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.
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.