Bark On The Dotted Line
Dogs bark. It’s one of the ways they communicate. It’s loud and annoying to humans, unless the barker is telling you that someone is breaking into your home. Then it’s a godsend. See?
Here’s my point. The objective of domesticity is to take a wild creature and, over time, morph its natural proclivities so that said creature will fit into our human lifestyle. We alter inbred canine behavior to fit natural (wild?) human behavior. It’s the only way we can live with dogs. Without bending them to our social mores, they’d destroy our homes, pee on everything, have a million babies, kill cats, bite people, and never bathe. They would never do agility, never walk nicely on a leash, never balance cookies on their noses, never see the need for housetraining. See? Domesticity is a good thing.
Whenever your dog barks incessantly, for whatever reason, it is short-circuiting the domestic contract, and performing a natural act that has been deemed inappropriate by us. It’s not showing aberrant behavior in terms of it’s natural instincts, but rather simply breaking house rules.
Some dogs bark their heads off because they have not yet accepted or been taught what this domestic “contract” really is. When we fail to so this, we are being unfair to our dogs, especially when we foolishly use physical punishment on them for barking. They don’t know it’s not allowed until you teach them this. You’ve probably taught them that defecating in your bedroom is not cool, yes? The same goes for barking.
Barking can also occur if a dog ignores the “contract,” because of a greater need- usually fear, or perceived territorial invasion. If a well-trained dog sees a shady dude sneaking around your property, it WILL bark. That’s okay; that’s a smart dog doing its job. You want that. My dog Rico is a relatively quiet dog, but if Joe Burglar breaks in, Rico WILL bark, and perhaps do a lot more. It’s an allowable breach of the contract.
Other dogs bark because they learn that if they do, as does a crying toddler, it will garner attention. The dog who barks his head off while tethered outside of a café, his human inside getting coffee, inevitably gets the behavior reinforced when his human comes out to tell it to be quiet (usually touching it in the process- a clear form of praise). This is a breach of the contract. Some of these dogs are actually suffering from separation anxiety- usually recently rescued dogs from a shelter or the road. For them, the fear of abandonment is greater than whatever repercussions might come from the barking. In this case, the solution to the barking is a long term project, centered around convincing the dog that no one is going to leave him. But if you console a dog like this, if you come over and pet him and say “it’s alright, Fluffy,” you WILL create a barking machine. They think in a concrete fashion, and will bark again and again if you respond to it this way.
Make no mistake; dogs must abide by the contract. And so must you. If you take a dog in, you must agree to teach him the rules of the covenant. If you do not, you cannot hold him responsible. Dogs cannot read contracts. You must explain the contract TO them.
Dogs bark out of boredom, too. That’s a big one. And dogs will learn to bark their heads off if you leave them in a yard that has a good line-of-sight on regular human or car traffic. An example of this is the dog left in a front, fenced yard, with kids walking home from school right by the fence. This is a classic setup for teaching a dog not only to bark, but to develop a lifelong, contentious suspicion of kids and strangers.
Here’s what happens: a group of kids walk by, and the dog woofs a bit. Then the kids keep walking, and eventually disappear. The dog thinks he has scared the “intruders” away. This happens over and over, day after day, hundreds of times, while you are at work, oblivious. The dog self-reinforces the barking behavior. Eventually his barks get louder and harder and more aggressive. Sooner or later, you have a barking machine who will in all likelihood bite a kid who teases the dog, or who makes the mistake of trying to pet the dog through the fence.
The solution to this? DO NOT EVER leave your dog in a yard with visual access to strangers walking by. Put him in the back yard, or teach him to be able to be inside the home, where he should be. That after all has been a dog’s primary job for thousands of years- to protect the home. If your dog is left indoors, DO NOT leave the blinds and/or curtains open, to give him a view, thinking that you are being kind. That’s the human in you. Your dog is a dog, not a human. Close the darn curtains.
If your dog is a rescue who suffers from separation anxiety, do not tie him up outside a store or café and leave him there. If you do, you are asking for trouble. Instead, bring a friend with you who can sit with the dog while you go in and get coffee. Then come back out and drink the coffee outside. Praise the dog and say “Good Quiet” if he is quiet. You do this for several months, then eventually try it without the friend, going into the café just long enough to get your coffee. While gone, give him a favorite chew toy to work on. Eventually, when your dog’s bad memories fade and he begins to see that you are not ever going to leave him, he will lose the fear and the bark.
Prevention is big. Keeping your dog mentally and physically stimulated will minimize the boredom bark. Train your dog every day, to create a “language” between you. Teach him that you love him, but that you make the house rules. People who teach their dogs that they have parity on all levels with humans are doomed to a noisy future. It’s your job to be a loving mentor who teaches rules, consequences, and rewards. There is no creature on earth who experiences only positive events in its life, so why should your dog? Why should you? Have you ever gotten an “F” on a test? Didn’t you learn from it? As a part of your family, your dog will experience and learn from consequences, both positive and negative, no matter what you do or don’t do. If you doubt this, just watch five dogs together in a yard, for ten minutes. They learn social consequence very quickly.
If your dog is barking his head off right in front of you, and it’s not from a direct threat or from abject fear, simply clap loudly and say “NO, QUIET.” Then praise for being quiet. Or, spritz him in the schnozz with water from a plant sprayer bottle while saying “NO, QUIET” at the same time. Then when he is momentarily quiet, say “Good Quiet.” This is not “positive,” but it does not hurt, or demean. Try it on yourself to see. This is an example of a “non-positive” consequence that works, when followed up by positive reward for being quiet.
Another way to shut down barking is to actually teach your dog to bark on command. Yes, that’s right; actually get him to bark. When you teach him the behavior, your dog begins to understand it in a logical, conscious manner; it becomes a behavior in his repertoire. Once you have done this, you can then shut the learned behavior down with a “Quiet” command. Barking becomes an understood behavior, like a trick.
To teach “Bark,” you first need to get him to spontaneously bark to a natural cue- maybe a rap on the floor, a blow of air in the nose, a squeeze on a squeeze toy- whatever you think will prompt him to bark on his own. Once you can prompt a bark, pair it with the command “Bark!” Then reward with a treat. Use a clicker, if you desire, but it’s not necessary. Keep at it three or four times each day until you can get your dog to bark when you ask it to. Then, pair the spoken word with a hand sign (a fist, a point to you nose, or whatever), so that you can eventually prompt the bark with a signal instead of a voice command. Once he understands the command, he will also understand the absence of it.
Barking isn’t a sign of a bad dog. It’s just a sign of a misunderstood contract. You’re the one writing it, so you’re the one to explain and enforce it. Now get to work.