Barking can really affect quality of life in the neighborhood. The issue is even worse if it’s your dog making the noise. In addition to the constant racket, you have the stress of knowing your neighbors are annoyed. Even just walking down the street can be embarrassing!
Fortunately, barking is just behavior (as Karen Pryor might say). In other words, it functions like any other behavior, whether that behavior is lying down quietly at your feet or going over an agility obstacle on cue. There are antecedents that precede the onset of any behavior and, more importantly, consequences that encourage or discourage the recurrence of the behavior. You can change the frequency of a behavior by changing the antecedents and consequences.
To change barking behavior, begin by observing the environment. What is going on before the barking starts? Even more importantly, what is happening afterward that is reinforcing the barking? The answers to these questions will help in designing a training plan.
With some kinds of barking, figuring out what is reinforcing the barking is pretty straightforward. For example, barking at the dog’s food bowl often gets reinforced by the food bowl being put down on the floor. The barking may have started as a result of excitement in anticipation of the food, but with enough pairings of “barking -> food bowl put on the floor,” the barking behavior can get folded into mealtimes. In some cases, the human might even be putting the bowl down faster to stop the barking sooner (once the bowl is down, the dog is too busy eating to bark). Getting the food sooner is a very desirable consequence for the dog. The bottom line is that whether the barking truly speeds up food delivery, or is merely a superstitious behavior associated with the food bowl’s arrival, it can be difficult to get the barking to stop.
The kind of barking discussed above falls into a category that many call “demand barking,” as in, “Give into my demands or I will keep barking!” There are many other types of barking. Some dogs bark in times of stress, or when they are in the middle of an exciting game. Other dogs bark in response to sudden stimuli, a type of barking that is commonly called “alert barking.”
Regardless of the type of barking, the first step is always the same: Figure out why the barking is happening. To accomplish this, ask yourself, “What’s maintaining the barking?” and “What’s triggering the barking?” Once you’ve answered those questions, you can formulate a training plan for reducing the barking.