Advice to cure barking

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 6/10/07
By: Gail T. Fisher

I got a call this week from a reader who brought to my attention an oversight: Two weeks ago I promised solutions to barking. With apologies to anyone who was waiting for this solution…here you go:

The problem I wrote about two weeks ago: A dog starts barking, and in an attempt to stop her, her owners have to yell to finally get her to be quiet. But you shouldn’t have to get angry to get your dog to be responsive.

One approach to stopping barking is to teach the dog what an “incompatible behavior”: one that, when the dog is performing it, he can’t be performing the other behavior. For example, a dog can’t sit and jump up at the same time. So teaching sit for greeting is incompatible with jumping on visitors. Some behaviors that are incompatible with barking are being quiet; holding something in his mouth; or any other behavior that doesn’t involve barking.

The best approach to teach quiet is to mark and reinforce the behavior you like. Don’t use a command or cue such as “quiet,” because he doesn’t know what “quiet” means. Save your breath. Say nothing other than your marker. Use a clicker if you like, but you don’t have to. Marker training simply uses a word or sound that means, “That behavior is what I want. You’ve earned a reward.” The verbal marker we use is “yes.”

Don’t yell, “Quiet!!!” Say nothing. Yelling is joining him in making noise, so ignore him until he has stopped barking for two or three seconds. At that point, mark the absence of barking with “yes,” and give a reward. If you don’t have any treats available, praise is OK, but it would be better to have a food treat. Gradually increase the time between your dog stopping barking, and your marker, “yes” followed by a treat. Soon the dog will get the idea, and will stop barking sooner. At that point, just as he’s about to stop barking, introduce a NEW cue – not the “quiet!” you yelled before. With repetition, he’ll learn the new cue, and you’ll have a way to ask him to stop barking.

Here’s another similar approach that works for a dog that is barking in his crate. Chances are you let him out when he barked, which reinforced barking. But all is not lost. You can fix it. To teach the incompatible behavior, ‘quiet’ (without a cue), stay nearby but out of sight of your dog. Wait for just a few seconds of quiet, mark it with “yes” as you enter the room, and immediately open the crate, rewarding quiet with freedom. Gradually build the time your dog remains quiet before you enter, mark and let the dog out of the crate.

It is also important to reward the dog before he starts barking in the first place. If you reinforce him for quiet only after he stops barking, he isn’t learning to remain in his crate without barking at all. So be sure you sometimes let him out before he starts to bark.

And finally, some behaviors will diminish to extinction by simply being ignored. This works for attention barking, for a dog that, for instance, barks at you while you’re watching TV. Again, this behavior has been reinforced by your attention, so the dog learns to bark for attention. You can extinguish this behavior if you can absolutely, 100% ignore it. Do not talk, look at, divert his attention, give him a toy, or do anything else at all. Any attention will reinforce the barking. Everyone in the family must cooperate, being 100% committed to ignoring him. Otherwise, the barking will be intermittently reinforced. Intermittent reinforcement strengthens attention barking. So if you’ve decided to ignore the attention barking, you must be totally committed to it. Over time, the dog will stop barking.

Before the behavior disappears completely, you will likely see what is called an “extinction burst”, like the behavior’s last effort, often stronger and worse than previously. Don’t give in! You’re almost done. If you give in to the extinction burst, the behavior will be back with a vengeance. If you remain steadfast and consistent, continuing to ignore this new, worse behavior. Very soon, the behavior will disappear completely. Congratulations! You won!!

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2007. All rights reserved.
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