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Q: I have a toy poodle. She loves to bark at anyone and anything. She constantly barks when someone comes in the door. I've tried spraying her with water to calm her down, giving her a treat to distract her, and giving her a firm "NO!" -- but nothing works. Please help!
- Nestie sophiasin
A: You've certainly tried a lot of tactics with this dog, and quite varied! One of the first questions we try to answer when a dog has barking issues is -- what is your dog’s goal in barking? The answer helps us choose our treatment strategy.
Some dog barks are social, as in "Give me!" or “Hello!” And some barks are more "antisocial" in nature, as in "Hey, get out of here!"
1. Does my dog bark at things she wants to see, investigate, greet, and is generally happy about? If so, she’s socially barking.
2. Is she barking defensively at things she wishes would retreat and get away from her? In htat case, she’s “antisocially” barking.
Need more clues? You can usually determine the nature of the barking by your dog’s body language. Does she look scared (tail between legs, fur standing on end) or happy (tail wagging)?
Social barking is mainly a nuisance, and it often can be stopped with a couple of good timeouts. For example, if your dog barks at the door because she’s excited every time someone comes to the house, promptly send her to the bathroom for one minute as soon as she makes a peep. You can do this in setups, where you ring the doorbell at intervals and repeat timeouts as needed until you can ring the doorbell and she self-inhibits her barking.
Unfortunately, remedying antisocial barking is a slightly more involved process that requires slowly acclimating your dog to the things he or she finds objectionable and is trying to avoid or drive away. Think of fixing defensive barking like treating a phobia: It takes time and repeated exposure. If she's barking defensively at things that make her uncomfortable, you need to moderately exposure her to the things that bug her and pair them with something she really enjoys, typically a treat or toy.
On your walks, carry yummy, soft, smelly dog treats -- or even bits of lunch meat (which make a huge impact). Give her a treat when she barks on those tricky parts of the walk. You’re not just distracting her; in fact, you’re changing a relationship in her mind, making something that was once to be avoided into something she now associates with a treat (and is therefore “not so bad”!). Use this same strategy if your dog barks at the door. Instead of trying to punish her into being silent, try scattering treats by her bed. Then tell her "go to your bed" instead of barking ferociously at scary people or noises. Using treats when the doorbell rings and after any guests enter the house can also make her more comfortable when strangers enter -- which will also make her a safer dog for your guests.
Persistence is the key to successfully fixing “antisocial” barking. You're not going to see a radical change in one week or even a month. These behaviors are very "reflexive" in nature, and therefore they really do take a good amount of time to change. Remember, you’re investing a few months in a furry pal who'll likely be with you for over a decade.
Denise Herman is the founder and head trainer for Empire of the Dog. Denise graduated from the San Francisco Academy for Dog Trainers under the direction of renowned author and dog expert, Jean Donaldson (The Culture Clash and Dogs are from Neptune). Denise has also worked as a staff trainer at the SPCA, instructed for Petco and Andrea Arden in Manhattan, and authored a series of Clicker Training Kits for the Nylabone® Company.
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