Saturday, November 7, 2015

How Do I Get My Dog to Stop Barking at Everything?

What do you do with a dog that barks at every single noise and person passing by the house? Is there a way to end all the barking without resorting to a shock or spray collar? Is moving out to the countryside or finding a new home for the dog the only option?
Brisbane barks from the front window
Photo by Erin Koski

The Dilemma

A major downside to owning high-energy herding dogs in the middle of town is their tendency to want to alert me to every single thing happening in the neighborhood. We live in a very, very busy neighborhood. It's an extremely high-density area, especially for a place where nothing is more than two stories high. Many, many people lack their own vehicle, and tons of people walk. At any given moment there are probably a couple of cars passing by, a handful of people walking, and probably a bike or two. Skateboards are the most exciting thing, loud and fast-moving, and usually accompanied by shouting.

We do not have a backyard. Behind my house is another house, with a driveway running past us. Most of the lots in my neighborhood are the same way, including the one next door which actually has three different houses on the small property. This means I have a driveway running just outside the windows on either side of the house, with people coming and going all day and night. In back we have the neighbors, who spend a lot of time outside and really like to skateboard. In front we have our tiny yard surrounded by a short chain link fence, and on the other side of that is the street with no sidewalk between.

All this is to say that, when we first move in, Brisbane found a great many things to bark about. Kids skateboarding down the driveway! Random person walking down the street! Leafblower! Special needs people with weird gaits from the housing project across the street! So much barking. First I tried rewarding him every time we heard a sound that I knew would set him off, but this required constant vigilance on my part and often I wasn't even certain what had set him off. When frustrated I would squirt him a squirt bottle or yell at him to knock it off, but that didn't convince him that skateboards were not the sound of impending doom.

Making Things Boring

What did finally work was a solution I got from someone online that lived in an apartment with a barky dog. Their advice was to have the dog drag a leash, and every time she barked they would silently and calmly take the leash and walk the dog to the bathroom, turn on the light, and shut her in there. When she had been quiet for a minute or two, they would open the door and go back to whatever it was they had been doing. Repeat every time the dog barks until they stop barking at stuff.

This worked remarkably well for Brisbane, so much that he stopped reacting to the sound of skateboards at all. He would still like to bite them when he sees them rolling, but the sound of them no longer gives him fits. Likewise, he no longer bats an eye or ear when people walk down the street and have loud and inexplicable conversations at 2am. The first day Briz barked a normal amount and I quietly escorted him to the bathroom at least fifty times before he began to bark less. By day two he was almost completely silent, and within a week he was ignoring those skateboarders like a pro.

Why Does It Work?

The reason why the silent and neutral time out works is because the bathroom is really boring. The fan makes some white noise that blocks out everything else, there's no window, and there's nothing to do in there. A bored dog might eventually unroll the toilet paper or tip over the trash, but for a couple of minutes most dogs seem to just chill out. If I had an especially naughty or bathroom-phobic dog, I would be doing their time outs in a different location, like a back room if they always bark at things out front, or tied to a doorknob in a hallway. I'd like to avoid using the crate because I don't want to make it an unhappy place by having to shove them in there. With the bathroom I can just walk the dog through the door and then leave.

Doing nothing is a good way for a dog to chill out a little, but it's tough for them to chill when they are stressed or afraid. This is why I keep a leash on them, so I can calmly pick it up off the floor without having to reach directly for the dog when I'm already kind of pissed. Ideally, I want them to go from "look! something to bark at!" to "*sigh* booooring" without worrying that I might do something scary in between. This is important, because I am trying hard to chain their overly-excited behavior to calm chill-out time.

Attaching blah, dull time to excitement behavior can help to make that behavior and its trigger less exciting. It's sort of like a rollercoaster, hear a skateboard, leave the loading area. Start barking, go up the big hill. Calmly walk to the bathroom, go down the hill and get off the ride. As the association between barking and chilling out gets stronger, the hill gets smaller. The dog goes from "I hear stuff, I bark, I chill out" to "I hear stuff, I chill out".

But It Totally Works

It's been a while since I've had barking issues with Brisbane, but Sisci spent her first few months on a rural property with minimal surrounding traffic and lots of space between neighbors. Coming to town with me was a big change, and she is pretty sure that the neighbors are coming to kill us all. Every car door slam, note of mariachi music, or shrieking child is cause for alarm. Often I don't even know what it is she's barking about. This evening I was especially frustrated and finally thought about how to solve the problem. I remembered what I did with Brisbane, and it has worked beautifully. So far we have made a dozen trips to the bathroom and already her big barks have become little woofs. Getting up to put her in time out over and over again will be totally worth it when she can handle the daily sounds of our neighborhood stress-free.

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