Curing Problem Barking Without a Bark Collar

I cringe every time I see a dog wearing a barking collar, particularly the type that delivers a painful shock to a dog’s neck. These collars are stronger than many people think. When I put a standard Petsafe bark collar around my own neck and made a barking noise to trigger it, the shock I received was strong enough to make my knees buckle momentarily. It felt like a baseball bat to the throat. While shock collars are perhaps better than a dog losing its home due to problem barking, these painful collars should be used only as a last result. Most habitually barking dogs can become good neighbors using a combination of enrichment, positive reinforcement training, and management of their environment, without ever subjecting the dog to a shock and to the unpleasant potential side effects of punishment, which include fear and aggression.

Honestly Evaluate Your Involvement in the Problem

The first step in treating problem barking is to determine what the owner is doing that contributes to the behavior. No dog is born a habitual barker; lifestyle, environment, and lack of training combine with breed traits and individual personality to create a barking problem.

If you shout at your dog for barking, you are actually reinforcing barking. The dog barks, and immediately the human sticks their head out of the house and barks, too! That means there must really be something to bark about, right?

You may also be contributing to your dog’s barking by leaving him outside unsupervised for too long, by failing to provide her with adequate exercise, or by permitting a dog to live in an unstructured environment without consistent routines and boundaries. Evaluate your participation in the problem honestly. All owners make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes create a behavior problem. It’s your duty as a good owner to own up to your weaknesses and make steps to change them before the problem threatens the stability of your dog’s home.

Make Changes

After you’ve been honest with yourself about your role in creating a problem, the next step is to make changes in your daily routine in order to fix these problems. Every dog, regardless of breed or size, needs daily mental and physical exercise. For a Chihuahua, a stroll around the block might be enough exercise; for a Border Collie, hours of walking may not be enough. If your dog has a high energy level, review my exercise recommendations for high energy dogs here. Swimming, cycling, canine sports, obedience training, and playdates may help you provide adequate exercise to your dog. Even dogs whose outdoor exercise must be limited, like French Bulldogs in the summer months, can benefit from several short obedience training sessions every day and indoor games like hide-and-seek. Forty-five minutes of exercise should be the minimum for every dog, every day.

Another change that can be made is in the time spent outdoors. If your dog barks primarily while in the yard, limit his time outdoors while unsupervised. Crate-train your dog rather than leaving him outdoors while you’re at work; with adequate exercise while you’re home, he will be content to spend time with a special chew toy in his crate while you’re away. Don’t let him out alone during times of day when he is more prone to barking, like when the mailman comes, or at night if stray dogs and cats wander the neighborhood.

In addition, make sure that your dog is entertained anytime you’re not directly interacting with him. Every room where your dog spends a significant amount of time should contain dog toys, and these toys should be rotated regularly to keep your dog interested. If you walk into a room where your dog spends time and see fewer than three toys, it’s time for a shopping trip. Focus on toys that have long-term entertainment value, like Kong toys, which can be stuffed with peanut butter, biscuits, or even frozen canned dog food to keep dogs busy all day.

Train Incompatible Behaviors

When you’ve addressed any deficiencies in your dog’s exercise level and environment, it’s time to attack the barking head-on. The best way to change a barking habit is to put a quiet habit in its place. If you know that your dog barks frantically every time someone rings the doorbell, enlist a friend’s help. Have your friend walk up to the door, and as the stranger approaches, immediately offer your dog her favorite treat, in a quiet area like her crate or bed. Keep the treats coming constantly as your friend walks up to the door. When she walks away, the treats stop, and if your dog barks, the treats stop.

After several repetitions without the doorbell, have your friend ring the bell. Your dog will likely bark; stop the treats and sit quietly ignoring the behavior. As soon as you notice any pause in the barking, praise your dog enthusiastically and return to giving her treats. Reward every pause. Repeat until your friend can ring the doorbell over and over, and your dog will sit next to you quietly chowing down on a favorite snack.

The same approach can be taken with all types of problem barking. Lying on a mat eating treats is not something a dog can do while barking at the door. Whispering or mumbling quietly is not something a dog can do while barking loudly. Lying quietly at your feet with a Kong toy is not compatible with yapping out of boredom. Discover and train behaviors incompatible with the problem barking displayed by your dog, and use good management practices to keep problems from being reinforced while you’re out of the house.

If You’re Not Making Progress…

If after a number of weeks of proper exercise, management, and training incompatible behaviors does not improve your dog’s barking problem, it’s time to call in a professional. Seek a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. You can find a behaviorist through the Animal Behavior Society. These trained professionals have graduate degrees in Animal Behavior, and have in most cases many years of experience in solving behavior problems. An Animal Behaviorist is not a trainer. He or she may refer you for obedience training classes, but a Behaviorist specializes in problem solving.

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7 Responses

  1. Sharon Walker
    | Reply

    I have been agonizing about purchasing a collar for my Golden Retreiver. I have had Nellie for two years. She was a rescue dog who’s owner could not keep her any longer (she was bred at least once) so he dropped her off at a dog rescue organization. She spent about two months in a nice hope with a young couple and their golden before I adopted her. To my knowledge she only lived in the city prior to me adopting her but we live in the country and have 6 acres of land. Across the road from our home is a horse ranch. Sometimes there are 5 or 6 horses in view of our house. Nellie goes crazy barking at them. She even broke loose once and went over to the “white” horse (the one she likes to bark at most) and stood in front of him and barked. He is gentle and simply watched her antics and chewed grass. I brought her back home and now keep her on leash or on the patio area to prevent her from running over there, but she sees then an barks and barks. Your column makes sense and I hate the thought of hurting her in any way, but I am getting frustrated as the barking seems to be becoming worse even indoors. Help.

  2. Jelena
    | Reply

    Hi Sharon,

    First, good on you for rescuing, and don’t feel badly that she is barking! Most dogs when introduced to horses will react with excitement.

    I have two dogs and a horse, and even my older rescue dog, Steiner, who is now so well-behaved that I don’t think I’ve put a leash on him in the last six months, barked at the horses when he first met them. Dogs that aren’t exposed to horses as puppies, or even dogs like my pup, Gus, who were exposed to horses early but spent several months without seeing a horse, tend to bark at them.

    So, how to fix it? The most important thing is to set your dog up for success. You can’t train “be quiet” while a dog is barking– you have to train “be quiet” while she’s in a situation where she can relax and learn. Do you have a backyard where she can do her toileting out of view of the horses while you’re working on training? Training takes time, and the less she’s set up to become agitated and bark during training, the more quickly she’ll learn.

    Start by training well within her comfort zone in a place like the bedroom where she is relaxed and quiet. Get a special rug or mat, and teach her to lie on it, starting with two or three seconds before getting a click and a treat, and working up over a period of several days to lying still for five minutes at a time, with a few clicks and treats during that period (make sure you train a release cue, so that just the click and treat don’t release her– otherwise you won’t be able to reward her during a stay, only after). When she can reliably stay on her mat for five minutes, start giving her a special chew that she gets ONLY on the mat. Bully sticks, beef tendons, stuffed Kongs, and other really tasty long-lasting chews work well for this. If you can’t get a treat away from her once you’ve given it, back up and train “give” by trading low-value items for higher ones– I’ll blog about that soon.

    Okay, so now you’ve got a dog who will lie quietly on a mat for five minutes, and who knows that she gets both tasty treats AND a special chew when she’s on her mat. By the way, the mat needs to be out of her sight when not in use– a cue that she sees constantly isn’t a cue anymore. Get something flat so you can roll it up and stuff it in the closet.

    Now, you can start working on the barking. Take her right to the edge of her comfort zone (but still not to where she always barks), maybe near the front door, and lay the mat there. Back up a few steps to make sure she’s set up for success– ask first for a 30 second stay by the door. Build up, over a few days if necessary, to the same solid five minute stay-and-chew that you had in the previous place. Most dogs will get there in a day or two, but some excitable dogs take almost as long to train in every new location as they did in the first one.

    When you get to a reliable five minute down-stay with her special chew on the mat at the edge of her comfort zone, open the door. Don’t take her outside yet, but position the mat so, while lying on it, she can see out the door. This is the tricky part, so exercising her first is a good idea, to keep her brain focused– and feed a light breakfast, so she’s interested in treats. As soon as you see signs that she’s excited by the horses, cue her down stay, but dial up the reinforcement rate to a click and treat every couple of seconds. Make sure she’s so rewarded for every glance away from the horses that she wants nothing to do with them and is busy staring at you for treats. It’ll probably take a few days where she can see the horses to build your down-stay up to five minutes again and lower your reinforcement rate to a click and treat every 20-30 seconds, but take the time– don’t push it.

    When she’s really, really reliable within sight of the door, take the mat into the threshold. Same thing. Super high reinforcement rate at first, keep sessions short (10 minutes is plenty of training time!), and build slowly to a reliable five minute down-stay with her mat and chew.

    Then, of course, the final steps are to put the quiet, relaxed downstay on the porch, then in the front yard, in the areas where she is usually hyperactively barking when she sees the horses. Once you can get a five minute down-stay on her mat in the same spot she used to bark frantically, the mat has become its own cue– a cue to be calm.

    Continue to reinforce every quiet step as you walk, on leash, outside to her mat every day. Cue a down-stay on her mat with her chew for five relaxed minutes (on leash at first, off only when you really trust her) before allowing her to explore on her own. The stay and the mat and chew are reminders that the outdoors is a calm, quiet zone.

    Reinforce eye contact on a “watch me!” cue, and you can even click and treat for interest in things other than the horses. Pee on a bush? Click and treat! Sniffing a rock? Click and treat! Reinforce her for being a calm dog, and if you have a setback and she barks at the horses, quietly and calmly take her inside and cue a down-stay on the mat in a safe zone where she is always relaxed. After a few minutes of chewing, try again, and make your rate of reinforcement higher for quiet and attention on you in the area where she barked.

    If you don’t feel comfortable training on your own, or if you seem to be hitting a lot of barriers and becoming frustrated and confused, call a professional– but not the type that teaches classes at her own facility. Try for an Applied Animal Behaviorist, or if there are none in your area, ask local dog clubs and your veterinarian to refer you to a trainer who will come to your home and who specializes in using positive reinforcement to solve behavior problems.

    Good luck!!! And, feel free to ask if you have more questions. Comments email themselves to me automatically, so I’ll know if you leave a comment on any post.


  3. sara
    | Reply

    I have a dog that was doomed for destruction due to fear aggression towards children, attacking ALL dogs, and barking at the wind, the moon, the stars and anything that moved. After thousands of dollars on purely positive reinforcement training and agility training I had to go with a pinch collar AND a bark collar. My dog can now go to the park, walk on the beach, people can come to our home and he is so happy! Some punishment is not always a bad thing…that is why we ground our children! For dogs punishment includes the thing THEIR mother used…their neck! So I think having a happy dog that gets to be part of our family on ALL occasions is better than one who sits on the mat and eats treats and STILL can’t be taken to the park.

  4. Jelena Woehr
    | Reply

    Hi Sara,

    As I said in the first paragraph of this post, a shock collar may well be better than a dog losing its home due to problem behaviors; however, no matter how good the results are, pinch and shock collars still are punitive and cause pain in order to get those results, meaning that unlike positive reinforcement, this training tool can have side effects such as fear, aggression, and interference with the learning process. Nonetheless, painful and punitive methods do deliver results for some dogs when used correctly and within reasonable limits.

    For many years people used compulsion training (a fancy name for punishment) to produce results, and yes, most dogs were able to learn through these methods. Similarly, for many years, schools used painful and punitive methods to discipline children, and most children were able to continue learning through these methods. I choose positive reinforcement with my animals, and encourage others to do so, because when applied correctly, the methods I endorse can produce the same results as punitive methods, without the same risk of side effects and trauma to the animal.

    I am sorry to hear that you were fleeced for thousands of dollars by trainers unable to produce results with your animal. Not every positive reinforcement trainer is skilled in applying these methods. In the clicker training world, there has been much discussion of the distinction between a “clicker user” and a “clicker trainer.” The first uses a clicker as a training tool; the second also uses a clicker as a training tool, but in addition, has researched and understands the science and art behind clicker training, keeps up to date on the latest developments, practices clicking with many animals as often as possible, accepts criticism of her technique, is continually seeking to improve, and applies the science of operant conditioning to all interactions with animals, whether a clicker is in her hand or not.

    It is my opinion that half or more of professional dog trainers are skilled at training obedience but not qualified to work with an animal with severe behavioral problems. Obedience and problem-solving are connected, but definitely not the same thing. I always recommend that a person dealing with behavioral problems in their pet contact an Animal Behaviorist rather than a trainer, because this reduces the chances of ending up with a trainer who will produce a dog that knows how to perform certain behaviors, in certain situations and environments, but still shows the same problems at home that he did on the first day of class. I wouldn’t take a child acting out violently to a teacher for help with that particular issue (though a good teacher is essential for children)– I’d take him to a child psychologist and to a doctor. Different pet professionals have different areas of expertise, and of course there are the con artists who hang up a shingle saying “dog trainer” but don’t have ANY area of expertise!

    A very skilled trainer who uses punishment is almost always more likely to produce results than an unskilled or inexperienced trainer using positive reinforcement. However, I would always choose a very skilled trainer who uses positive reinforcement over a trainer with the same skill level who uses punishment. There is no one-size-fits-all method of dog training, and as a last resort (which sounds like your situation, though I suspect the trainers who first worked with your dog were among the group better at obedience training than problem solving), punishment should be in a good trainer or behaviorist’s training toolbox. However, I would not recommend that any owner use punishment as their first recourse when a dog has a problem.

    For every story about a dog with severe problems trained successfully with punitive methods, there are similar stories about dogs with severe problems trained successfully with positive methods. In the end, the most important thing of all is a happy, behaviorally healthy dog; however, for the vast majority of dogs, this can be attained through the skillful and correct use of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning, and positive methods are less likely to cause harm to the dog or to the owner.

  5. HART (1-800-HART)
    | Reply

    RT @aplusk: what is the most animal friendly way to get a dog to stop barking? /// how to cure problem barking @PetLvr

  6. Misty
    | Reply

    I totally agree with you Jelena.

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