Training Guide: Alert Barking
“One dog starts barking, and the rest bark at him.” – Chinese Proverb.
While this proverb has more than one meaning, its literal sense is what owners of alert dogs relate to the most! Barking can be a terrific alarm, but after once or twice the high-volume noise becomes a nuisance. If your dog is loud enough, they might even start a street-wide barking domino effect. Complaints from neighbors can quickly escalate to the point of an intervention with your property owner, local police, or animal control; at which point you may have to relocate or even rehome your pet. To get alert barking under control, you must employ consistent training techniques that desensitize your dog from their triggers and redirect the urge to alert into a new behavior. Keep scrolling to learn the do’s and don’ts!
1. Raise your voice.
When your dog barks, you get an impulse to yell at them. Even if you aren’t angry at them, you still want to be heard; but you don’t have to shout at your dog to get their attention. In fact, raising your voice can amplify the problem. Your dog is likely to interpret your shouts as barks, too. Yelling only encourages them to bark more by adding to the commotion. Instead, use a firm yet positive tone with short commands (a single word is best).
2. Punish them.
Barking is a natural response for dogs, and some were even bred to alert. Punishment for instinctive behavior only causes confusion and further tension. You could also make your dog fearful of you or damage your bond permanently. Since alert barking is usually the outcome of a sense of fear and uncertainty, punishing your dog with force, immediate isolation, or other aggressive methods will only add fuel to the fire.
3. Reward the barking.
If you are not careful with your timing, you could reward your dog for undesirable behavior. Never give your dog a treat, praise, or a lot of attention while they are barking. For example, petting your dog and saying “Shhh, it’s okay sweetie” in a sing-song voice to reassure them that the mail carrier approaching your door is nothing to fear, is just as much of a reward to them as giving them treats and praise. You need to redirect the barking into something different before offering the reward – which can be tricky. More to come on how to do this in the “Do” list below (refer to #4).
1. Socialize your dog.
Alert barking can sometimes be reduced through socialization. If you know your dog was not properly socialized as a puppy, this might be at least part of your barking problem. Work to get your dog familiar with whatever it is that is triggering them. If they begin barking, create distance between your dog and the trigger until their attention is back on you. Praise them when they are quiet and displaying calm behavior when the trigger is visible. Once your dog begins to associate seeing other people and pets with being calm and focusing on you for direction, the ‘threat’ that these triggers pose will start to subside.
2. Exercise your dog.
Another cause of alert barking is boredom. Dogs with a lot of pent-up energy are easily sparked by ‘unusual activity,’ which translates to anything even remotely abnormal. Double check that you are giving your dog the correct amount of exercise for their breed, age, and health level. You should also exercise your dog mentally with other training. Don’t forget to give them a chance to perform easy commands they know well!
3. Create positive distractions.
Use interactive and puzzle toys to reward your dog when they exhibit calm, quiet behavior. These are perfect for dogs who bark at the window because it gives them a distraction to focus on for a while. A Kong stuffed with a frozen snack is a wonderful tool for this. Once you have your pup’s full attention, you can use the treat as a reward for going to their place/bed/away from the window. You can give them the reward as soon as they are settled.
4. Teach ‘Quiet’/’Speak’ commands.
Introduce these commands without any distractions present first. To teach the ‘quiet’ command, simply reward your dog when they are displaying calm, quiet behavior. You can pair the command when you give them the treat. Most experts recommend that you also use a hand gesture, so for this command I like to put my index finger up to my lips.
For ‘speak,’ hold the treat in a closed fist so your dog can only smell it. Then, when your dog eventually barks out of frustration, immediately pair it with the command and a gesture (I just use a fist since that’s how I hold the treat). This is also the time to release their reward. Once your dog begins to understand the difference between ‘quiet’ and ‘speak,’ you can slowly reintroduce them to the trigger.
Let’s say a passerby is what sets off your pup’s radar. If you see someone approaching in the distance before your dog, be proactive to get their attention beforehand. ‘Prep’ your dog and set them up for success. Get their attention on you (a common command is ‘look at me,’ holding the treat in front of your nose) and keep it there. Reward your dog for eye contact. If they look away at the trigger, redirect their attention to you again. Continue this process and the second your dog barks, create more distance between you and the trigger or cut off access to it. A bark ends the fun game, and the treat shop is closed until your dog settles down.
5. Control your environment.
If you live next to a busy street or sidewalk, your dog’s alert barking might be on the severe side. If you can’t get their attention using treats and clear commands, try working with your dog when they have no access to distractions. Close blinds and curtains, rearrange furniture, or use a film over your window to blur your pet’s view. You can also confine your pet to a quiet area of the house with baby gates, a play pen, or a crate. Do not create a sense of punishment with the confinement area, though (refer to #1 & #2 of the “Don’t” section). Keep your demeanor upbeat and calm while you direct them to their place. Reward successful steps along the way such as focusing on you, following you, and getting quiet.
Ultimately, you should still work toward exposing your dog to their triggers in the long run. It’s impossible to avoid distractions all the time, and your dog needs to get familiar with them eventually to overcome their barking compulsion.
I know that your dog’s alert barking can get quite frustrating, but you can train them to have a different (and silent) reaction to unexpected moments. The training process can take months or even years, and some dogs never truly stop alerting. Certain breeds were intended to notify their owners of suspicious activity, so it’s important to recognize what type of dog you have and respect their natural tendencies. Lastly, don’t punish your pet for basic instinct. You should always be working with, not against, your dog.
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