Barking is a very normal and useful part of canine communication, it serves many purposes for a dog and is one of the key ways in which a dog will express their emotions about any given situation. However, as normal as it is, it can become a problem, quickly. Dogs may bark when someone rings the door bell, or due to excitement in play, these may not be such a problem to us however when a dog incessantly barks, it can cause big issues for us their owners, and for our neighbours!
Dogs vocalise for a multitude of reasons, there is no ONE reason why a dog will bark, however we can generalise slightly by saying that largely they are communicating something to either us, or each other. Barking can become a ‘self-soothing’ behaviour, for example in shelter situations this can occur, however for the purposes of this article and puppy behaviour, we can assume that your pups are not isolated for most of the day therefore not barking in this way!
So why do dogs bark? Here’s a few possibilities:
- alert/guard barking – door bell rings, someone unfamiliar approaching the house etc
- excitement barking – upon seeing/playing with friends, when you arrive home etc
- fear/anxiety – other dogs, people, anything seen as a PERCEIVED threat
- reactivity barking – often seen in on-lead reactivity, at anything within the environment ie. dogs, people, bikes etc
- boredom – as simple as it sounds! Not enough activity, physical or mental will result in a bored dog!
- demand barking – as simple as it sounds again! Vocalising to gain something, ie. food, walk, game, or simply attention
There are more, but this is just a small list of the common reasons behind vocalising of any sort. The one we are looking at today is demand barking. It is MUCH more common than you may realise and will often present itself during those early juvenile months.
Demand barking is SO easily developed because to begin with, it ISN’T demand barking, it’s simply a small amount of vocalising. Our little pup barks, we either pick him up or put our hands down saying ‘shhhhh calm down’ etc, and suddenly we have reinforced that barking. We have shown our pups that if you make that sound, you get lots of attention from me. Or, we try to work out what it is they are demanding and offer a plethora of goodies! Oh is he hungry? Let’s offer some food. Oh is he bored? Let’s play a game. Oh is he tired? I’ll give him a cuddle. And thus demand barking is born. It’s SO so easy for this behaviour to develop.
Demand barking is difficult to tackle, because largely we simply can’t ignore it. Shouting at your pup will not work as at best he will think you are joining in and thus find it reinforcing, and at worst you will cause distress and ruin the bond you are aiming to build at this young age. So, how CAN we deal with demand barking?
I offer advice regarding barking in many contexts during my 1-2-1’s, however let’s go over some general advice regarding demand barking and ways to tackle it:
1. Why is the dog barking – first and foremost, look at the context in which the vocalising occurs. If you can not pinpoint WHY and WHEN the barking occurs you can not tackle it.
2. What kind of barking is it – what we may see as demand barking may not be so, again look at the context of the bark, dogs do bark and it’s not always a bad thing!
3. If you find it IS demand barking – can you ignore it? Are you in a position to be able to ignore it? If yes, make sure above all else you do not ignore for 20 mins, and then cave and interact with your pup. Next time, your pup will bark for 25 mins! If you’re going to use extinction (removal of reinforcement until the behaviour ceases) then be sure you 100% stick to it at ALL times (this is not easy to do!).
Now we come to the tricky bit, most of us can’t use extinction because we have neighbours! And probably a headache by this point. What a lovely world we would live in if we could ignore barking, however it’s just not the case. So what can we do?
Here’s some tips:
- Ensure adequate mental and physical exercise is provided – a tired, fulfilled dog is less likely to display this behaviour. Ensure exercise requirements are met, and ensure the brain is being used to it’s full capacity every day! (Be mindful of exercise limitations with puppies).
- Remove yourself – take yourself out of the situation, removal of YOU is in itself a negative consequence, return/interact only when your pup is quiet.
- Teach a ‘quiet’ cue – some teach their dog to ‘speak’ and ‘quiet’ on cue, believing the ‘quiet’ can then be used when needed.
- Scent work – try some scatter feeding every day, or some interactive games where they need to sniff out treats, scent work can be tiring, fun and hugely fulfilling for a dog!
- Ask for an incompatible behaviour – if you ask for a ‘sit’, or a ‘down’, you may gain attention and focus and the dog may stop barking, however a dog can still sit and bark! If possible, try to ask for an incompatible behaviour BEFORE the barking starts. For example ‘touch’, ‘hold’ a toy, a dog can not bark and perform these behaviours at the same time.
- Teach a ‘settle’ cue – encouraging calm passive behaviours from an early age will help in keeping a pups excitement level low, limiting over-stimulating activities is a good idea!
- Teach a ‘bed’ cue – asking your pup to DO something is beneficial, we may ask for a ‘quiet’ and that may work well, but if we just then ignore our pup they will likely continue afterwards!
- Sleep – ensure your pup is getting enough sleep!
- Capture good behaviour! – we leap on our pups when they do something we don’t like, and ignore them when they are polite and performing well! If your pup is settled, relaxed and laying down, reward that.
The main thing is to NOT reinforce it, ever. It’s difficult, very difficult. Prevention is always better than cure so set your pup up to succeed, make sure you are left with something to reinforce. Try to work out approximate times of day your pup is more likely to demand bark, it will usually be at a certain time so prepare for these time! Prepare a stuffed kong for your pup in his crate, cut up some tiny treats to scatter, prepare some interactive toys, go on a nice walk, plan ahead and don’t wait for the barking to begin before deciding how to tackle it.
It is essential with any demand barking that it is dealt with consistently. If one day we ignore, the next day ask for a ‘quiet’, the next we pick the dog up, we have NO consistency and the barking will continue. The dog will keep seeking reinforcement from barking due to it’s sporadic success! Try and remember interaction isn’t just touching your puppy, it’s eye contact, it’s talking. So, if you are ignoring the barking simply stand up and walk into another room and completely ignore your puppy, don’t look at him and don’t say a word.
Try and remember if a behaviour is reinforced it will likely be repeated, remove reinforcement or ask for a different behaviour that you DO want and you set yourself up for success. Try to prevent it even starting, and if the behaviour does develop set your pup up in situations where he is LEAST likely to perform it, thus giving you something to reward. If dealt with EARLY, it will never become habit. If left, it will progress and be harder reverse later down the line.