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Inappropriate barking can be a tricky behavior to control. Barking is an important form of communication, so you should expect the behavior to occur from time to time, and use humane, workable training solutions should it become excessive.
Why dogs bark
Dogs were our first effective alarm system. They have been protecting territory since their domestication began. Dogs continue to guard homes, crops, and livestock all over the world from intruders and predators, especially dogs that have been bred for that specific purpose, such as Great Pyrenees or German Shepherds. Expect to see some protective behavior even in the most socialized of these breeds, including barking when strangers are at the door or on your property.
If your dog barks at the doorbell, let her alert you with four or five barks before thanking her and taking over. Allowing your dog to sound the alarm and bark a few times when someone is at the door won’t contribute to excessive barking, but it will give your dog an important job to do and help make your home a little safer.
The modern dog tends to lead a relatively unstimulating life in the domestic home with nothing more to do than eat, sleep on the couch, and go for the occasional walk. Dogs specifically bred to work can find domestic life boring; in most cases, barking relieves that boredom.
Barking is one of a dog’s best ways of communicating her emotions both to humans and to other dogs. While it might be irritating at times, if you pay attention to why your dog is barking, you’ll gain valuable information about her internal state, and it will be easier to reduce the behavior. Even though dogs bark in excitement when anxious, to get attention, or to sound the alarm, the best prescription for any barking issue — whatever the cause — is increased exercise and mental stimulation that will help refocus your dog’s mind and tire her out.
The “bark” and “stop” cue
This might sound counterproductive, but it’s actually a fantastic way to reduce barking and get your dog to stop barking on your cue.
- Start by encouraging your dog to bark by using her normal triggers to get her started, such as ringing the doorbell. While your dog is actively barking, use a vocal cue, such as “speak,” along with a hand signal to encourage the behavior.
- Produce a food or toy reward, and use a vocal cue such as “quiet” paired with a different hand signal. When your dog is quiet for a few seconds, give her the reward.
- Repeat this process several times, rewarding both the barking with praise and the quiet with a valued reward.
- When your dog is proficient at following your cues, encourage her to bark again, then say the word “quiet” with a hand signal. After 30 seconds of quiet, reward her with the treat or toy.
- Delay the reward until she stays quiet for longer periods of time. This will ensure that you don’t build up a chain — for example, she learns that barking and then stopping will receive an immediate reward, so she continues to bark again and again to get more.
- When she is proficient at following your cues, phase out the rewards altogether, just giving her praise when she complies.
Even though barking can be inappropriate in certain situations, there are times when this vocalization can be advantageous to humans. Countless lives have been saved by dogs who have alerted their people to emergency situations, such as a fire or a person who has become unconscious. Barking is also useful in determining location and as a communicative tool for many working breeds.
About the author: Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer, TV personality, author, and public speaker best known as the star of the international hit TV series It’s Me or the Dog, through which she reaches audiences in more than 100 countries. Appearing frequently in the worldwide media, Stilwell is widely recognized as a leader in the field of animal behavior, and is the editor-in-chief of Positively.com and the CEO of Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training, the world’s premier global network of positive reinforcement dog trainers. Connect with her on Facebook and on Twitter.