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Barking

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Territorial Barking

One of a dog's main duties around the home is to bark and warn off any strangers and alert fellow pack members that an intruder is approaching. This function is very much appreciated by many owners and has prevented many a burglary. Having a dog in the house is as good, if not better, than having an electronic surveillance system. But problems arise when overly enthusiastic dogs continue to bark longer than is necessary to alert its owners of approaching persons.

The trick is to train the dog to stop barking once the warning has been acknowledged. For most dogs this is usually not too much of a problem. A "good dog" or "thank you" is sometimes all that is needed to acknowledge the dog's warning of a stranger's approach. It's good manners, too, to thank your dog for performing his duty. If barking persists following your acknowledgement and thanks, however, a "cease" command, like "stop it!" or "enough!" should be used afterwards to call an end to it.

Training the dog to the "stop it!" command should be performed using positive reinforcement. The reinforcement is provided when the dog has stopped barking for at least 3 seconds. You may have to wait for a while at first, but the dog will eventually get the message if the reward is sufficiently potent. Because you can't have visitors standing outside the door for 30–minutes, waiting to be let in, you should orchestrate training sessions using a volunteer visitor who has the time and patience to see you through the session.

Typical Sequence

  • Stranger approaches and rings the doorbell. Dog barks. Owner says, "Good dog, thank you."
  • Dog continues to bark. Owner says "Enough!"
  • Dog continues to bark. Owner remains motionless. Stranger waits.
  • Dog eventually stops. (They all do, eventually). Owner says, "Good boy!" and the dog is given a delicious food treat as a reward for stopping barking.
  • Stranger rings the bell again. This sequence is repeated until the dog is responding more quickly.

    Training session should always finish on a good note with the dog being rewarded for quiet behavior. The stranger then withdraws. This exercise should be repeated daily for several days until the dog stops barking quickly (less than 3 seconds) on command and remains quiet as the visitor enters the home.

    If all else fails, you may need to resort to a slightly more direct method. The preferred technique is using the Gentle Leader® head halter.

    First train the dog to wear the head halter without struggling. Fit the device and a 10-foot long training lead before a planned visit from a friend. Your dog will bark as the stranger approaches. Praise the dog for barking, and then issue the command "enough." If the dog continues to bark, apply gentle, steady upward traction to the training lead, which will cause the dog's nose to be elevated and will transmit pressure to the dog's muzzle and nape via the nose-band and neck strap, respectively. Maintain the tension until the dog relaxes and is quiet. Then release the tension and praise the dog for quiet behavior (even though you made it happen!).

    If you consistently silence the dog in this way by applying tension to the muzzle (via the head halter) and nape (via the neck strap), the dog will learn that it is hopeless to disobey the "enough" command. It learns that you inevitably intercede and take control of the situation using this powerful, yet gentle, training tool.

    Another technique, with or without the assistance of a head halter, involves counterconditioning your dog. As mentioned before, this means training him to do something incompatible with the behavior in question; in this case barking at the door or in the yard, after you have conceded that there actually is someone out there. You could, for example, train your dog to go to an out-of-the-way part of the house and relax whenever strangers appear and reward him (extremely well) for this behavior.

    Caveat: One problem most owners face when trying to train their dog not to bark at the door is that they try to manage too many things at once; controlling the dog, opening the door, greeting the stranger, and ushering in the stranger, all at the same time. For optimum success, you need to set up trial approaches from volunteer strangers and apply your concentration to handling your dog.

    Finally, the territorial dog that is motivated by fear is a slightly different situation. Although some of the above measures might help with such a dog, the chances of success are more limited. These dogs are actually anxious/fearful around strangers and may never settle down, even after the stranger has been welcomed. Such dogs need to be enrolled in a "total package" program in which they are not only controlled at the door but are also systematically desensitized to strangers, perhaps starting such an exercise on neutral territory at first.        

    Reactive Barking

    Some dogs don't just bark at approaching strangers - they bark at anything that moves or alters their environment: a passing car, a falling leaf, an icicle breaking off, and so on. Such dogs are the antithesis of the lazy old coonhound that takes everything in his stride: They are constantly on "red alert" for anything that might happen. This type of dog can be difficult to cohabit with, especially if you don't need that degree of protection. Highly reactive dogs take their self-defensive and family-guarding responsibilities way too far. Perhaps by nature, perhaps by nurture, these dogs trust no one and regard every environmental change as a threat.

    So, how do we persuade these dogs that their mission is pointless when each environmental disturbance eventually stops, thus reinforcing the behavior? The answer is that we can't. All you can do, with your veterinarian's help, is to address any medical contributions to such hyper-reactivity, provide adequate exercise, ensure an appropriate diet, and attempt to exercise the best physical control possible. This type of treatment is not too far removed from the program to control territorial barking; only its application may need to be even more intense.

    If medical problems like hypothyroidism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) underlie the problem, the fix may be a quick one. If not, then you have your work cut out. Above all, it is important to enrich the lives of such reactive barkers so that they understand what is, and what is not, worth barking about. The innate drive for dogs to bark plus our own mismanagement can produce a dog whose behavior is so ingrained that it takes medication (in addition to behavior modification therapy) to effect even a marginal improvement. It's far better to act early to prevent such a progression.


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