For Day 40 of our Canine Care Christmas Countdown, we focus on barking at people on the street as it becomes busier with families coming home, and holiday shopping.
Barking at people walking down the street is rewarding through your dog's eyes. He barks to tell the person walking by "Don't even think about it! You are not to come into my home! I am fierce and will bite you!", and in his mind, he sees it working. Those enjoying their walk do move past the house and don't come in. That is how the barking plays out in your dog's thought process. He is simply trying his best to be a valued member of the household by protecting the home.
What we want to avoid at all cost is any punishment for barking, e.g. Shouting, Shock Collars, Citronella Collars. Why? You are suppressing and frustrating the dog. It associates pain with protecting the house, a natural instinct. If the dog gets used it, you need to increase the punishment and then where will it end? I recommend that those considering a shock collar is to use it on themselves first to truly understand what it feels like, remembering the dog's emotional capacity is the same as a 2-year old child. A citronella collar shoots what a dog hates into its face. I recommend before placing one of these on your dog, is to squirt a bottle of perfume directly onto your face. How long does it last? A punishment which last far longer than then when the barking ends. Do you want to punish your dog all day for barking at the mailman? Do you believe he will even remember the connection after being sprayed? What are you really teaching your dog? If you guessed to hate the collar, be scared to do anything that could set it off, and decimate the dog's confidence and happiness, your right.
The goals to change this behaviour is to redirect and then reinforce not barking. There are three stages to stop the barking. First, to interrupt the behaviour, second, to re-focus the mind elsewhere, and third, positively reinforcing 'not' barking. The risk in implementing a 'not-barking' behaviour shift to not unintentionally reinforce the barking. You reinforce barking when you miss the second stage. To successfully achieve the second stage, you want to achieve a full 10 seconds of not barking, before positive reinforcement.
A client and I have been working on recall commands. Every time she says 'here' the dog comes running. For the first stage, it is a great interrupter and can be used to interrupt the barking. But it is not enough. If the second stage of re-focusing mind is skipped., it will fail to stop the barking, possibly reinforce the barking as a good thing, and worse possibly undermine the effectiveness of the recall command, 'here.' Re-focusing the mind may be as simple as holding the treat for a few seconds longer allowing the dog to nibble but not gobble the reward for coming. It makes the dog have to work to get the treat, but not so hard as to not be rewarded for coming when called. Once the reward being nibbled on is finished, a gentle rub or scratch provides additional positive reinforcement. I like to include the phrase, "nice quiet" to provide the behaviour a name the dog will come to recognize.
If the dog returns to the barking directly after all three stages are carried out to the letter, it reveals that the dog is finding a great reward from the barking. The 'here' would still work to interrupt the barking, but his mind needs to be totally refocused away from the barking. He needs about ten full seconds where he has to puzzle out something more important than the reward he feels when he is fiercely protecting your home. So 'here' is a great command to break him from barking, but it must be followed by redirecting his focus in an equally rewarding & stimulating manner. Think about what he loves; you, scratches, new squeaky toys, puzzles, and 'find me' games. Now, which one of these will provide him with ten full-seconds of re-focusing. If nothing pops out at you as a way to refocus him, that is okay.
Another alternative strategy is to respond to the barking by leading him calmly and gently out of the room where he is barking - this will re-focus him as he won't know where you are going. Do not pull or push. Leading your dog anywhere must be a good experience for the dog. Otherwise, you can compound the issue. Once he is out of the room and you have him away from the barking for a full 10 seconds, kneel to the side of your dog and give him a lovely scratch and say "nice quiet" (your positive reinforcement that he is not barking). Next, with his lead still on bring him back into the living room and very quietly and gently remove the lead. While this takes a lot of commitment to do this each and every time, it allows the stages to be met to change the behaviour. Eventually, he will learn that barking does not lead to the reward of seeing people scared off by his ferociousness. The critical mistake you want to avoid is any negativity in being led away, or having his lead put on, remain gentle and firm, and ensure you complete the positive reinforcement.
Let me know if you are experiencing any problems with barking. I service the Muskoka region in person, and via video conferencing, anywhere in Canada. Read more about my Behaviour Training Services.
'Sparky' Smith is a Canine Behaviorist and Practioner, educated through the International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour, earning her ISCP.DIP.CANINE.PRAC.