Barking Back at Barking Dogs
Updated: May 18
Yesterday, I spent a good deal of time working outside in my yard. During this time, I repeatedly heard a neighbor yelling at his dog to stop barking. His yelling was frequent and varied, often escalating to a very strident level in order to get his dog to shut up, though it was always only temporary.
I don’t know what was triggering the dog’s barking, nor do I know the neighbor or the dog. What I do know, however, is that the yelling was not an effective strategy long-term. I say this because the yelling had to be repeated many times over the day.
But here’s the thing: in the moment, when a dog shuts up after we yell, the behavior of yelling is reinforced by the quiet that ensues, even if it doesn’t last for a long time. The science of learning is clear on this matter. Reinforced behaviors maintain or strengthen over time.
Towards the end of the day, a level of exhaustion developed in the man’s tone of voice. His yelling faded to angry muttering. The barking over the course of the day had taken its toll. I feel for him because I’m extremely sensitive to barking myself. It really jangles my nerves.
So what can we do about barking? What strategies work long-term?
The first step to resolving barking is to figure out WHY a particular dog is doing it. Differing triggers for barking require different strategies to resolve it. Here’s a brief overview to why a dog may bark:
Startle over novel stimuli
Frustration at not being able to access something desired
A way to alert about ‘trespassers’ on or near property
A fearful dog’s way of making a ‘scary thing’ go away
Once you know what’s triggering the barking, you can design a plan to address it. The most successful plans typically tackle barking from a variety of angles. Here are a few of those angles:
Adequate playtime and exercise – helps to address boredom, excess energy, frustration.
Enrichment – for example, food puzzles can keep a dog contentedly occupied rather than being hyper-vigilant about environmental stimuli that usually trigger barking. I wrote an article about enrichment which you can access here.
Training of alternative, replacement behaviors that make barking impossible – for example, a dog who learns to fetch a favorite plush toy when the doorbell rings will have a hard time barking with that in his mouth. A dog with a stellar come-when-called cannot run the fence line barking at neighbors.
Management – for example, blocking the dog’s view through a window where he typically parks himself to bark at stuff.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning – helps to build a dog’s confidence, reduce fearfulness or anxiety, change emotional response to whatever stimuli disturb the dog. In cases like these, it’s best to work with a professional trainer/behavior counselor to be sure you are designing and implementing these protocols precisely and effectively.
Confession: my rescue chihuahua mix, WildeBean, has developed a barking behavior at my front fence line when dogs walk by. It appears to be a fun sport to her, and the barrier of the fence likely exacerbates the behavior. She is dog-social when meeting dogs free in the house or yard. At the moment, I can count on easily interrupting the behavior with a COME cue, but as I carve out time in the nicer fall weather to address this, I'll begin counter-conditioning to change her emotional response to the passersby. Will keep you posted on progress!
Bottom line: it’s important to objectively assess whatever strategy you’re using to address barking. If you find yourself continuing to have to use it, without seeing a long-term reduction in barking, it’s time to dig deeper and find a more effective solution. Please seek the help of a professional trainer if you feel stuck or frustrated. We can help!
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, puppy matchmaking services, and pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies. She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120
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