How to manage your dog's barking during the COVID-19 outbreak
Thank you to those of you who have gotten in touch to request some information on barking. The first thing to say is that dogs bark for many reasons, so they need to be considered as individuals. I am not copping out here - this is why you don't have a simple training video for this. First we need to understand why your dog is barking!
Why do dogs bark?
Broadly speaking, there are two types of barking. A bark to get you or something else to go away (distance increasing bark) or a bark to get you or something to come closer (distance decreasing bark). There are some exceptions to this - but let us start here for the moment.
Distance-increasing barks can occur when a dog is afraid, feels vulnerable or perceives a threat to something it values. In real-world terms, this may include barking at loud or unknown noises, traffic, people and other dogs, visitors to the home or when you approach and they are resting, eating or in possession of a valued item. Pain and underlying medical issues can also be a factor in initiating or maintaining barking behaviours.
If your dog is barking to increase the distance between themselves and something else then you need to deal with the root-cause of the issue. Merely teaching a 'shh' or alternative behaviour is likely to be ineffective and punishment could be very harmful.
So what can you do?
In this instance, you need to identify what is worrying your dog and work to create a different emotional response. This work is best undertaken with the help of a behaviourist as you can exacerbate the issue if it is mis-managed. The DogsTrust have some excellent free resources and guidance if you are dealing with noise-based barking. See: https://www.dogstrust.org.uk/help-advice/dog-behaviour-health/sound-therapy-for-pets
If you are dealing with potential fear or resource-based barking when you, a family member, other person or other animal approaches or handles your dog - then please get in touch. Blanket advice could be potentially harmful in these situations and your vet may also need to be involved with behaviour modification.
Barking at visitors or passers-by
This type of barking can be helped by teaching alternative responses and changing how your dog views visitors. The first thing you need to do is look at how your dog responds to visitors once they are inside. If they are happy and quickly settle down, then please follow these tips. If you dog shows any behaviours that you would deem indicative of fear, if they struggle to settle down or if you think they look aggressive, please get in touch - this will require more in-depth work.
For many dogs, meeting a person at the door can be overwhelming and people don't help the matter. They will either give the dog lots of fuss or tell them "NO" or "SIT". This is not an ideal training environment! The first thing therefore, is to create a bit of distance between your dog and visitors. For many clients, simply having their dog in another room when a visitor arrives and not letting them in until the visitors are seated does a lot to diffuse the situation (NB: this may not be advisable if your dog will jump up on people once they are seated!). Also, asking your visitors to remain calm and not fuss your dog sometimes helps. For passersby or post people, having a tin of dog biscuits to throw over the fence or gate can help to create a positive association rather than a negative one (again - be mindful safety here, this is not right in all situations).
The next thing is to give your dog another behaviour to engage in. I like to teach my dogs to go to their bed when a visitor arrives and then greet them with a 'hand-touch'. This is a specific training exercise that I will post a training video on shortly. This will also incorporate how to deal with barking at the doorbell or people knocking at the door. I will update this blog with think link once it is ready. There are many ways to calm your dog once visitors are in, but they key is to think "what do I want my dog to do?"
Please also think about how you greet your dog - if you are over exuberant, they will be too! Ask for a sit, down or hand-touch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSRC21CksJI&t=2s) to encourage calm greetings.
If your dog is barking at passers-by and/or traffic then you need to firstly modify your environment to minimise triggering scenarios. This could include using blinds, window frosting or moving your dog to another area. Following this, you need to train an alternative response and the most effective way is to intervene before your dog barks. As soon as the thing appears that your dog normally barks at (person, dog, vehicle), place a treat or toy under your dogs nose and lead them away. You need to be very quick! If they start barking, you have missed this training opportunity - please don't reward the bark. Over time, if you get your timing right, your dog should start to hesitate or look at you when a person, dog, vehicle appears. At this time, you can introduce another cue (sit, down, on your bed, away etc) that you would prefer your dog to do. You may find that you cannot respond fast enough to prevent your dog barking or that you cannot break their focus. In this situation you may need to set up some staged training situations - so please get in touch directly to discuss this.
This type of barking occurs when your dog wants your attention (for play, when they are excited or when you leave them alone). It can also happen just for the joy of barking! If your dog is barking for these reasons, then telling them off or re-directing them with other cues is very unlikely to help - in fact you could make it worse.
In order to help with this type of barking you first need to ensure that your dogs needs are met. Are they hungry, do they have enough water, do they need the toilet, have they had enough exercise/mental stimulation. If your dogs needs are not being met, it is welfare-poor to try and suppress their barking.
Please think about things you can do if your dog is isolating with you or is on crate rest to help them engage their minds. I will be posting a separate blog on enrichment shortly and will update this blog with the link once it has been posted.
If you are sure all of your dogs needs are being met, then please try the following. NB: this protocol should NOT be used with dogs that struggle to be left alone. The following type of training could cause more issues - please get in touch.
When your dog barks, without looking at them or talking to them, immediately and calmly get up and leave the room, closing the door behind you. Stay out for a few seconds and then return.
When you return, firstly engage in a few minutes of close-contact, high energy games like tug and chase (2-3 minutes). Following on from this, engage in a few minutes of close-contact, but lower energy games (training cues or doggy massage) – around 5 minutes. Then encourage your dog to take a puzzle feeder or scatter feed some food at a distance from you, to get them to settle at a distance (5-10 minutes).
This should help them to gradually calm down, whilst also meeting their needs for attention. If you can identify times when your dog is more likely to bark and do this beforehand, you stand a better chance of changing their behaviours.
Other types of barking
Dogs may also bark because they are frustrated (confined in a crate, unable to greet a person or dog, waiting for food, toys or a walk).
In these situations, you need to work in a careful, step-by-step manner to increase your dogs tolerance to frustration. With food, toys or walks, this may involve working on a sit-stay. Crate training should be attempted step by step and not all at once, I have a handout on crate training specifically, so please let me know if you are working on this.
When dealing with excitement around people and dogs, you need to build focus on you at a distance to begin with. You need to identify the distance at which your dog is calm and can easily be re-directed by you. Start by allowing them to look at the other person/dog (on leash) and then ask for a known cue (look, hand-touch, walk, heel etc). Practice at this distance only until your dog is calm and able to focus on you. At this stage you can reduce the distance slightly. Again - this type of protocol os best attempted under direction from a trainer or behaviourist, so please do get in touch if you are struggling with this issue.
I hope this information is useful - please get in touch if you have any questions and stay safe! :)