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Dealing with Problem Barking

When fence, gate and door barking is making your life difficult

Barking is normal dog communication. Dogs use barks to communicate their distress, find their group, warn off strangers, express joy and delight. Dogs have different types of barks for different emotions. Very fast rapid urgent barking, high pitched excited barking, lower, softer barking when unsure or worried. The most common barking problem I'm asked to help with, is around barking at boundaries. Dogs understand boundaries, right from birth they try to stay within the boundary of their mother's milk. For the pet dog, their boundary will be your front door, a fence, a gate etc.

Alerting the family group to potential intruders is normal and useful dog behaviour. This ability to warn us that something is happening and requires our attention, was so useful that we have selected for it and even created breeds desired for their protective barking. The pet dog has inherited the genes for protecting their boundaries and it will take many, many generations of breeding to remove this tendency from the gene pool.

From my experience most owners would like their dog to bark as a warning but would like to be able to reduce the length of time the dog barks or be able to ask the dog to cease. This is something we can teach.

Below I'll outline some of the strategies I use.

Begin by listing all the different events that cause your dog to bark. Split them into categories e.g strangers (deliveries, maintenance, people walking past etc), acquaintances (neighbours, dog walker etc), family and friends.

Next decide how you would like your dog to respond to each category e.g. bark until asked to stop, bark once or twice etc.

For example, my preference for strangers is to work with the rule of 3, by the third bark I am responding, checking out whether I would be safer if the dog keeps barking or if it just someone walking by and the dog's job has finished.

Work out what you want from your dog. Every dog and every living situation is completely unique and what works for one dog home may not work for the next.

At the beginning you will have to get up and check what your dog is barking at. Take a look out the window or peek around the door, take them seriously, your dog is calling you to check and once you have checked they can begin to relax. This technique on its own can reduce barking.

Keep in mind that whilst we tend to look for an intruder, our dogs may be responding to smells or sounds as well as sights. The tinkle of a dog collar tag can prompt one of my dogs to bark. Other owners have reported that the scent of a cat or other dog coming under their door sparks barking. Keep an open mind about what is behind your dog's barking.

If you feel there is no reason for your dog to continue barking, encourage them away from the fence and into the house or away from the entry door and into another room where you can close the door. Your goal is to prevent the dog being able to run back to the gate or door and begin barking again.

Some tips

  1. Keep a pot of food or favourite toy(s) prepared and easy to grab.

  2. Give your ‘all done’ cue followed by the 'come along with me' cue, and move briskly towards the reward station. Reward your dog generously upon arrival.

  3. Practice moving to the reward station from various point regularly, without your dog needing to bark first.

  4. If you feel your dog is learning to bark in order to get a reward, ask for other behaviours before delivery, and mix these behaviours up, create a different sequence of events each time.

If your dog finds it difficult to disconnect, try making a scattering of food, that lands on the floor close by the dog. Then break the behaviour down by rewarding your dog for making one step away. As the dog gets better at disconnecting the scatter of food happens closer and closer to the house.

Some dogs will disconnect for a noise rather than food. For example a squeak from a dog toy interrupted my Beagles from barking. Adapt the protocol to suit your dog.

If you cannot interrupt your dog at all when they are barking, then they could be getting overwhelmed. If this happens inside try attaching their lead and using the 'transport' technique to move them away. If this is happening outside, do not leave your dog outside unattended, give them supervised access until you have rebuilt the ‘come away’ behaviour, again use a lead or finger in the collar technique if necessary. If your dog is so overwhelmed that they may bite, a long line will also help you and keep your hands safe. The long line is there to prevent the dog moving back towards the boundary and encouraging them to move away with you.

Avoid asking your dog to sit. Dogs sit naturally when they are fairly relaxed and not too much is going on, sitting allows them to watch and survey the environment. If something changes a dog will move into down or stand as it is easier to react from these positions. Dogs that are barking at boundaries or reacting on lead are rarely in this relaxed emotional state, therefore sit becomes an emotionally incompatible behaviour, putting your dog under conflict and adding to the overwhelm. Be flexible and prepared to change your response and strategies. Just like us dogs change as they mature, the next-door neighbour that has been ignored for months suddenly needs to be barked at! Behaviour can be affected by dietary changes, pain or other veterinary conditions, hormones, weather or time of year.

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