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The ABC’s of Barking - By Terri Bright, APDT & ABC Mentor Trainer

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  Angela Peña, Director of Media and Public Relations
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Saturday, January 30, 2010 : 12:19:12 PM
Updated Thursday, August 18, 2011 : 10:04:29 AM
It is normal for dogs to bark; however, in the world of humans, it is disruptive, and can be problematic for every reason you can imagine. If your dog’s barking is driving you crazy and you want the behavior to change, you must first discern the cause of the barking. In this article, I will address some common types of problem barking. Please note that any dog who appears overly anxious, or whose behavior changes suddenly, should be seen by a veterinarian to make sure it is not ill.

Let us consider the ABC of behavior, starting with A, for “antecedent.” Before every behavior, there exists an antecedent, sometimes called a “trigger.” Observe your dog (if you want to be very scientific, keep a written record), and note the triggers that make your dog bark, i.e., a ringing doorbell, the mail carrier, passing traffic, bicycles, etc.

“B” is for “BARK!” … I mean, behavior. Behavior is best defined specifically if it needs changing. Even barking can be specifically defined: how long between the trigger and the onset of barking? (This is called latency.) What does the barking sound like? Is it always the same, or is it different- sometimes a YIKEYIKEYIKE, sometimes a low grrrbark? (This is the topography of the bark. Is it loud? Soft? (Magnitude.) How long does it last (duration)? The better you can define the barking, the better chance you will have to change the behavior.

“C” is for consequence, or what happens after the barking that either reinforces (increases) or punishes (decreases) barking. Again, your powers of scientific observation will serve you well. Write down what happened after the barking: did you yell at the dog to be quiet? Did you move towards the dog to take it by the collar or “correct” it? Did you go and get it a cookie? Did you groan, jump, or react in any way that the dog could discern visually or by hearing you?

Then what happened? More barking? Quiet? If you keep detailed records on your dog’s barking, you will see patterns emerge, which will help you to discern the correct way to change the dog’s behavior. Behavior is changed through manipulating either the antecedent or the consequence. Below are some types of barking, and how the behaviors can be changed:

“Attention” or “demand” barking: The dog’s barking increases as you respond, culminating in you putting the dog where you can’t hear it, or confining it in a room or a crate, or you and the dog increase your back and forth communication (“Bark!” “Quiet!” BARK!” “QUIET!” BARRRK!!” “QUUIIII-ET!!!”) until one of you (the dog) gets the last word in, or gets their wish. After the dog is confined (or let out), or one of you gets the last (and often, loudest) word in, or the dog is given what it wants, like food, out, a toy, etc., the barking ceases.

Solution: Manipulate the consequence. If the dog is reinforced by getting something, be it attention (even if ever so slight), food, play, out of its confinement, etc., the behavior will increase, unless you ignore the behavior. This is called “extinction.” In extinction, a previously reinforced behavior is no longer reinforced. Be warned: in a phenomenon known as “extinction burst,” the behavior will get worse before it goes away. The danger is this: you ignore the barking for ten minutes until it is so loud and distracting you finally yell “Be QUIET!” at the dog. You have now reinforced the behavior at its strongest level, and are back at square one. If you are going to undertake this mission, bring cookies to all of your neighbors and explain what you are going to do. Explain to all household members that the rule is to ignore all barking. It took time to build the barking behavior to the problem point, and it will take time for it to go away. Be patient and consistent.

“Alarm” barking: The barking is triggered by the sight or sound of something, usually outdoors, like the doorbell, mail carrier, bicycles or strollers. The dog barks at the stimulus and it goes away, which reinforces the barking.

Solution: Since it is hard to arrange for the mail carrier to stand on your porch until your dog stops barking (to avoid reinforcing the barking), manipulate the antecedent. Prevent the sight of visual triggers, and/or (this is trickier) the sound of audio triggers. You can also counter-condition the triggers, a la Pavlov, by feeding the dog delicious, meaty treats at the dog’s earliest alert, pre-bark, to the trigger. Thus, the sound of a stroller coming up the sidewalk means COOKIES! Keep a special tin of dog biscuits that is only opened when the doorbell rings, and enlist the help of a volunteer to ring the bell while you celebrate the biscuit delivery indoors with the dog. Alternately, you can teach the dog to go to a place, like a rug or crate, when the doorbell rings.

“I bark, therefore I am:” Let’s face it, dogs bark. It’s part of what makes them a dog. Some dogs like to bark more than others. They are bred to sound off to a human for a variety of reasons, none of which originally involved motor vehicles or doorbells, but our modern world has provided convenient substitutes for prey such as rabbits or foxes or raccoons. These dogs are hard-wired to love the sound of their own voices. They may not need to hear the mail carrier drop the mail to begin their barking beguine. They may sit in a room and appear to bark at nothing. This is “self-reinforcing” behavior, meaning it is maintained by the inner reward it provides the dog.

Solution: Since the behavior is self-reinforcing, you have to manipulate the antecedent to change the behavior. A dog who is barking to hear itself bark may need more intellectual and physical stimulation. Three 5-minute reward-based training sessions a day, along with some large-muscle exercise like running or playing fetch, or sniffing for kibble in the tall grass, should help tire a dog so it can rest without barking. The dog can be amused by licking a marrow bone or peanut-butter-filled Kong, or knocking a Buster Cube around. If you do not provide an antecedent amusement for the dog, it will amuse itself…by barking.

But I want my dog to bark, a little: You can teach your dog a word (the word “Quiet” comes to mind) which means, “Come and get a cookie,” If you hear your dog bark, go and look at what they are barking at, say “Quiet,” and give them a cookie. Even if they are in another room, and you call out “Quiet!” to them, they will come and find you to get their reward. Beware: for some dogs this can become a behavior chain, with them barking to hear you say “quiet” and get them a cookie. To prevent this, reward quiet behavior often, make sure your dog gets lots of exercise and intellectual stimulation, and counter-condition the triggers as above to lessen barking overall.

You can also teach your dog to bark, on cue, then never ask them to do it. You can teach it by saying “Speak!” when they bark, then giving them something big to eat, while you say “Quiet.” When it is all gone, say “Speak!” again, and after they bark, repeat “Quiet!” while they eat. They will learn to associate quiet with barking in this way.

With careful observation and record-keeping, you should be able to determine whether manipulating the antecedent or consequence of your dog’s barking will best change its behavior. You do not need a white lab coat to be a scientist; you can be your own behaviorist, and revel in the quiet you and your best friend achieve together.