such as from fear, separation anxiety, or in association with compulsive disorders, will require medical treatment for the underlying problem. You will need to see a veterinarian, who may prescribe a dog safe anti-anxiety drug. A veterinarian who specializes in behavioral issues can help to get to the root of the problem and help you to develop a behavior modification plan that will at least mitigate the problem, if not resolve it.
Some people have used surgery to resolve their dogs’ barking. Surgical debarking is a drastic and often permanent method for eliminating barking. Varying degrees of vocalization may return as the surgical site heals and scars, however, devocalization does not address the underlying motivation for the barking and is unlikely to reduce the intensity or frequency of the barking itself. Devocalization is therefore not recommended, except in cases where the owners are confronted with the need to relinquish their dog if vocalization cannot be resolved. In these cases the risks and humane issues will need to be weighed against all other possible options.