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Canine Problem Solving: Nuisance Barking

Your family is relaxing on a Friday evening watching a movie together and all of a sudden, your dog begins to bark. You go to see what he's barking at, but you don't see anything. You think he may need to use the bathroom since he's barking at the door, so you let him into your fenced backyard. Once you shut the door, however, the barking continues.


Your dog has an appointment with their veterinarian. Walking up to the building your dog's excitement is palpable, with him leading you towards the building and enthusiastically barking. You enter the building, and the barking continues, accompanied by him furiously wagging his tail at everything he sees. He barks at the staff, other clients, and other pets. Sometimes he even seems to bark at nothing in particular, and maybe just out of an abundance of excitement over being in a public place.


Both of the above scenarios are examples of nuisance barking, barking that is considered excessive and/or inappropriate for the given circumstance. It can be incredibly difficult for a dog to self-regulate this behavior, especially since it is hard for them to tell when is appropriate and when is not. This behavior is common in humans as well. An example could be if you found yourself quietly giggling during a funeral; obviously an inappropriate time to be giggling, but often nearly impossible to get under control - even with the people next to you elbowing you and trying to get you to stop.


There are lots of way to address nuisance barking, and many can be easily combined. Success depends largely on your consistency. This type of behavior is often a stubborn one to get under control, you just have to be slightly more stubborn.


Direct Correction

Direct correction is any immediate correction, verbal or nonverbal, to interrupt and hopefully end any unwanted behavior. This can be as simple as a stern "quiet" or, a silent physical correction such as touching your dog on their side or back. I prefer the silent method, so that despite what is going on I can quietly communicate to my dogs that whatever it is they are doing they need to stop. I do this by taking two fingers and touching one of two specific spots; on their side near the base of the neck, or on their hip - it just depends on their orientation to me.



Whether you decide to do verbal, nonverbal, or both, it requires training for them to recognize any of it as meaningful and something to which they need to pay attention. Starting young is of course the best case scenario, but old dogs can learn new tricks! As with any training, consistency is key.


A key takeaway here is direct correction, at the very least, is proactive. You're doing something. Even if you get mixed results, you're more likely to have a positive outcome to doing something as opposed to doing nothing.



Ignore

Didn't I just say you're more likely to have a positive outcome to doing something as opposed to doing nothing? Well, that still stands. Ignoring nuisance barking isn't necessarily doing nothing, though it can be. The key with this option is to ignore the barking if the barking is a demand for something. If your dog barks to get someone's attention in hopes of gaining an interaction, for example, not ignoring it can end up rewarding the behavior by giving them exactly what they want.


There is a crucial second step, though. Ignore the bark, but then reward the silence. If your nuisance barker has managed to be silent in a scenario that would typically illicit barking, get them a reward. Treats work great for the reward, especially at first, because most dogs are willing to work for them once they know they can get them.


Note: ignoring your dog's nuisance barking when you are in public with your dog and around other people and/or animals is bad form. Don't do this. It isn't courteous to the people around you.



Socialization

Many dog owners think socialization is having your dog be in the presence of other dogs and people. This is not socialization, it is exposure. Socialization is more involved and consists of not only being around other dogs and people, but instructing your dog on the acceptable behavior when around said company. Going up to another dog and barking in its face, for example, is bad form and you correcting that behavior is part of socialization. Teaching your dog to not bark for attention from other humans is part of socialization. Teaching them to not jump up on people is part of socialization. And sometimes even allowing other dogs and people to issue polite corrections to behavior from your dog that invades their space is also part of socialization.


Taking your dog into public spaces is also an important part of socialization. Going to Lowe's Home Depot, PetSmart, Petco, the Vet's office just for a happy visit, etc. can help not only foster positive connotations in relation to going places but provide a learning opportunity in relation to interacting with strangers in public. This can be extremely important groundwork for future training, and can help keep your dog from developing hyperexcitement or fear of other people, dogs, and common public situations. If your little barker gets taken to lot of different places, getting to leave the house can still be fun but it may be less of a novelty and hopefully not illicit the boundless excitement or nervousness that can lead to the nuisance barking.



Redirection

Redirection is all about teaching your dog to “do this, not that.” Typically, redirections are applied when a dog is about to do something undesirable. Just before the unwanted behavior occurs, the handler intervenes with an appropriate alternative. For example, if your puppy is waddling towards the laundry basket looking for stray socks, you might step in with a toy before he gets there. The puppy gets a healthy outlet for his exploration, and your socks stay in the laundry basket.

 

Redirecting your dog from a “bad” activity to a “good” one is a popular strategy, especially among new puppy parents. However, redirection should be one of the last arrows in your quiver. When you need to redirect your dog, it means that proactive environmental management and training strategies are still a work in progress.

Ideally, the environment should be set up such that your dog is unlikely to make poor choices in the first place. Your dog can’t chew up shoes if the shoes have been put away. Proactive training strategies can teach your dog what they should be doing in a given scenario. For example, teaching your dog to bring you a toy is a proactive training strategy similar to redirection which can reduce unwanted behavior that would otherwise occur when your dog feels bored.


How can redirection apply to nuisance barking? Once you identify the scenario that seems to illicit the behavior, begin trying to preempt the behavior with the redirection method. For example, if your dog is obsessed with a particular chew toy you can try bringing that to a veterinarian appointment with you to use as a redirect prior to your dog starting to nuisance bark. Treats can also be a good last resort for redirection, though you need to be careful to withhold treats if barking does occur so that you don't accidentally reward the barking and strengthen the bark response.




CGC (Canine Good Citizen)

The CGC is a title that is earned by completing a training course with a certified trainer. This lays the groundwork for almost all other training, and fosters a trusting working-relationship between dog and owner. The key to success with CGC is your involvement! The class is for you BOTH! You will gain valuable tools to help you know how to effectively communicate with your dog so that training is more accessible for you both, giving your dog the ability to achieve the goals you set for them. At the end of your training course you and your dog are evaluated by the trainer. Upon passing the evaluation you are left with not only an AKC CGC title, but the confidence to work with your dog to modify problem behaviors.



Exercise

Exercising both their body and their brain on a regular basis can do wonders for behavior modification. As we have said in many other articles, an exercised dog is a calmer dog, and a calm dog is much easier to train. Determining how much exercise is appropriate can be a bit tricky at first. Start small and increase the amount of exercise incrementally. If you find that your dog is generally fairly hyper at home, exercising to the point where they are relatively calm and even taking several naps throughout the day would be a good indicator that you have reached the perfect level of exercise. Incorporating a variety of activities such as leashed walks or jogs, playing fetch in a securely fenced area, or allowing free-running in a fenced area with fellow canines (assuming your dog is canine-friendly) is a great way to start.


If your dog has some physical limitations, such as joint issues or obesity, activities such as supervised or aided swimming can be incredibly rewarding for both dog and owner. Finding ways to work their minds is also important, and in the case of dogs with physical limitations or handicaps it's even more vital. Treat puzzles or treat scavenger hunts can work great! To do treat scavenger hunts first teach your dog what a particular type of treat smells like by making them earn one at a time for something simple like sitting on command. Then, let the dog see you placing a treat in your pocket and have them investigate and receive the treat after doing so. Gradually hide the treat further and further away, eventually having the dog in a separate area when you do so. Then release the hounds! Watching them use their brain and their sniffer to search for the treat is lots of fun, and they're working out their minds! Considering equipment such as a wheelchair may also be helpful towards this goal in many situations.


The goal with exercise, as it pertains to correcting nuisance barking, is to alleviate the available energy that can be directed towards such an activity. A dog that is vigorously exercised each day, and even exercised in the morning before their vet visit, is far less likely to exhibit nuisance barking in any situation.



Separate

If all else fails, or if you find that you are unfortunately not more stubborn than the nuisance barking, it may be time to mitigate the effect of the behavior for the people and pets around you by separating the dog from the scenario to whatever degree is possible. For example, if you have consistently tried all of the pointers above but you haven't made progress and your dog has a vet appointment, you may want to alert your veterinarian's front staff to your arrival and let them know you will wait with your dog in your car until there is an available room. This way the barking is less likely to upset other pets and clients who are in the building, and it may help reduce excitement/stress for your pet as well.



Regardless of the paths you take toward addressing nuisance barking, you aren't only doing it for you and your dog. Nuisance barking impacts other people and other pets. Your efforts to curb this behavior when in our office, for example, is immensely appreciated because it clearly demonstrates that you care about the other potentially nervous patients and are trying to make their experience a little less stressful, which in turn helps our staff do their jobs to the best of their ability! So we thank you!



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