Ask a Pawfessional: Alert Barking with Nicole Vento
Barking is natural for dogs, but not all of it is necessary or appropriate. To learn more about alert barking and how to combat it, we got in contact with Nicole Vento, a professional trainer at Calm Canine Academy (CCA). Nicole’s specialty is working with anxious dogs and pups that are having trouble navigating adolescence. Operating almost entirely in the digital space, CCA is known for its exemplary online training services and remarkable instructors like Nicole. Read her comments all about alert barking in our interview below!
NYP: Why do dogs alert bark?
Vento: Alert barking is any barking that is triggered by and directed at sudden auditory or visual stimuli.
In many cases a dog is genuinely trying to alert their guardian to this change in the environment, and the behavior will stop once they are acknowledged. However, there is also a type of alert barking that is motivated by fear. This barking is unlikely to subside when the guardian acknowledges the environmental change as it’s function is to increase the distance between the dog and whatever they are barking at.
A dog’s specific learning history, genetics, and environment all play a part in alert barking behavior.
NYP: Why do some breeds tend to bark more than others?
Vento: Certain breeds were selected to be more vocal and alert to changes in the environment because it made them more effective in their roles in the canine-human partnership.
For example, guardian breeds’ vigilance and barking help them spot and warn off the predators they are charged with protecting livestock against. Hunting and herding breeds use their barks to help keep the animal they are tasked with herding or hunting in certain locations and positions.
NYP: What are some ways to stop alert barking?
Vento: The dog needs to stop practicing the behavior as much as possible while their guardian works on teaching them an appropriate alternative behavior to perform when they hear a noise.
Guardians can use management tools such as window film, white noise, crates, gates, and tethers to keep the dog from being able to hear, see, or rush towards the triggers they would otherwise bark at.
Capturing quiet responses from the dog when there are changes in the environment, desensitizing and counterconditioning them to low-level versions of the triggering sights and sounds, and teaching a “thank you” or “quiet” cue are excellent things to do to start to curb alert barking.
NYP: Some dog owners use physical punishment (such as shock collars) to combat barking. What do you think of this?
Vento: The use of shock collars to combat alert barking can technically decrease barking but it can also lead to some significant behavioral fallout.
If an electric shock is delivered to a dog every time they bark at a noise or see a particular stimulus, they can learn that it is the presence of that thing that predicts the shock and not just their barking behavior.
This can lead to increased fear and even defensive aggression towards these stimuli in the future.
NYP: Most people tend to yell at their dog in response to their barking. Is this something you recommend? Why or why not?
Vento: Yelling at the dog is not something I recommend doing when dogs are alert barking. When dogs are reacting to things in the environment, they are often over-aroused. Yelling at the dog can increase that arousal and further compound the barking, rather than stop it.
In my opinion, using a cue that has been well-trained ahead of the triggering situation to interrupt the barking or calmly, but firmly removing a dog from the thing they are barking at using a drag leash are much more effective strategies.
NYP: My dog is already an adult. Is it too late to train him to stop alert barking?
Vento: It’s never too late to start to work on training an alternative to alert barking. However, because your dog is older and will have had more practice with the alert barking behavior, you will have to be even more committed to your management and training protocol.
NYP: Is alert barking always bad?
Vento: Whether alert barking is bad or not is entirely contextual. Some guardians– like those who live in rural areas and have lots of livestock – encourage and depend on their dogs’ alert barking to protect their livelihood.
It’s when dogs that are prone to alert barking are living in urban environments that things get tricky. There are too many changes in the environment throughout the day for them to alert to and often too few opportunities for them to decompress from the stress that those reactions put on their bodies.
These dogs can end up in a chronic stress state, which can contribute to the development or exacerbation of other behavioral problems.
NYP: If my dog is alert barking, does that mean he has anxiety?
Vento: On its own, your dog’s alert barking does not mean that he has anxiety. If he is able to be redirected from his barking, can generally settle around the home, and isn’t obsessed with staring and listening for changes inside and outside the perimeter of your home then it is very likely that this is just part and parcel of a very normal canine behavior.
However, if you are seeing any of the above, or more extreme reactions such as frantic or panicked pacing, shaking, destruction, hyperactivity, or aggression in the home then there likely could be some anxiety and you should get in touch with a certified trainer to properly assess.
NYP: Should I put my dog in a ‘time-out’ when he barks?
Vento: In my opinion, time outs are not an incredibly effective strategy for teaching dogs not to alert bark in the future. The reality is that being isolated from a person is not likely to be as punishing as barking at whatever Fido is concerned about outside is motivating.
Your focus should really be on preventing and training alternative behaviors to barking, and interrupting the barking when it does happen using the strategies mentioned above.
NYP: It seems like I have been training my dog to stop alert barking forever! Is it simply impossible to train certain dogs to stop?
Vento: There are some dogs who will always bark a couple of times when they sense changes in the environment. However, I believe it is possible to train even these dogs to bark less intensely and be more easily redirected to appropriate behaviors.
In some cases, dogs may be in too extreme of a stress state (due to the interaction between their genetics, environment and learning history) for training alone to be effective. In these cases, reaching out to a veterinarian is the next best port of call.
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