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The ABCs of Barking

Why all the barking?

Barking happens for a reason. Sounds obvious, right? It didn't always, according to applied ethologist Julie Hecht, writing in the spring 2013 issue of The Bark. At the turn of the century, barking was widely thought to be "simply an item on a dog's daily checklist: 'Take a walk, have breakfast, bark.'"

Nowadays there's a small but growing body of research on why dogs bark, what they might mean when they do, and who understands that meaning. Researchers have concluded that dogs have different barks for different circumstances, that dogs respond differently to different barks, and that humans as young as ten years old are pretty good at deciphering barks, even when they can't see the dog.

Two dogs barking

But there's a gap between what scientists care about and what owners of barking dogs care about. Plug "stop barking" into Google and on just the first page of more than half a million results you'll see ads for a "bark eliminator," a "dog silencer," and an "ultrasonic bark control." Next time you're held captive in an airplane seat, thumb through SkyMall to see devices like these pictured alongside remedies for life's other little annoyances, like electronic cellulite smoothers and replicas of the One Ring. How likely do you think it is that such solutions take into account why a dog might be barking?

Clicker training takes a different approach. You may never truly know why a dog barks, but relying on the principles of behavior analysis, you can make a pretty good guess. With that information, it's possible to change behavior in a way that improves the quality of the dog's life as well as the owner's.

The goal of the training described in this article is the reduction of excessive barking in a given situation, not the elimination of barking from your dog's repertoire. It's unrealistic, and unfair, to expect a dog never to bark. Many of my clients, when asked to consider it, actually appreciate some of the barking their dogs do. Barking can warn that a stranger is on the premises, announce that it's potty time, or express excitement at the prospect of a ball flying into a lake.

If your dog's barking is part of a larger pattern of fear or aggression or has begun suddenly with no major environmental changes, or if you truly cannot identify a pattern in your dog's barking, consult your veterinarian to rule out medical causes before embarking on a training program. Barking primarily while left alone may be a sign of separation anxiety, and should also be brought to the attention of your vet as soon as possible.

A postal cue

Dog waiting for the mailman

So what's your dog trying to tell you? Despite your best efforts, your dog still doesn't speak English, and you're not fluent in Dog. But barking is behavior, and the cool thing about behavior is that it's functional. Dogs—and humans, and rodents, and fruit flies—behave to make things happen, to gain sustenance or pleasure, to avoid or escape unpleasantness or pain. To make an educated guess about why a dog might be barking, you can start where the behavior analysts start: look at what happens right after the barking.

As an example, let's consider a dog that barks ferociously whenever the mail carrier comes to the front porch.

Why bark at the mail carrier? Perhaps the mail carrier is a stranger? Perhaps the mail carrier always closes the mailbox with a loud bang? Perhaps the dog did not see a person in a dark, bulky coat during his critical socialization period? Perhaps the dog was kicked by a mail carrier when he was a stray? You could speculate forever.

But the most relevant answer for training purposes is that the mail carrier always goes away when the dog barks. The mail carrier likely doesn't see it that way—he just has other mail to deliver. But as far as the dog is concerned, the consequence of barking, 99 times out of 100, is that the mail carrier leaves. The removal of something that the dog hopes will go away is reinforcement, specifically negative reinforcement.

Becoming aware of how environmental cues influence your dog's behavior will help you change how your dog responds.

A key tenet of behavior science is that past consequences—the C from this article's title—drive future behavior. What causes the dog to bark at the mail carrier day after day is not that the mail carrier comes to the porch. It's that he always leaves after the dog barks. The mail carrier coming to the porch—the event that occurs before the barking—is the antecedent, the A in the title. Antecedents don't cause behavior, but they set the stage for it by predicting a consequence. A green light doesn't cause you to step on the gas—it tells you that now would be the best time to do so. You do it because the green light predicts that you can move forward safely. When you teach your dog to sit using reinforcement, the cue "sit" is a green light. This green light tells the dog that if he puts his butt on the ground, you are likely to throw the Frisbee.

The environment also provides cues constantly—and many of them seem to be cues to bark. Becoming aware of how environmental cues influence your dog's behavior will help you change how your dog responds.

Make the ABCs work for you

To change behavior—the B in the title—adjust the antecedents, the consequences, or both. Another option is to arrange things so that a different B will produce the same C.

Put the mailbox on the front gate instead of on the porch—no footsteps, no barking to remove the footsteps. Teach "sit," cue it right after the footsteps, and turn the footsteps into a new cue to sit. Make the footsteps predict a rousing game of tug, cuing the dog to look for you or a toy. Change the consequence for barking to steak and then make the steak contingent on coming to find you after a few barks. Potentially, there are as many creative applications of this approach as there are humans.

There are three main components to any plan for changing behavior:

  1. Manage the environment

    The first step is to prevent the dog from getting more practice in the unwanted behavior. With each round of practice comes another chance at reinforcement, and behavior that's reinforced will be repeated. If your dog spends all day barking at people walking by the house when you're at work, and they all oblige him by going on their merry way, you're going to have a hard time making a dent in the barking by training when you're home.

    Training means making the behavior you want more reinforcing than the behavior you don't. Good management—or what behavior analysts call antecedent arrangement—is critical to setting up both you and the dog for success in training.

    Sometimes management alone is plenty. Do you simply want your dog not to bark at every living creature that walks past the house while you're watching a movie? Try closing the blinds, putting frosted window film on the bottom half of the windows, crating or tethering your dog with a stuffed Kong, or gating the dog out of the room with the window.

  2. Manage the reinforcement

    Problem barking tends to fall into two broad categories: barking directed at the owner and barking directed at other things in the environment. (Find more specific categories, and more good advice on barking, here.) Owner-directed barking is often reinforced by owner attention. Other-directed barking is often reinforced by distance.

    Consider barking for attention: Your dog barks at you. You respond by shooting your dog a look or by saying "no," but your dog continues barking at you on a regular basis. That probably means he finds that response reinforcing. "I barked at Dad, and he talked to me!" Or, maybe when he barks at you, you get up and feed him, or take him for a walk, or pick him up. Why wouldn't he try that again?

    The good news is that it's your choice whether this behavior gets reinforced. Tell yourself that your dog barking at you is a cue—a cue for you to take a deep breath, or look at your toes, or keep doing whatever you were doing.

    Note: If the dog is a puppy, or doesn't usually bark to get your attention, do some quick triage: Is it past time for a potty break? Is the dog sick? Is the house on fire? Yes, you will probably reinforce the barking by taking the dog out. But better to reinforce the first few barks than to wait for it to get louder and more persistent and then reinforce it.

    Describing techniques that control reinforcement for other-directed barking is a subject for a separate article. But one approach I particularly like is changing the reinforcement for the behavior to something you can control. A classic example, explained by Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP) Andre Yeu, is putting barking (and quiet) on cue. Another example is thanking your dog for barking.

  3. Reinforce something else

    Before beginning any training, you need to answer this very important question: What should the dog do instead?

    Before beginning any training, you need to answer this very important question: What should the dog do instead?

    There are many good reasons for finding another behavior to increase via reinforcement. High among them are practical concerns. If your dog is awake, he's behaving, so why not train him to behave in ways you like? It's much more helpful to tell him what you want him to do.

    Another important reason to train a replacement behavior, perhaps the most important reason, is that a high rate of positive reinforcement is essential to behavioral health and happiness—for both you and your pets.

    So taking a deep breath when your dog barks at you is not where the job ends. Merely ignoring a behavior is a hard way to get rid of it; it's frustrating for you and the dog and, for that reason, likely to fail.

    When a behavior has worked in the past, and then suddenly doesn't work, it doesn't simply go away. First it tends to intensify, and when barking intensifies, it can be impossible to ignore—especially if you're on the phone, live in a condo, or have a headache. The dog barks longer and louder for the same reason you might kick a broken Coke machine. This phenomenon is known as an extinction burst.

    When you finally do react because you can't stand it any more, you have new problems: (1) You've reinforced a very strong version of the behavior, and (2) you've put the behavior on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement, also known as a gambler's schedule. The gambler's schedule creates behaviors that are persistent even when they're only reinforced occasionally.

    Look for or cue acceptable alternatives before the barking starts, and reinforce them proactively.

    While you're breathing deeply, you're not ignoring the barking. Instead, you're waiting for something you like better, an acceptable way for the dog to get your attention. For a great way to remember this process, refer to KPA CTP Caryn Self-Sullivan's tip, Stop, Wait, Watch, Reward.

    If you've taught your dog a repertoire of simple behaviors using positive reinforcement, it's very likely he'll try one of those next. When he does, be ready to reinforce him. Even better, look for or cue acceptable alternatives before the barking starts, and reinforce them proactively.

Pulling it all together

It's 5:30 p.m. You've just come home from work and plopped down on the couch. Your dog strides toward you, looking at you intently. You know that your dog tends to bark when he wants dinner, which is usually served around now. You have a multitude of options. Let's look at just a few:

  1. Wait for your dog to bark. Get up and feed him to stop the barking.
  2. Wait for your dog to bark, then try to ignore him. Break down and feed him just as he reaches fever pitch.
  3. Wait for your dog to bark. Cue a previously trained sit. If he sits, click/treat and/or get up and feed him. You've cut the barking short, and reinforced a better behavior. Of course, you may have also reinforced the barking. Your "sit" cue is an opportunity for reinforcement, which makes it a reinforcer in itself. But if you cue "sit" after the first bark or two, at least you're reinforcing less barking.
  4. Wait for your dog to bark. Take a deep breath. Wait for him to stop barking for a second. Click/treat. As soon as he's done eating, click/treat again before he can bark again. Continue until he is intentionally offering a few seconds of quiet. Get up and feed him.
  5. Click/treat as your dog approaches, before he can bark. When he's done eating the treat, click/treat again before he can bark. Continue until he is offering a few seconds of quiet. Get up and feed him.
  6. As your dog approaches, and before he barks, cue the sit. When he sits, click/treat, and then get up to feed him.
  7. Get up as your dog approaches, before he starts barking, and feed him.

If you are consistent in any of these approaches, over time whatever behavior you reinforce will become the dog's new response to the cue his rumbling belly gives him.

Listen to the dog

Clicker training can help you teach your dog better ways to get his needs met when you haven't anticipated them.

Did you notice that all of the above suggestions end with getting up and feeding your dog? Your dog may love tug or fetch, but right now he's barking for a reason. That reason is pretty easy to divine when you think about the consequences his behavior has produced in the past. Your dog is also doing you the favor of telling you what would reinforce him most at this moment. As it happens, it was something you were going to offer anyway.

Your dog was barking to express an unmet need or desire. Attend to your dog's needs and desires proactively and you may find he has fewer reasons to bark. Clicker training can help you teach your dog better ways to get his needs met when you haven't anticipated them. When your dog does bark, and sometimes he will, you'll have the tools to manage it in a positive way.

About the author

Kiki Yablon is a KPA CTP in Chicago, Illinois. She owns Dog Training by Kiki Yablon and is the training manager for Animal Behavior Training Concepts.