When we adopted our little dog, Lucia, it was the first time we had a very small dog in our pack. Although it’s been wonderful to have this little one in our family, she does what some little dogs do: she barks. A lot. Naturally a guard dog, and naturally dominant, she is ever vigilant for anything that might warrant a barking alarm. And the more she sounded those barking alarms, the more our two bigger dogs began to follow suit. Soon, we ended up with three barking dogs who got so caught up in their barking frenzy that they did not want to hear what we said to the contrary.
Not only is excessive barking annoying to you and your neighbors, but it can also escalate tension within the pack. Which can lead to aggression and fighting. We knew we had to do something to interrupt this trend.
Although our dogs are indoors most of the time, we noted that the barking seems to occur most often when they go outside and hear something on the other side of the wall. So we worked with some trainers who came to our house. They suggested that we go outside with them every time they bark, scan the perimeter of the yard and exude a calm, assertive, leader role that says “you don’t need to bark. I’m here now and I’m the pack leader. Everything is okay.” While this seemed like a good plan, and we stuck to it for a few weeks, ultimately, it didn’t work. Plus, it required us to go outside with them every time they went outside (in the warm weather, with doors open, they could go out a lot).
My frustration level rose, as I yelled out to Lucia to come in, or be quiet. But this approach never works with dogs! If you raise your voice to a barking dog, they assume you are barking, too. And if you, their pack leader, are barking—well, then there must be something very urgent happening that requires a barking alarm (or so thinks your dog)!
Seeking another positive approach, I began calling the dogs inside when I heard barking, and offering them treats when they ran right in. I was careful about not praising them or offering treats to them for barking. Rather, it was their ‘coming when called’ behavior that resulted in a treat. And sometimes, I’d have them sit first for their treats. This started to change things for the better. They were given a choice: do I stay out here and bark? Or do I go in to Mummy and get a cookie? Because my dogs are very food motivated (just like their Mummy :-), they usually choose to come in to me rather than stay outside and bark.
But it still wasn’t perfect. Lucia still wasn’t convinced that she should stop barking. And every time she barked, she would look around at her brothers. If they were behind her and alert, too, it made her even more proud and dominant and eager to bark.
And then, like a bolt of lightning, I was struck with an idea. Instead of berating the misbehaving dog, why not praise the dogs who are doing the right thing? Whenever Lucia ran out to bark, her brothers always followed, and there was usually a delay (sometimes only seconds) before they joined in. I realized that if they were not joining in with her barking party, they were being wonderful, good boys, and deserved praise for that! So I started doing just that: going outside and praising them profusely for being such good, quiet boys. Naturally, treats followed.
Lucia practically did a double-take when this first happened. “What? They are getting praised and treats and they’re not doing anything?! Wow! Let me go hang out with them,” she seemed to think. And she would quiet down immediately and trot right over to us.
The transformation has been just wonderful! Using praise for the quiet dogs and calling out “Cookie!” are the methods that work like a charm. Does she still bark, and will the boys sometimes still join her? Of course. But there are no uncontrollable barking frenzies and when I want them to stop, they do. Barking is natural for dogs and those dogs that have natural guarding tendencies use their bark to do their work. As a matter of fact, Lucia’s bark once saved Whiskey’s life, while I was pulling the car out of the garage and didn’t know that Whiskey had run out of the house and was running around the car.
But if you have two or more dogs in your family, praising the good behavior rather than reprimanding the inappropriate behavior might be just the trick to get excessive barking under control.