Why Dogs Bark and Curbing Excessive Barking (cont.)

If It's Territorial Barking or Alarm Barking

Territorial behavior is often motivated by both fear and anticipation of a perceived threat. Because defending territory is such a high priority to them, many dogs are highly motivated to bark when they detect the approach of unknown people or animals near familiar places, like their homes and yards. This high level of motivation means that when barking territorially, your dog might ignore unpleasant or punishing responses from you, such as scolding or yelling. Even if the barking itself is suppressed by punishment, your dog's motivation to guard his territory will remain strong, and he might attempt to control his territory in another way, such as biting without warning.

Dogs engage in territorial barking to alert others to the presence of visitors or to scare off intruders or both. A dog might bark when he sees or hears people coming to the door, the mail carrier delivering the mail and the maintenance person reading the gas meter. He might also react to the sights and sounds of people and dogs passing by your house or apartment. Some dogs get especially riled up when they're in the car and see people or dogs pass by. You should be able to judge from your dog's body posture and behavior whether he's barking to say “Welcome, come on in!” or “Hey, you'd better hit the road. You're not welcome at my place!” If you're dealing with a dog in the first category, follow the treatment outlined in this article for greeting barking (below). If you're dealing with a dog in the latter category who isn't friendly to people, you'll be more successful if you limit your dog's ability to see or hear passersby and teach him to associate the presence of strangers with good things, such as food and attention. Please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, for a thorough explanation of the purpose and effective use of these treatments.

For treatment of territorial barking, your dog's motivation should be reduced as well as his opportunities to defend his territory. To manage your dog's behavior, you'll need to block his ability to see people and animals. Removable plastic film or spray-based glass coatings can help to obscure your dog's view of areas that he observes and guards from within your house. Use secure, opaque fencing to surround outside areas your dog has access to. Don't allow your dog to greet people at the front door, at your front yard gate or at your property boundary line. Instead, train him to go to an alternate location, like a crate or a mat, and remain quiet until he's invited to greet appropriately. (To learn how to do this, please see “Go to Your Spot” Training on Pages 4 and 5)

Alarm barking is very similar to territorial barking in that it's triggered by sights and sounds. However, dogs who alarm bark might do so in response to things that startle or upset them when they're not on familiar turf. For example, a dog who barks territorially in response to the sight of strangers approaching will usually only do so when in his own home, yard or car. By contrast, a dog who habitually alarm barks might vocalize when he sees or hears strangers approaching in other places, too. Although territorial barking and alarm barking are a little different, the recommendations below apply to both problems.

“Quiet” Training

If your dog continues to alarm bark or bark territorially, despite your efforts to block his exposure to sights and sounds that might trigger his barking, try the following techniques:

  • Teach your dog that when someone comes to the door or passes by your property, he's permitted to bark until you say “Quiet.” Allow your dog to bark three to four times. Then say “Quiet.” Avoid shouting. Just say the command clearly and calmly. Then go to your dog, gently hold his muzzle closed with your hand and repeat “Quiet.” Release your dog's muzzle, step away, and call him away from the door or window. Then ask your dog to sit and give him a treat. If he stays beside you and remains quiet, continue to give him frequent treats for the next few minutes, until whatever triggered his barking is gone. If your dog resumes barking right away, repeat the sequence above. Do the same outside if he barks at passersby when he's in the yard.
  • If you prefer not to hold your dog's muzzle or if doing so seems to scare your dog or make him struggle, you can try a different method. When your dog barks, approach him, calmly say “Quiet,” and then prompt his silence by feeding him a steady stream of tiny, pea-sized treats, such as chicken, hot dogs or bits of cheese. After enough repetitions of this sequence, over several days or more of training, your dog will begin to understand what “Quiet” means. You'll know that he's catching on if he consistently stops barking as soon as he hears you say “Quiet.” At this point, you can gradually extend the time between the cue, “Quiet,” and your dog's reward. For example, say “Quiet,” wait 2 seconds, and then feed your dog several small treats in a row. Over many repetitions, gradually increase the time from 2 seconds to 5, then 10, then 20, and so on.
  • If the “Quiet” procedure is ineffective after 10 to 20 attempts, then allow your dog to bark 3 to 4 times, calmly say “Quiet,” and then immediately make a startling noise by shaking a set of keys or an empty soda can filled with pennies. If your dog is effectively startled by the sound, he'll stop barking. The instant he does, call him away from the door or window, ask him to sit, and give him a treat. If he stays beside you and remains quiet, continue to give him frequent treats for the next few minutes until whatever triggered his barking is gone. If he resumes barking right away, repeat the sequence. If this procedure doesn't work after 10 to 20 attempts, please see our article, Finding Professional Help,for information about finding a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) for guidance.
  • If your dog barks at people or other dogs during walks, distract him with special treats, like chicken, cheese or hot dogs, before he begins to bark. (Soft, very tasty treats work best.) Show your dog the treats by holding them in front of his nose, and encourage him to nibble at them while he's walking past a person or dog who would normally cause him to bark. Some dogs do best if you ask them to sit as people or dogs pass. Other dogs prefer to keep moving. Make sure you praise and reward your dog with treats anytime he chooses not to bark.
  • It may help to have your dog wear a head halter at times when he's likely to bark (for example, on walks or in your house). A halter can have a distracting or calming effect and make your dog less likely to bark. Make sure you reward him for not barking. (Important note: For safety reasons, only let your dog wear the halter when you can supervise him.)
  • If your dog most often barks territorially in your yard, keep him in the house during the day and supervise him when he's in the yard so that he can't just bark his head off when no one's around. If he's sometimes able to engage in excessive alarm barking (when you're not around, for example), that behavior will get stronger and harder to reduce.
  • If your dog most often barks territorially in your car, teach him to ride in a crate while in the car.(If you need help introducing your dog to a crate, please see our article, Weekend Crate Training.) Riding in a crate will restrict your dog's view and reduce his motivation to bark. If crating your dog in your car isn't feasible, try having your dog wear a head halter in the car instead. (Important note: For safety reasons, only let your dog wear the halter when you can supervise him.)

“Go to Your Spot” Training

It also helps to teach your dog a specific set of behaviors to do when people come into your home so that he has fewer opportunities to alarm bark. Plus, when your dog performs his new behaviors and receives rewards, he'll learn that people coming into his and your space is a good thing.

  1. Before you can train your dog to go to a spot and stay there when a door opens, you'll need to teach him how to sit or lie down and then how to stay. Please see our articles, Teaching Your Dog to Sit Teaching Your Dog to Stay, to find out how. After your dog has learned these skills, you can progress to Step 2.
  2. Identify a place in your home where you'd like your dog to go when people come to the door. If possible, choose a place that's at least eight feet away from the front door but still within sight. It might be a spot at the top of a set of stairs, inside the doorway of an adjacent room, your dog's crate, or a rug positioned at the far corner of an entryway or foyer.
  3. Say “Go to your spot,” show your dog a treat, and then throw the treat onto the spot where you'd like your dog to go. Repeat this sequence 10 to 20 times. By the 10th time, try pretending to throw the treat so that your dog begins to move toward the spot on his own. As soon as he's standing on his spot or rug, throw him the treat. As your dog catches on, you can stop making the fake throwing motion with your arm and just give him the cue, “Go to your spot.” Then wait until he does and reward him.
  4. Once your dog is reliably going to his spot, vary where you are when you send him there. Practice asking him to go to his spot from many different angles and distances. For example, say “Go to your spot” when you're standing a few steps to the left of it. After a few repetitions, move a few steps to the right of the spot and say, “Go to your spot” from that position. Then move to another area in the room, then another, etc. Eventually, practice standing by the front door and asking your dog to go to his spot, just as you might when visitors arrive.
  5. When your dog masters going to his spot, start asking him to sit or down when he gets there. As soon as your dog's rear end hits the floor on the spot, say “Yes!” and reward him with a tasty treat. Then say “Okay,” and allow him to move off the spot. Repeat these steps at least 10 times per training session.
  6. Now add stay into your exercise. Stand next to your dog's spot. Ask him to sit or lie down, say “Stay” and wait one second. Then say “Yes!” or “Good!” and give him a treat. After you deliver the treat, say “Okay” to release your dog from the stay and encourage him to get off the spot. Repeat this sequence at least 10 times per training session. Progressively increase from one second to several seconds, but vary the time so that sometimes you make the exercise easy (a shorter stay) and sometimes you make it hard (a longer stay). If your dog starts to get up before you say “Okay,” say “Uh-uh!” or “Oops!” and immediately ask him to sit or lie down on his spot again. Then make the exercise a little easier the next few times by asking your dog to hold the stay for a shorter time. Avoid pushing your dog to progress too fast or testing him to see how long he can hold the stay before getting up. This sets your dog up to fail. You want him to be successful at least 8 out of 10 times in a row.
  7. When your dog can consistently stay on his spot for at least 30 seconds, with you standing in front of him, you can start moving toward the door. Say the cue “Go to your spot,” walk with your dog to his spot, ask him to sit or lie down and ask him to stay. At first, just turn your head away from your dog. Then turn back to give him a treat and release him from the stay. After a few repetitions, make things a little harder. After your dog is sitting or lying down on his spot, ask him to stay and then take one step toward the door. Return immediately, give your dog a treat and then release him from the stay with your release word or phrase. Gradually increase the number of steps that you take away from your dog and toward the door. Eventually you'll be able to walk all the way to the door and back while your dog stays sitting or lying down on his spot. (Don't forget to keep rewarding him for staying!) If your dog stands up or leaves his spot before you release him from the stay, say “Oops!” the moment he gets up. Then immediately tell him to sit or lie down on his spot again and stay. Wait a few seconds and then release him. You may have progressed too fast. Next time, make the exercise a little easier so your dog can succeed. Ask him to stay for a shorter period of time and don't move as far away from him. When he's successful at an easier level, you can gradually make the exercise harder again. Never end your dog's stay from a distance. Instead, always return to him, say “Yes,” give him a treat, and then say “Okay” to release him.
  8. When your dog can consistently stay in a sit or a down on his spot for 30 seconds, while you turn away and walk to your front door, you can start to introduce some distractions. Tell your dog to stay, and then do something distracting. At first make your distractions mild. For example, start by bending down or doing a single jumping jack. Over many sessions of training, gradually intensify your distractions to things like running a few steps or tossing a treat on the floor. Reward your dog quickly after each distraction for holding the stay. If he breaks the stay, quickly say “Uh-uh,” ask him to sit or lie down on his spot, and try again. When your dog can stay while you do all sorts of distracting things, ask him to stay while you go to the front door of your home and pretend to greet someone there. Your goal is for him to learn to stay the entire time you're at the door.
  9. The next step in “Go to Your Spot” training is to recruit friends and family to help you conduct mock practice visits. Arrange to have someone come to the door. You will work with your dog to help him stay on his own. Be prepared! This will probably take a long time the first few visits. When you open the door, one of two things can happen. Sometimes you leave your dog there on his spot while you talk to the person at the door, as if your visitor is a courier or delivery person. Your dog never gets to say hello. (However, you, the person or both of you should frequently toss treats to your dog to reward him for staying.) At other times, invite the visitor in. Wait until the person sits down somewhere, and then release your dog to join you and your guest. When you have a friend help you with a mock visit, be sure to repeat the scenario over and over, at least 10 to 20 times. Practice makes perfect! Have the person come in for 5 to 10 minutes or just pretend to deliver something, then leave for 5 to 10 minutes, then return for a second visit, and so on. Your dog should experience at least 10 visits in a row with the same person. With each repetition, it will become easier for him to do what you expect because he'll be less excited by the whole routine-especially when it's the same person at the door, over and over again.
  10. Continue to recruit people to help you practice “Go to Your Spot” exercises until your dog reliably goes to his spot and stays there until you release him by saying “Okay.” At this point, your dog should be able to perform his new “Go to Your Spot” skill perfectly about 90 percent of the time during training sessions. The hardest part for your dog will be going to his spot and staying there in real-life situations, when he hasn't been able to do a few warm-up repetitions. To prepare your dog for times when real visitors arrive, ask friends who already know your dog well to drop by randomly when you'll be home. Then ask friends who don't know your dog well to drop by. With plenty of practice, your dog will be able to go to his spot and stay there, even when neither of you knows who's at the door!
  11. Eventually, when real visitors come to your home, you can ask your dog to go to his spot as soon as they knock or ring the doorbell. After letting your guests in, ask them to sit down. Wait about one minute before releasing your dog from his spot to greet them. Put your dog on a leash if you think he might jump on your guests or behave aggressively. After a minute or two of allowing your dog to greet people, ask him to lie down at your feet and stay. Give him something to keep him busy, such as a rawhide or a KONG® toy stuffed with something really tasty, like low-fat cream cheese, Cheez Whiz® or low-fat peanut butter, frozen banana and cottage cheese, or canned dog food and kibble. (Please see our article, How to Stuff a KONG Toy, for information about using food puzzle toys.) After your dog finishes with the rawhide or the KONG, he'll probably go to sleep. If you repeat the ritual above for a while, your dog should learn to settle down calmly when guests visit your home.

If you need help teaching your dog these skills, don't hesitate to enlist the help of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in your area. A professional trainer can meet with you one-on-one to guide you through the process of teaching your dog to sit, stay and go to a spot on command. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these experts near you.