Here, we have a fairly in-depth case study on a common and simple companion dog behavior problem: unwanted barking. Behavior problems in dogs are defined as whatever the owner finds problematic. Keep in mind that what one person considers a problem is not what everyone would consider a problem. Now, dogs bark for many reasons, and this is just one example. Cases we work with as behaviorists can range from annoying things like this, to more severe or serious issues like fear, anxiety and dog or human aggression.
The basis for dog behavior is this:
Dogs do things because they have been rewarded (reinforced) for those things in the past. Animals perform behaviors because they work. If a behavior “works,” it is likely to be repeated.
Source: Phone/email consult from out-of-state
Dog: Rocco, terrier mix, 15 months old, in good health
When/where dog was obtained: From a friend, at 6 months of age
Past training history: Basic obedience class at PetCo (essentially useless), behavior consultation with another trainer (for this issue, recommended giving him a Kong and giving him treats when he stops barking. Problem is, giving him treats for stopping will create a behavior sequence: 1) Bark like a nutjob, get it all out, 2) Stop barking and eat treats)
Presenting problem: Beth works full-time from home. Rocco barks at her for attention. This is annoying to her, and also a work-related problem because she is frequently on the phone with customers. If he is not barking at her, he is barking at the door to go for a walk.
Approaches already tried (in the past): Saying “NO,” ignoring Rocco, giving him a bone or filled Kong to distract him, throwing a toy, putting him in the bedroom with the door closed (this is called management), attempts to exercise him more to tire him out. None have been effective for more than a short period of time.
Severity of problem: (note: I like to get an idea of how “severe” a behavior is considered by the owner. Some owners will describe a behavior as only mildly annoying, almost an afterthought, yet others can experience the same type of behavior and for them it is something they would give the dog up over, or even put it to sleep for) The behavior is considered moderately problematic, if this cannot be fixed, the dog will not be given up.
Things dog finds reinforcing: These are things he enjoys- attention, praise, going outside, food, and highly values toys and play. These are typical things any dog enjoys, but some will value more over others. This can also be modified through training. For example, we can teach a dog to value food more by using it in training, restricting daily meals to training session times, and by using tastier food. We can increase the value of toys by playing with our dogs and increasing prey drive. We can increase the value of praise and attention by applying most of our praise during training sessions, and by preceding tangible rewards with verbal praise. Remember that to many dogs, simply being acknowledged is reinforcing.
Why is Rocco barking? Anyone would be able to guess the answer to this: the dog is barking for attention.
Why does he continue to bark? Two reasons: Because it has been reinforced in the past. Because he is a terrier, and has an innate tendency towards being vocal.
I asked Beth when she had been throwing the toy for Rocco. She explained that the common pattern was the dog would begin barking at her, she would attempt to ignore, she would scold him and yell at him, and then eventually when she was on a phone call she would throw the toy to keep him quiet. He quite enjoys a game of fetch, and will bring the toy and drop it in front of her to initiate play. She has, in effect, trained Rocco to be persistent with barking. She has taught him that if he wears her down enough, she will reward him by throwing the toy, or giving him a bone or filled Kong. He also has her trained to take him outside if he barks at the door! This first began during housebreaking, when Beth rewarded him for “telling her that he has to go out.” Now he does it whenever he wants.
Why have prior attempts to curb the behavior failed? Because they were not followed through completely, or were otherwise not designed to be effective.
How can we re-train the dog? First, Rocco has to learn that barking does not produce reward.
If a behavior no longer works, the dog will try something else.
Instructions for owner: CHOOSE YOUR SOLUTION
We believe in giving clients OPTIONS for solving problems. The theory being, if you choose your own option you are more likely to follow-through.
-Games, playing, and walks are now on your terms
Pick up all the loose toys in the home. The home should be a place of calm and good manners, not a playground. Rocco cannot run up and drop a toy in front of you at the desk if there are no toys lying around. You should be in control of the toys, because play sessions should be on your terms, not your dogs. Rocco will still get to play with toys, in fact, he will play more, and you will initiate play sessions at your convenience. Toys will be in the closet, or in a place Rocco cannot reach them. You will initiate the game, and you will end the game. The same will go for walks. Do not allow your dog to train you to take him out when he barks at the door. His daily exercise and walks are very important, but make it your idea, not his. Take his favorite toy with you on a walk and use it to exercise him at the park with a 20-ft longline.
-Reinforce desired behavior, ignore or correct unwanted behavior
If you glance over and see Rocco lying down calmly and quietly across the room, that is the time to praise him and offer him a tidbit. Not while he is staring at you or vocalizing.
-Teach “place” command
You will teach Rocco a 3-in-one command that means 1) Go to your bed or a cot, 2) Lie down, 3) Stay put until released. You will use this for now to better manage him inside the home. Starting with small amounts of time, he will work up incrementally to about 30 minutes twice a day on place. I will provide you with an instructional video on how to begin this simple skill. Any bones or Kongs will be given on “place.”
-Teach calmness using the leash
“Sit on the dog” exercise. You will leave a lightweight leash dragging while in the house. As you sit at your desk, during the times Rocco would normally be barking, you will sit on the length of the leash so the dog has only enough room to lie down quietly next to you. Any protesting or barking will be ignored. You must have more patience and tenacity than your dog. You will only acknowledge, praise, or touch him if he is behaving calmly. If he is seen patrolling the front window, you will interrupt that behavior; tell him “leave it” as you guide him away by the leash.
-Effectively correct barking
Because the barking is a habit, it may not stop right away. In order to cease it more effectively, we will use mild discipline to correct it. Imagine a cost-benefit analysis from the dogs point of view: If barking costs more than it is worth, why continue to do it? Saying “NO” is not a big enough “cost” for Rocco, he simply does not care, or is immune to the word. You have two choices: You will purchase a simple squirt bottle, and will give him a squirt of water if he barks. If he doesn’t mind it (or even enjoys the water) you will use a Pet Corrector, a small canister that gives a harmless blast of air. This is priced at $8.99, and is quite effective. You will say “no” .5 seconds (half a second) before you apply the correction.
Imagine a cost-benefit analysis from the dogs point of view: If barking costs more than it is worth, why continue to do it?
Further important recommendation: Join a local obedience class that utilizes balanced and effective methods. This will give you the ability to communicate with your dog, will provide mental stimulation for him, and will give you the ability to correct any unwanted behaviors while reinforcing good skills. Since you are not local to Chicago, I will recommend a trainer in your area for obedience.