Friday, July 25, 2014

How to stop your puppy from barking

One of my clients has been having trouble getting their puppy to stop barking. They have tried ignoring him when he barks and rewarding him when he's quiet, but it hasn't been working. A friend of theirs suggested taking a  can of pennies and dropping it on the floor when the dog barks. They want to know what I think, so I thought I'd put my response in my blog so others could benefit.

Here's my advice:

Don't use a can of pennies.
I would not recommend using a can of pennies. Whatever you wouldn't do with a toddler, you shouldn't do with a dog, especially a young puppy. Basically, what the can of pennies does, if the best case scenario is achieved - meaning the noise was timed exactly right - the dog will learn that barking causes the feeling of a momentary heart-stopping fear of getting physically hurt. I won't go into all the reasons why using these types of methods in training is harmful and risky, but I will say that it usually swaps out one problem for one or several much bigger problems. In the case of barking, what if the puppy was barking because he had to go outside? Or if he wanted to warn you of danger? Or of anything else that you actually might want him to be able to communicate to you? Then you're not only teaching him not to bark, but not to tell you when he wants to go outside, or not to alert you when he things something is really wrong or when he's distressed. If he's barking for attention or some other reason, whatever is in his mind or environment at the time of the can dropping is going to be something he's going to avoid.

Why isn't the no-punishment approach working?
Anyway, enough warnings. What do they do about it, then? Their neighbors are angry and they are pulling their hair out.  And they've tried the force-free approach of ignoring him when he barks and rewarding quiet, which, like I said before, is not working. This is because changing behavior is a 2-pronged endeavor, and doing one or the other simply will not work 90% of the time. What these particular dog owners are doing is the first prong or component - they are attempting to install an alternative behavior. They're removing the reward for barking and rewarding for quiet instead. Great. However, they are not doing the other component, which is equally crucial. They are not preventing the unwanted behavior from occurring in the first place, thereby addressing the cause of the behavior.

So what should they do?
They should use the 2-pronged approach to behavior change - they should 1. prevent the unwanted behavior and 2. install an alternative behavior. Here's how:

1. Prevent the unwanted behavior
Pups bark for three reasons, usually. For attention or to communicate, to alert to something in the environment, or out of boredom. So to prevent these from happening, we want to do the following:
  • For attention: continue ignoring barking for attention. 
  • Use white noise and visual blockers to keep the pup from hearing every little noise and seeing squirrels, leaves and other things moving around outside. Wax paper is a good way to block a window but still let in light.
  • Give your pup the equivalent of a really good novel to get out all his mental energy. This takes creativity - I have yet to meet a puppy who is challenged and interested enough in a toy you just pick up off the shelf at petco. Use food-dispensing toys in creative ways - with interesting scents like fish oil or coconut oil - that are intriguing to your pup. Find ways to get him thinking and working and he'll have less mental energy left over to bark. This is major. If you do nothing else, do this, and you will probably see a change. In addition, this is necessary to success. You can do all the training in the world, but if your dog isn't getting enough mental stimulation, it won't work.
  • Make sure your pup is getting enough physical exercise and jaw exercise. Running and chewing.
2. Install an alternative behavior
We don't want our pups to bark, but we can't expect them to never want to get our attention or alert us to things. They depend on us for survival, so it is unreasonable to simply remove all their tools for initiating any communication with us as their caretakers. So here's what to do:
  • Reward for quiet in situations where he would usually bark. Alone in his pen, when a squirrel runs by, when someone walks up the stairs, etc. Also, reward when he stops barking - meaning, when he skips a bark, or seems to think to himself, "Is it possible this human won't respond to my barking?" Then you want say, "YES, that's exactly it, I don't respond to barking, I respond to you standing there and thinking about how to get my attention."
  • Train auto-behaviors. These are behaviors that your dog can offer without being asked to get your attention or to get a reward. For example, you can train your dog to "sit to say please." 
SO, that's my advice. Tried and true, and no risky punishment training involved. I'd love to hear other peoples' stories, ideas and comments - do you have any great ideas for setting up sensory barriers to stop your dog from alerting to every little thing? Or how to keep your dog busy for long periods of time? My favorite is a squirt of whipped cream in a Kong Genius. I'd love to hear your ideas.

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