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.
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.
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 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:
- 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
- Describe your dog, home and the typical situation in your home when the excessive barking occurs
- Compare your lists
- Do your best to determine the major causes for the barking
- 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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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.
In the Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?”, a young boy was charged with keeping watch over the family flock of sheep. One day, to amuse himself, he went to the town and cried “Wolf, wolf!” People rushed to his aid and it was a thrill for him, so he repeated this day after day. No wolf was ever found so the people, of course, began to realize that he was lying and eventually no one came to help. Not long after, a wolf actually did come for the sheep. That day, when the boy cried out to the village for help, no one believed him and the wolf had a satisfying meal.
The moral of the story: “Liars won’t be believed even when they tell the truth.”
If we replace the boy in the story with your “watchdog” that barks at each and every little thing, well, the moral of this story could be “Nuisance barkers won’t be believed, even when there is an ax murderer at the door”! That’s not such a great watchdog, right!?
We can add another moral…
“The life of a dog can get pretty boring so you better provide something for amusement or beware… they will keep busy by creating an activity; perhaps barking!”
Barking can be valuable to alert us when someone is on our property or to warn us from impending danger but we don’t need protection from the casually strolling couple, every car passing by or the leaf fluttering down to land on the lawn. This is just nuisance barking.
But can you teach a dog when there is reason to bark? Yes. Of course, it is more of a challenge if they have already become a nuisance barker and habits are formed. This can’t be covered completely in a blog, but beginning with the “Say Please!” strategy shared in the last blog will help your dog understand that he should check in with you. In the next blog, I’ll cover a little about habits and how to change those. For now, here are some pointers on how to respond.
“I’m Barking! Are you Listening?”
Yes, I am sure you are but what they heck should you do!?
The Ax Murderer:
There really is someone at the door and you are happy your dog is barking! Let it continue, if controlled. Most of us will never be faced with an ax murderer or the like, of course, but if you live in an unsafe area, live alone or worry because people show up at your door occasionally, you may want a dog for protection. You’ll be happy to know that most criminals will be scared off by barking or even the mere presence of a dog.
Years ago, I took a course on Criminology taught by a policeman to learn how to protect myself. The instructor made a point that stuck with me. He said that most criminals targeting a home or a victim walking, will opt to avoid one with a dog. They’ll just move on to the next target. In fact, you can even leave a large bowl and bone outside, put up a “Beware of Dog” sign and that can be enough to deter a break-in.
But if you are concerned that barking is not enough and have considered training your dog to attack, please think again. Even if you need protection, you must be able to control your dog. When there is potential danger at your door, you should be able to use a previously-trained behavior for control, such as a down-stay in a specific location or be able to physically and calmly remove your dog from the door if needed. Stop and imagine the difference between a dog on command and in control vs. a dog that makes its own decisions, including when to attack.
By the way, previously trained behavior like a sit-stay can be a big bonus! Consider that your dog can appear even more menacing when you have the power to command him into a sit near the door or even better, higher up on a few stairs. Once in position, your dog can increase their intimidation with their eye contact, as if to say, “As soon as I’m released, watch out!” I am not suggesting you let someone in or even open the door. I am saying your dog does not need to be out of control to protect you.
I am also not suggesting that you train a dog to protect you or attack. Most dogs will naturally protect you and no training is recommended or needed to encourage it. In fact, if you do encourage it, you may create a dangerous dog.
I once had a client in clinical practice that had a 120# Rottweiler. He had to travel for work quite a bit so he got the dog to protect his wife and children while he was away. Unfortunately, he lacked any good control and the dog had become reactive and aggressive to all strangers. This was a dangerous dog and I worried about his children and their friends. At the hospital, we could not safely provide even routine veterinary care unless the dog was sedated. Even so, the owner was proud of the protection he had provided and could not be convinced otherwise. He is not alone. Many people are misguided about using a dog for protection and like him, they end up with a dog that cannot be safely handled, will make its own decisions about who to attack and most likely cannot be stopped once an attack begins. This is the last thing you want in a dog, much less in a home with children. This dog should have been carefully trained for obedience, including a “drop” on command. (With a “drop” on command or an “emergency down”, your dog will stop and go into a down on command, even if running.) And honestly, a 120# Rottweiler’s presence – especially if well-trained – is intimidating enough to keep any trouble away!
So basically, when you are in danger and your dog barks, your best response is to let him continue but under your control with a command or with physical means by calmly holding him back and using a barrier if needed.
Your dog is barking after seeing or hearing a noise indicating someone unidentified is on your property. You investigate the warning and determine there is no real threat, praise your dog and tell them “It’s okay!” Ideally, your dog relaxes and stops barking or your dog has a routine so he knows to retreat to a bedroom or crate when told. This is also the best response when a friend or someone approved such as a contractor, enters your home.
If your dog cannot settle, it’s a sign that he doesn’t trust you, isn’t being given the right signals and/or needs to be taught the proper response. Training can develop your dog’s trust and teach the proper response. The “Say Please” method described in the previous blog is invaluable and the best place to start. Your dog will learn to look to you for direction. Then you can also add in additional training to prevent jumping, to get him to retrieve a toy for distraction, to go to his crate, etc. There are lots of options for the dog that doesn’t care for your friends or vice versa.
The “Nothing” :
Your dog is barking at a random noise, object or passerby that is at a reasonable distance or posing no threat. Your dog may continue even with reassurance. This is now nuisance or excessive barking and needs to be prevented from becoming a habit or from strengthening what has become a bad habit or it will just get worse. In addition, your dog will need to learn how to determine if something is a real threat – WHEN to bark.
In the last blog, using “Say Please!” was outlined. This practice will teach your dog to look to you for direction and develop trust. It also provides attention. So when you reassure your dog someone is a friend or that you know the meter reader is there and you’ll handle it, your dog is reassured and settles. Everyone in the house that wants this ability to manage your dog will need to implement “Say Please!” Otherwise, when that person is responsible for your dog, you will need to put preventive methods in place, such as pulling the shades to prevent viewing people passing by.
Your dog may begin problem barking for a number of reasons and while you don’t want to stop all barking, you do not want excessive barking. Every time your dog excessively barks, he is forming or strengthening a habit that can be very difficult, but not impossible, to change. Prevention is key.
Check back for more on habits and what you can do to change them in the next blog! Do you have a watchdog that is also good with your friends? Please leave a comment below!