Scene: Spring, 1990, 5:30 p.m., As I arrive home from work, my neighbor approaches my car:
Ms. R says: “You know you have the world’s smartest dog.”
“Oh, thank you!”, I respond proudly, “What did she do?”
“She only barks when you are not at home. She starts as soon as you leave, and she doesn’t stop until she hears your car turn the corner at 5:30. ”
This conversation began my search for training information on controlling the nuisance barker.
Dogs bark. They call up reinforcements when they hear or see something about which they are alarmed. They bark in prey/chase mode (cats, squirrels, running children). Dogs bark because we have positively reinforced barking. “Not me!”, you say. Really? Murphy woofs, you let him out, he woofs again, you let him in. He hears a noise, he barks, and you praise him, he woofs while you are eating, it’s cute, you give him a bite. We have to change how we allow our dogs to communicate with us. Dogs who do not easily accept barriers or boundaries are the dogs guiltiest of nuisance barking. This is another reason for crate training dogs early. Also, teaching our dogs as puppies that they can go out and enjoy their yard, bask in the sun, chew their bones and chase butterflies without us. We must not let them in when they bark or scratch at the door. It is ok for dogs to tell us when they need to go out, but not demand when they are coming in.
Until we find the right combination of correction and confinement, it is up to us as responsible owners to keep our dogs from being a nuisance to our neighbors. It is especially important to confine the barker at night. Most often fines and court dates are issued to the owners of dogs that bark between 10:00pm and 6:00am. Dogs, being pack animals, were really never meant to sleep separated from their family. Barking can be a reaction to boredom and isolation.
If your dog is barking in the house or during walks in the neighborhood, then use your leash to help you control the dog. Back away from the distraction causing your dog to bark, and make the dog sit in front facing you. Don’t let the dog turn around and watch whatever was stimulating the barking. Reward the dog when the barking ceases (even for just a second). Barking is often the first step to aggression to visitors, joggers, kids on bikes, and other dogs in the neighborhood.
Most training techniques fail because of inconsistency. Often we forget to respond to a problem with a consequence in conjunction with the verbal reprimand. We are not trying to eliminate all barking. Most of us want a dog who barks when they hear a strange noise or if the doorbell rings. The dog should be allowed to bark until we give the “Quiet” command. After we have assessed the situation and have told the dog to cease barking, we must follow through with a physical interruption in the barking. This is how we get that ON/OFF switch, this is how we ensure our alarm-barker watch dog does not become a nuisance barker that neighbors learn to ignore even when there might be a real threat.
An interruption must be delivered each and every time the dog barks after the “Quiet” command. The command must not be repeated over and over or you will create a dog that thinks you are barking, too. You say “Quiet”, dog barks, “Quiet”. Dog barks–you bark. Now the dog sees you as joining him in the bark-fest, participating in the very behavior you are trying to correct. We must also positively reinforce with praise and treats the dog that obeys the command and stops barking. If the dog resists temptation that previously would have made him woof, immediately reinforce the effort.
Let’s talk about other forms of correction: the ultrasonic devices just don’t work. I have never had an owner purchase one that wasn’t disappointed. You can use sprays, like diluted vinegar and water, but I haven’t seen it work as well as simple attention training using eye contact with the owner, and teaching the dog quiet respect in a sit or down position.
If you have a dog who is barking outside while you are gone, there are several options. One of the most effective methods of bark control is the citronella collar. Vibration from the dog’s throat when barking makes the collar emit a spray from a small box underneath the dog’s chin. The formula is totally non-toxic and won’t harm eyes. This collar has proved to work better than shock collars, and is certainly more humane.
Let’s talk about Surgery: The debark surgery can be less expensive than some electronic collars. It is less invasive than a spay or neuter surgery. There is no incision made in the neck. The veterinary surgeon will perform the operation by going in through the mouth. Some dog owners feel that this is inhumane, but if you’ve tried everything, and your only options are to confine the dog constantly, shock or spray the head-strong dog over and over, or get rid of the dog; the surgery is to me, more humane. Nothing is harder on a dog than being shuffled from home to home because no one else wants to own a nuisance barker. The dog won’t know he is debarked; he can stand out in the yard and vocalize to every cat, squirrel, meter-reader and gust of wind, but the voice is now a whisper, and the neighbors won’t hate you, or your dog.
Remember, dogs are social animals; they need our company. If you have to work long hours, you might want to take your dog to a doggy day care for 6-8 hours of play 2-3 days per week, or hire a dog-walker or petsitter to exercise your dog, play ball, or just hangout. Most behavior problems can be eliminated with regular exercise, a little training, and time – time spent with you. That time with us is the most important thing to our dogs.