How to Prevent Barking With Positive Reinforcement

Fed up with your dog’s barking?

If so, you’re not alone. Barking is one of the most common complaints from dog parents – and it can be difficult to solve.

In this article, I’ll teach you why dogs bark, how to eliminate rewards for barking, and how to prevent it using positive methods.

But before we get started, remember that barking is a natural form of canine communication. The occasional bark is normal – you can’t expect a dog to be silent. It’s only when barking becomes incessant that you need to act.

Step 1: Understand Why Your Dog is Barking

Dogs bark for many reasons. You need to work out why your pet is barking before you can address the problem.

Sometimes there is an obvious cause, such as hearing the postman or seeing a cat in the garden. This is alert barking, and is a dog’s way of letting you know about an intruder or noise. Some dogs also use attention barking when they want food or a cuddle.

Alert and attention barking usually need specific training to solve. Until you teach an alternative behavior, your dog will bark when faced with the same stimulus.

A dog may also bark through frustration or boredom though. In these situations, providing more mental and physical stimulation could be enough to solve the problem.

Step 2: Eliminate Any Reward for Barking

Your dog should never get a reward for barking, as this reinforces the behavior.

Any attention from you – whether that’s being called over or even shouted at – can be a reward. What’s worse is that the behavior may become more extreme over time, as your dog learns that barking gets a reaction.

Here are some examples:

  • If your dog is barking for attention, turn and walk away. Only give your dog what he wants when he’s quiet.
  • If your dog barks when he wants food, leave the kitchen and only return when he’s stopped.
  • If your dog is barking to go outside, wait until he settles before opening the door.
  • If your dog barks when someone walks past the fence, don’t call him over until he’s calmed down.

This type of training may be enough to prevent attention barking – especially if you reward your dog for doing the “right” thing.

The bad news is that barking can sometimes be self-reinforcing. If your dog barks to tell the postman to go away, for example, the postman leaving – which he always does – is reinforcing that the behavior works.

In these situations, and for most types of alert barking, you need to train an alternative behavior.

Step 3: Train an Alternative Behavior for Alert Barking

Once you’ve determined why your dog is barking and eliminated rewards (if possible), the next step is to teach an alternative behavior.

Start by listening for exactly when your dog barks. Does he start as soon as he hears footsteps outside? Or does he wait until the person gets to the front door? The point where he starts barking is his current tolerance level.

The key is to teach your dog that a different behavior gets a reward. This is easiest if you can interrupt the behavior before your dog reaches his barking threshold.

When your dog hears or sees the trigger, but before his tolerance level is reached, ask for the behavior you want. This could be a sit, lie down, or just to look at you. Give a treat and lots of praise when he does it.

If you miss the trigger and your dog starts barking, ignore him and wait for the next training opportunity.

Ideally, you should have a friend create the trigger so you can practice. This isn’t always possible – especially if your dog barks at cats or strangers walking past the fence – but can be useful for noise triggers.

Repeat this process as often as possible. It can be time-consuming, but your dog will start to understand what you want when faced with a certain trigger.

Note: If there is an element of fear to your dog’s barking, it’s vital to stay below his anxiety threshold when training. Once your dog starts getting stressed or anxious, it’s already too late for it to be an effective training opportunity.

Step 4: Prevent Any Reinforcement During the Training Process

Whenever you can’t train your dog, keep him away from triggers to avoid reinforcement.

This might mean temporarily not letting your dog into the garden when you’re inside. Or leaving him in a room at the back of the house when the postman is due.

Alternatively, removing the trigger is the easiest way to prevent barking becoming a habit. If your dog barks at people through the fence, for example, then blocking his vision is probably the best solution.

What Not To Do…

Shouting or physically hurting a dog is never a good solution to any unwanted behavior. Aside from damaging the pet/owner relationship, these methods create negative associations. Even if the dog doesn’t bark, he’ll become stressed and potentially aggressive the next time he’s in the same situation.

I also don’t recommend citronella collars. While these might seem more humane than shock collars, they can create fear and negative associations.

Summary

Continuous barking can be a frustrating problem. Although you might be tempted to shout “be quiet,” this can actually make the problem worse.

Before you can prevent barking, you need to understand what’s causing the behavior. Is he barking for attention? To alert you to something? Or just because he’s bored?

Once you know the cause of barking, you can take steps to solve it. This might be as simple as giving your dog a longer walk so he doesn’t get bored. Or, more likely, it could mean using positive reinforcement to train an alternative behavior.

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