Barking. What a headache! So-called demand barking used to be one of my least favorite behaviors to work on with my clients. After getting a lot more experience, though, stopping dogs from barking when they want playtime is one of my most common success stories!
I’ll walk you through how I do it as we answer today’s Ask a Behavior Consultant question.
Since my lab was a pup, he has been very vocal. He a very loud and persistent in-your-face bark when he wants walks or to play. I know we encouraged this by giving him what he wanted sometimes as a pup. Please help so I don’t have to buy earmuffs.
– Sincerely, Going Deaf in DC
Yikes! Face-barking is maybe my least favorite sort of demand barking.
“Going Deaf” hit the nail on the head when she wrote that she probably made this problem worse by giving the dog what he wanted when he barked as a puppy. Whoops! That’s ok, though. That ship has sailed, no use beating ourselves up about it.
If your dog barks at you when he wants something, you CANNOT reward that behavior by:
- Telling him to shush – looking at him and talking to him is probably a reward.
- Giving him a toy or chewie to quiet him
- Cuing him to do something else and then giving him a toy – you’ll probably create an accidental behavior chain here.
Punishment also isn’t likely to work well in this case unless it’s quite strong.
This boisterous lab is probably not going to stop barking just because of you “barking” back (by yelling). If you try to smack him, he might just learn to bark out of reach. A bark (shock) collar might stop the barking, but it won’t fix his underlying emotional state (which is the real problem here).
It’s also important to note one study of 1251 dogs found that, “Bark-activated collars appeared to be the least efficient and the most injurious type [of shock collar].”
So, no, we’re not going to try to scare or intimidate this behavior out of our barker.
1. Understand Why Your Dog is Barking at You.
Whenever we’re trying to fix a behavior problem in a dog, one of our first goals is to understand “What’s the function?” (WTF).
It sounds like our barky lab is barking in order to initiate playtime. Ok… so what happens next? Whatever happens next is maintaining the behavior somehow. My guess is the owners try to ignore him, then give up and either scold him or give him something to shut him up.
Unfortunately, their failed attempt at waiting the dog out is just teaching him to bark for LONGER and LONGER! It’s ok – this is a common problem. Don’t beat yourself up. The problem is that you’re following advice that doesn’t give you a better option.
Your dog is barking at you to get you to play because SOMETHING in the environment is (at least sometimes) rewarding his barking.
Step 2: Remove Rewards for Barking
Ok. So new rule: when your dog barks at you, you get up and you leave the room. Close the door. Wait 30 seconds. Return and ask your dog to sit (or some other well-known behavior). Then give him something to occupy him that is *less exciting than the game he originally asked for.*
So if he was barking with fetch, don’t return from the time-out and start a game of fetch! Give him a frozen Kong (check out some of our fabulous, peanut-butter-free recipes here).
If that doesn’t work, make the time-out a bit longer. Always, try to be a good scientist: if the behavior gets worse with a given approach, don’t keep doing it!
The thing to keep in mind with this negative punishment procedure to teach your dog to stop barking at you (barking = fun stuff goes away) is that this can build frustration – which can make the barking worse!
We try to mitigate this by redirecting the dog to something else after the time-out (the puzzle toy or chewie) – but that’s also why the next step is so important.
Step 3: Teach Your Dog Playtime (and Rest-Time) Manners
Paradoxically, you might find that reducing or even totally eliminating fetch helps. My own fetch-obsessed dog is a much nicer dog to live with when we don’t play fetch at all!
If you do decide to keep playing fetch, we need some new rules.
Give the dog(s) a puzzle toy or chewie and only initiate games of fetch when your dog is doing something you like. My dog knows he’s more likely to convince me to tug by lying at my feet than by bugging me about the toy.
The Ready-Set-Down game (#11 on this list) will also help teach your dog that games begin with good behavior.
Step 4: Meet Your Dog’s Comprehensive Needs
We don’t just have to set boundaries for our dogs. We also need to try to proactively meet their needs! You can’t teach your dog to stop barking at you during playtime without teaching him some other manners.
For this dog, I also suspect that some serious relaxation training will help! Some high-energy dogs just get stronger and stronger with more exercise, but they really need to learn to chill out.
Finally, implementing SMART x 50 should help “Going Deaf in DC” reward her dog for good behavior. The thing is, your dog can only be doing one behavior at a time. So if you increase his good behavior, you will see a decrease in bad behavior!
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.