How to Stop the Habit of Excessive Barking


All bad habits start slowly and gradually,
and before you know you have the habit, the habit has you.
~
Zig Ziglar 

I love that quote because it is so true and because it can help you understand why excessive barking is so hard to manage.

So here you are, searching on the internet because you can’t stand the barking anymore or someone has told you it has to stop. On and on and on it goes. You know barking is normal in dogs and you also don’t want to stop all the barking because, even if you could, you still want your dog to alert you of any visitors and to provide some protection.

But what can or should you do because the barking is out of control?

First, I want to impress on you that when barking is excessive, it has basically become a habit or think of it as an automatic response. This means your dog starts barking without thinking and is on a pathway that is difficult to interrupt. He has little control over his barking  just like you do with automatic behavior. If you brush your teeth the same way every day, once you begin, you continue it without thinking. In fact if you are interrupted, sometimes you can’t remember what part you already brushed so you start back at the beginning.

Habits or automatic behavior are a result of an actual brain change in how behavior is processed. As a simple explanation, when you repeat a behavior the same way over and over again, you brain moves the pathway to a different part of the brain. Initially when you learn something new or use higher level decision-making and thought, you are using your pre-frontal cortex. For behavior you repeat over and over that doesn’t require any complex thought, your brain uses the basal ganglia or limbic system.

In my case, I am thinking about what I want to say while I type this. When I first learned to type, I had to pay attention and make choices but now, it is automatic behavior. So creating a pathway in this “automatic” part of the brain saves energy and as said, frees you up to do something else. It is a brilliant system! Well, unless it is something we don’t want to do which we call a bad habit!

So when barking becomes excessive, think of it as an automatic behavior.

Changing a Habit or Automatic Behavior:

There are 6 other types of keyboards besides the commonly-used QWERTY keyboard. Now if you are a pretty good typist and can also think about your writing while you type or even talk to someone at the same time, imagine learning to type on one of the other 6 keyboards. It would be awhile until you could attain the proficiency you have now because your brain, again in simple terms, needs to create this new pathway.

Now do you see that if the excessive barking is ingrained, changing your dog’s behavior will take time – maybe a lot of time. So you need to be patient.

Second, it makes sense that if you are learning a new skill or behavior, you will learn it faster if you stop doing the old behavior. If you are switching keyboards, you will learn the new one faster if you stop using the old one. Right? So you will need to prevent excessive barking.

Your dog will still bark at times because it is a normal behavior and the way they communicate, but we want to teach them when barking is a good response. So to control this problem, it is important to prevent as much barking as possible.

So now you are probably thinking, “OMG, if I knew how to prevent it, I would not be here reading this!!!” I’m going to help you with that, but honestly, the problem is not usually that you don’t know how to prevent it, but instead that the solution is not one you or your dog can live with or you don’t believe it matters because you didn’t given it enough time or you haven’t taught your dog when it is good to bark, so the behavior returns.

But now you know better! You know:

  • Controlling excessive barking takes time because it becomes an automatic/habitual behavior
  • The preventive measures are usually temporary so you can work with that
  • And as discussed in a prior blog, knowing the cause will help you tremendously because if you can address the cause, it is much faster to resolve or control
  • You need to know how to teach your dog the behavior you want

I am not suggesting this will be easy, but if the excessive barking bothers you or someone else badly enough, it will be worth the effort.

Prevention:

This is so important as explained above. If you’ve skipped ahead, know that the measures may be, for the most part temporary while you teach new behavior, so don’t despair!

Behaviors that are automatic run this sequence:

Trigger (cue) –> Behavior –> Reward

To prevent the behavior, you can change one of the three pieces of the sequence.

Triggers:

Triggers are anything that sets “a behavior in motion” and leads to a “reward”.  For example, some dogs are triggered by bicycles and that sets their excessive barking sequence off.

Your first steps:
  1. Get some paper and have everyone in the house make a list of triggers for the barking. Add as many details as possible to describe each trigger
  2. Describe your dog, home and the typical situation in your home when the excessive barking occurs
  3. Compare your lists
  4. Do your best to determine the major causes for the barking
  5. Now, given the information you gathered, consider how you could eliminate the cause or prevent the barking until you can make more lasting changes, if needed
Here is an example of one evaluation of a trigger:
  1. List and Describe Triggers: People coming home after getting off the train at the corner stop usually between 5:00-7:00 pm on weekdays
  2. Describe your dog and a typical day when this occurs: Henry is a 3 years old male Miniature Schnauzer who weighs 12#. He is healthy and up to date on all of his veterinarian’s recommendations. He is a sweet dog but definitely has a lot of energy! Some might say he is nervous but then you think that all Schnauzers seem that way.

You leave him a Kong filled with his kibble in the morning and arrive home from work about 5:30. Henry is home during the day except for your old cat, Smudge, who basically sleeps all the time.  After work, Henry greets you at the door barking and you suspect he has already been barking for the last half hour.

You say hello to Henry and then let him out to relieve himself. You try to wait until after “rush hour” is over to walk him because he’ll just bark at the people coming off the train or honestly, you usually just let him go back out in the yard to relieve himself. It’s just too much trouble to go on a walk with a dog that barks at people.

Once back inside, Henry barks out of the front window in the living room or dining room at every single person that walks by and when you tell him “No!”, he stops but starts right back up again. Your husband returns home about 7:30 every night and plays a little with Henry. By then, he is usually done barking. But for those 2 hours, you want to pull your hair out! You are tired from work and can’t deal with the noise.

  1. Compare lists and descriptions from everyone in the household: Once your husband and you compare lists, you realize you forgot that Henry gets triggered by people outside on the weekends too, often when only your husband is home and children are out playing in your neighbor’s yard
  2. The major causes: Henry is young and healthy but not getting enough mental or physical exercise. Barking has become “entertainment” and a release of all his energy. He also may not understand when barking is appropriate and thinks he is protecting the house. He can’t help that he has a bit of an anxious nature and all these people worry him. In his mind, thankfully, when he barks at them, they do go away except for those kids….but at least they don’t ever come to the house. So, active people outside are his trigger for the unwanted excessive barking.
  3. Prevention:
    1. Change the environment: close the shades and curtains on the front windows when you leave home in the morning and on nice days over the weekends when children might go out to play. If that doesn’t work, put up gates so that Henry cannot get to the windows
    2. Provide an appropriate release for his energy:
      • At mealtime, use ½ of his kibble, a few treats and a toy or two to do some trick training and use equipment that involves physical exercise and some mental stimulation. You can also buy some items that will give him some indoor exercise as an alternative to walking but until then, you can use the stairs and some items you already have to keep him active.
      • Give the other ½ of his dinner in a Kong or another food puzzle toy to provide some mental exercise and depending on the toy, a little physical exercise too.
      • Continue having Henry play with your husband when he gets home. That is another way to provide enrichment.
      • Walk him after people are done returning on the train and if you see a person coming up, return home or use other techniques to keep his attention and avoid his reaction to them. If you don’t have these skills yet or in that instance you can’t do this, then you will wait to walk him in the area until you can teach him good behavior on a leash. He will have to get his exercise indoors or in your backyard.
    3. Training:
      • Teach Henry to go to a mat and stay so that after his meal you can send him there to relax. He won’t have access to the window on the mat, so now you can open up the curtain and shades and get your own dinner ready
      • Begin teaching Henry when barking is appropriate (The details of this training are beyond the scope of this blog but basically, you have eliminate the automatic sequence first and then reward the barking you want, communicate when they can stop and take away any reward for inappropriate barking)

I am sure you can think of other situations where a solution is much more difficult, such as a noise trigger from ongoing construction outside your home. It can take some creativity and you may need help with ideas. There is almost always an answer. To finish this example a bit, you could cover up the noise with white noise or the TV, crate the dog in the basement where the noise doesn’t sensitize him and/or he feels safe and doesn’t bark or even take him for boarding when you can’t be home. Those are just a few ideas and remember, these can be temporary.

A common mistake:

Besides allowing the barking to continue, there is one very common mistake most people make and that is the use of punishment, including telling your dog “No!”, throwing a can full of pennies, spraying them, using a bark collar, etc. Why aren’t these good solutions?

Your dog needs to know what behavior you do want. Telling them “No!”, spraying or shocking them does not teach them any alternatives. Secondly, aversive measures in and of themselves do not address the underlying cause and therefore, they can create a different unwanted behavior.

For example, lets return to Henry in the above example. Remember Henry needed more mental and physical exercise? Let’s say you put a bark collar on Henry during the time you are away at  work and continuing until after 7:00 pm when people stop coming off the train. Because the collar is big and bulky, you take it off after 7:00 pm. And guess what? It works! You are thrilled! Sure it was expensive even at the sale price of $50 but the barking has stopped. Hallelujah!

However, Henry still has no way to release his energy and as it builds and builds. So after about a week, BOOM! He finds a great solution! That day, your heart sinks as you return home to find the corner of the couch chewed clear through to the wood. Oh, and one other thing, unbeknownst to you, he is now even more upset about people walking by because they cause this horrible shock to go off. He doesn’t realize it is the barking because as soon as he barks, it happens. He probably playfully barks now and then with your husband and there is no shock then so why would he ever think barking is what caused it? Nope, he is sure it is those people who have always been a problem anyway.

The result? You have created a destructive chewer and increased his anxiety and reactivity to people walking by.

So please avoid the use of any punishment, including yelling at your dog. I would be surprised if you have not already yelled “No!” or “Quiet!” more times than you can count. Well, it doesn’t work, does it? Not in the long run. It doesn’t provide any information or resolve the cause.

Finally…

Please don’t expect that you will have all the answers or get it right the first time. Be patient with yourself and just try something different than what you are doing now. If you aren’t successful, go back to the questions and see if you missed anything. You may need to be creative or need professional help. Certainly you need professional help if there is any question of safety.

The two most important things to remember are an automatic ingrained behavior like any habit, takes time to change because your brain actually has to create new pathways and second, to make that change happen, prevention is almost critical and will certainly make the process of re-training faster.
If you have found a good preventative solution, share it in the comments and maybe you’ll be helping someone else.