Dogs bark for all sorts of reasons, and not one of those is to drive you mad, although that’s often the result. Barking, like all behaviour, functions for the behaver.
Your dog is barking for a reason and lots of barking (often considered “excessive”) or changes to barking behaviour (increases or decreases, for example) may indicate an underlying medical cause so a vet visit is a good idea.
When modifying behaviour, we need to know what the behaviour is, when the behaviour happens and why the dog does it. Here, we are talking specifically about barking that’s considered “attention-seeking” or “demanding”:
“Demand” or “Attention Seeking” Barking
We commonly refer to barking as ‘problem’ behaviour, but just who’s problem is it? Usually, it’s a human problem.
Of course, increased or out of context barking may indicate or lead to problems for the dog, but generally, help is sought when behaviour causes human problems.
Let’s consider the terms we use to describe this type of behaviour; we use terms like “demanding” and “attention seeking“, terms with connotations about how we view the dog’s behaviour and their motivations.
It’s odd because all behaviour is demanding, it’s functional, the behaver uses behaviour to gets things. And of course sometimes, behaviour is used to get attention. Attention being a reinforcer of many behaviours for many dogs.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this; this is what you and I use behaviour for too.
Your dog is using his or her behaviour all the time, to change the outcome of interactions. To get things he or she needs and wants.
Indeed, we actively teach dogs to perform behaviours to get stuff all the time and we teach them, often unintentionally, to bark for stuff too.
What is your dog doing?
This type of barking is usually directed at you or the thing the dog wants e.g. the ball that’s rolled under the sofa; sometimes, they don’t appear to be directing their behaviour toward anything in particular and are just shouting!
The dog may make direct eye contact with you, may bounce toward you, may throw their head back and may even follow you to get their point across.
Balto shows how it’s done:
This clip shows a not very nice demonstration (on my part); we were coming to the end of our session and he had been working hard, doing his best to calm himself.
We had just started to work on some handling work, which has caused some conflicted responding.
All this, on top of everything else, and then a break in opportunities to earn food rewards, is all too much leading to frustration related behaviour.
When does your dog do it?
Consider the context in which Balto is barking, above.
The picture we set up, tells the dog how they might expect to feel and to anticipate what behaviour they will need.
How do you think Balto will anticipate feeling and behaving in a similar picture again?
Look carefully at what’s happening just before and while your dog barks at you.
Whens often include:
- you have food, whether you are eating or it’s food for the dog
- you have a dog toy
- there is a toy available or the dog knows where it is
- you are preparing food, for you or your dog
- you are on the phone or having a conversation
- you are busy and otherwise engaged
- you are relaxing
What do these pictures cause your dog to anticipate? How can they expect to feel and behave when they see this picture?
The clues are in what your dog is doing.
For example, you beginning to prepare food becomes a cue telling your dog that food will become available. If you have made that food available contingent on their barking, well, they’re going to bark!
It’s also valuable to make a list of whens for quiet too.
- when is your dog not barking?
- what are they doing when not barking?
- what are you doing when they are not barking?
- when can your dog just be?
- what does that picture look like?
Why does your dog do it?
Dogs do what works – they are very efficient at learning how to get things they like, and avoid things they don’t like.
When we call this barking ‘demand barking’ or ‘attention-seeking barking’, we are describing the function of this behaviour, the whys.
Your dog has trained you – they bark and you give them what they want. Don’t take it personally – dogs do what works and there’s no more significance than that.
For lots of dogs, good or bad attention will quickly establish and strengthen behaviour.
Whys might include:
- eye contact
- talking to the dog, even telling them off
- giving the dog the food or toy they want
- allowing the dog gain access to the thing they want
Why does your dog still do it?
Even though you might have tried ignoring your barking dog, they continue to shout.
When there has been inconsistent reinforcing and ignoring, off and on over time, barking behaviour will often appear very resistant to efforts at withdrawing the reward. This is likely because this behaviour works best in extinction burst.
Extinction is not just for dinosaurs
Extinction happens when we break the associations between the when and why and barking behaviour.
When extinguishing barking the dog learns that there is no point barking at the when, because the why is no longer available.
So this sounds easy, right? Just ignore the barking, don’t give in, extinguish that behaviour…
But, and this is what’s driving you crazy, before we get extinction we get extinction bursts.
Extinction bursts are not just for dogs; this clip shows some examples of behaviours you might recognise:
Problems with extinction: extinction bursts
If you have been rewarding barking behaviour and one day decide, no more, your dog may bark a little more persistently to gain your attention (hey, what’s wrong?! this usually works!) and when this doesn’t work, he barks a little more, maybe louder, maybe he jumps a little bit more too.
All in all, the behaviour gets bigger, just in case you missed it…
The problem is, that you are only human and this burst of activity may push you to the edge, and you give in. Now your dog has a whole new bigger and better barking behaviour to get those whys.
Problems with extinction: intermittent reinforcement
If you have been rewarding barking now and then your dog may not notice at first that you have decided that today is the day for ending this behaviour.
This dog will try even harder and be a more persistent extinction burst-er.
Problems with extinction: spontaneous recovery
Extinction bursts may lead to eventual reduction of barking behaviour but before that the behaviour will go through cycles of bursts and recovery…yep, the behaviour comes back before going through another burst and another recovery, over and over.
This is really difficult to maintain and live with, so we give in and we get even bigger bursts of demand barking.
Problems with extinction bursts: frustration
Not getting the reward he expects may cause your dog to experience high levels of frustration. This can be especially relevant when we are talking about behaviour that is often arousing (exciting) so your dog may be too wound up and lose some control.
Frustration is experienced as an aversive, so may cause the dog distress. This can be associated with other things happening in that picture too, like the people or animals present, further damaging relationships.
And frustration can drive aggressive responding, causing the dog to redirect his frustration onto you, other people or animals present or even other things around him.
Extinction doesn’t sound so hot anymore, huh..?
Just ignoring unwanted behaviour (as is often recommended) is not good enough, easy, safe or effective.
Just ignoring unwanted behaviour isn’t very kind for dogs either, particularly as we are often not terribly consistent or clear with signals to our dogs.
For peace and quiet we need to develop a better program.
Achieving Peace & Quiet
Once we know the whens and the whys, we can begin to build a program to reduce barking behaviour and bring back some peace and quiet.
1. An ounce of prevention…
List the whens in which barking is likely. What are the pictures in which barking happens?
Prevent your dog practicing barking; practice makes perfect and your dog is already pretty good at barking!
Before this picture even starts, give your dog something else to do; something that might make barking at you difficult, something that changes the way they can feel about that picture (instead of frustration, calming, for example).
Ideas might include:
- move to another room
- set the dog up with a yummy stuffed, frozen food dispensing toy
- park your dog with a yummy Kong toy
- throw the ball before they bark
- use two balls so he almost always has one ball in his mouth
- set up some sniffing challenges in another room or in the garden
- move toys to areas that dogs don’t have access e.g. the bathroom
- don’t give the dog toys at source, where you store them
What else works for the whens you have listed?
2. Remove rewards
List the whys that drives your dog’s demand barking behaviour.
Prevention might not work every time, especially early on when you are trying to establish the program.
No more eye contact, no more talking to him, no more giving him the ball…turn your back, step away, sing a little song to yourself, put the ball away.
A little bit of extinction can be applied, only where we are working hard on all the other areas too.
Barking is still going to happen. You are human. Your dog is a dog. Even when you have been doing your best with numbers 1. and 2., barking will still happen.
Don’t get disheartened. You can decide whether this is one you want to go for, or sit out and just let the dog bark. Get back on track the next time.
Redirect just functions to redirect your dog’s focus away from barking or whatever triggered the barking. It’s a bit of a quick fix to get some peace in the moment.
Redirection might include:
- when your dog barks, move away from them and pretend to engage in some very interesting activity, with lots of ooohs and aaaahs. Continue this silly charade until your dog follows you to see what you’re up to.
When they join you, interact with your dog, ask them for some behaviours or provide them with a sniffing activity, for example.
Snuffling is my favourite point of redirection: it’s hard to bark when sniffing, and sniffing and snuffling can be calming and all-engrossing for dogs. Also, your dog already knows how to do this alternate behaviour – you don’t need to teach a new behaviour, just stick this established behaviour into existing situations.
Lots of snuffling ideas below:
- when your dog barks, stop the interaction, go still and don’t reward. Step or turn away if you need to. Wait for the silence -this might be momentary. When they stop, verbally praise and make eye contact, smiling. Count to three before asking them to perform some behaviours or before engaging in some activity with them.
A delay is important so the dog is less likely to form further associations between barking and your interaction and cueing.
4. MORE reinforcement
When people think barking, or ‘problem’ behaviour, their first go-to is usually, stopping it. But, that’s really the least efficient approach, and can even bring about some worrying side-effects.
Instead think reinforcement!
To reinforce behaviour means to strengthen it and when modifying behaviour, we set the environment up so that alternative or incompatible desired behaviours are more likely to be chosen as they provide the same outlets as barking.
Because we are working through the entire program, barking behaviour becomes irrelevant, inefficient and ineffective (Susan Friedman).
First, make a training mix using your dog’s regular food plus some yummies.
Using the dog’s regular food as much as possible helps to reduce the addition of extra calories when working with food reinforcers.
Have small bowls or containers of your dog’s training mix or food rewards in suitable places; in situations that barking occurs and in situations that quiet occurs.
This will make sure you are ready to reward and catch your dog being quiet.
Food is not the only reinforcer suitable for this work, it’s just fast and is great for snuffling.
We have to remember the whys of your dog’s barking behaviour too. The new behaviours we put in place should function for the animal, in the same way as barking did in those contexts.
4.1 Non-Contingent Reinforcement (NCR)
NCR means that reinforcement happens, regardless of what behaviour the dog is doing.
This can be an effective approach for dogs who bark when you come into the house or room, for example. Step inside the door and immediately scatter food rewards.
What we really want to do here is to do the thing that triggers the barking, and immediately make food rewards, snuffling, the toy or a fuss and attention available immediately.
You are changing the meaning of that when; instead of it cueing barking, it means that you make the good stuff available, which cues other behaviours such as eating, sniffing, playing or interacting.
Protopopova & Wynne, 2015, found that this approach was effective in reducing unwanted kennel behaviour in a group of shelter dogs.
And Zurlinden & Spanos presented their work applying their quiet kennel exercise to hospitalised dogs at VBS 2020. I love this work; when a person showed up in the kennel area/ward are, they gave treats to the dogs regardless of their behaviour. Rather than concentrating on what the dogs were doing, the aim was to improve how the dogs were feeling, to reduce their motivation to bark.
4.2 Respondent Conditioning: barking interrupted
Respondent conditioning is a way of learning about associations allowing animals to predict when something relevant is about to happen.
Adding a signal that tells your dog that something good is about to happen can be used to interrupt barking behaviour so that the dog engages in some other more desirable and incompatible activity.
We don’t really want to stop our dogs barking altogether but do want to be able to redirect their behaviour to stop barking if needed.
This signal, a kissy noise, is paired with a treat. The dog orients to you when they hear this signal, because it makes yummies happen, so that you can bring your dog away from barking.
Once your dog can orient to you, you can redirect them to another activity.
Or we can teach a Shush! cue that means, search the floor for yummies.
Payen & Assemi, 2017, applied a respondent approach to reducing barking in groups of shelter dogs.
4.3 Differential Reinforcement (DR)
DR means to reinforce another behaviour, that isn’t barking. The more we reinforce (strengthen) quiet behaviour, the less barking there will be.
There are several types of differential reinforcement. Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behaviour (DRI) is probably the most useful. Pick a behaviour during which your dog is quiet and reinforce that.
That’s why I like snuffling so much; it’s incompatible with barking, your dog is really good at it, and snuffling is reinforced by more snuffling.
Look at your list of whens, now turn those into snuffle parties instead of bark-fests!
This works well for door-bell-barkers:
Some really intense barkers might require a more gradual approach to reducing barking behaviour. Instead of aiming for quiet, we might reinforce fewer barks, quieter barks, smaller barking behaviour (barking without jumping, for example).
Quiet or quieter behaviour make treat chases and snuffle parties happen. Aim for at least ten reward-parties each day in relation to quiet behaviour.
Protopopova & Wynne, 2015, found that DR schedules may help to reduce unwanted kennel behaviour in a group of shelter dogs. And Protopopova, Kisten & Wynne, 2016, found that the use of an automated feeder may be effective in reducing barking by differentially reinforcing quiet behaviour in home-alone dogs.
5. Change the picture
Go back to your list of whens:
- when does your dog bark?
- when is your dog quiet?
5.1 When does your dog bark?
Keep a log.
Record when your dog barks and what is happening just before and in the barking picture.
The things that make up the barking picture, or context, tell the dog how they are about to feel (perhaps frustrated at losing access to your attention, interaction reinforcers…all the whys) and what behaviours they will need (barking).
Let’s start changing that picture. Change your dog’s anticipation. Change how they expect to feel and behave.
The first clue to this picture is now going to predict some other, quieter activity.
For example, you just starting to prepare dinner or a snack, makes a fun sniffing game happen in the garden. Set up a sniffing course, find it with toys, or simple scatter feeding.
For example, you setting up to work on your computer, makes a delicious stuffed toy happen in their bed.
For example, you about to engage in some activity that does not involve your dog, makes a snuffle-party happen.
Make the trigger for so-called ‘demand’ or ‘attention-seeking’ barking a cue for something else that’s much quieter.
5.2 When is your dog quiet?
Keep a log.
Being quiet is just like barking behaviour in that it happens in particular contexts; what do quiet pictures look like for your dog?
There are two things to do here; first, reinforce the hell out of quiet behaviour. Quietness is the most reinforcing behaviour there is.
Second, set up a settle context.
Make sure all your dog’s needs are met; they’ve been fed, had a drink, toileted, mental and physical exercise provided, they have had social interaction and company with you.
Practice lots. Maybe you only get a few seconds of settling the first time, but keep practicing. The more you do it, in a similar context to how your dog would settle themselves any way, the more successful you will be.
6. Change the motivation
The clue is in the name; this barking dog is seeking attention, interaction, connection. Even when the dog’s barking behaviour appears to function to get other things like food or toys, that they are applying such big behaviour, often suggests to me that they want more than just that.
Despite how annoying their chosen method of communicating that need is, the dog’s behaviour is information and they need you!
Throughout our training program, as we have been working to establish quieter responses and extinguish barking, we have been applying lots of food and other reinforcers. That’s fine, especially for teaching.
Go back to your list of whys; the functions of “attention seeking” barking behaviour (again, the clue is in the name).
The new behaviours, instead of barking, must eventually fulfill the same functions as barking behaviour did.
Examine those whys. Now, begin to add them to the reinforcement strategies you have in place during training.
We are not removing the other reinforcers (e.g. food); we are adding in those other functions, i.e. your attention, interaction, connection. New behaviour must be at least as, if not more, worth your dog’s while. If we are replacing well established behaviour, we have a BIG reinforcement history to match.
Teach your dog other behaviours, that are quieter, that get them your attention, interaction, connection.
Most likely, those quiet behaviours exist, or certainly did. We humans tend not to observe the subtleties of canine behaviour, and when we do, we often don’t think them relevant or misinterpret them.
Your dog was asking for you, before the barking escalated.
Film your dog. Set up the camera and leave it running, rather than you holding it, in barking contexts. Review your footage and watch your dog closely. What were they doing before the barking started?
Because this behaviour wasn’t reinforced and barking was required, it might not happen any more. That behaviour didn’t work, and dogs do what works, disregarding the rest.
Film your dog regularly. Become more attuned with their movements, subtleties and nuances. Just watch them. Their behaviour is information.
Teach your dog that simple, soft eye contact works. No words from you, don’t add a cue. No words are needed.
Come do our engagement course, with your dog, and open up a whole new way of communicating and interacting with one another. More here.
Reinforce eye contact by capturing it – this means to just catch your dog gazing at you. Make goods things happen when you catch them quietly finding your face!
7. Provide appropriate enrichment & entertainment
This type of barking may be telling you that your dog needs more appropriate stuff to do.
Unfortunately, enrichment, in the dog world, has become associated with elaborate puzzles and dramatic challenge that appropriate entertainment has been lost.
Before developing an enrichment program for your dog, or introducing entertainment, make sure you have a good understanding of what they need. Is it really more high octane activities? Is it really another tricky brain-game?
You’re in luck. We’ve done the work for you with #100daysofenrichment. All the background info you need to understand what your dog might really need, and hundreds of challenges for you to adjust for your individual dog. Start today!
Appropriate challenge helps provide dogs outlets for good stress, helps them build frustration tolerance and let them be a dog. Your dog would choose this for you both, if he or she could!
This has become much longer than intended, and certainly more in-depth. But you made it this far.
There are lots of categories of barking behaviour, that may be defined differently, but, barking, like all behaviour, functions for your dog. The program outlined here is specific to “attention-seeking” type barking, but this approach can be applied to lots of types of barking and other behaviours too.
Consider the function of barking (the whys) and examine the pictures/contexts in which barking happens (the whens).
- collect the data: the whens, the whats and the whys
- don’t just ignore unwanted behaviour
- remove access to reinforcers
- add more reinforcement: non-contingent reinforcement, respondent conditioning, differential reinforcement
- change the picture (and consider the quiet pictures too)
- change the motivation (your dog wants you)
- add appropriate enrichment
This piece is a re-write from one I posted about four and a half years ago. I pulled it about a year ago, maybe a little more. I came across it, quite by accident, and decided that the tone no longer sat comfortably with me. It was a really popular piece, well-shared but there’s nothing like time to give you perspective. We are all learning and growing, me included.
If you want to read it, you can access it here. Use this password: transparency2020
It’s password protected so it’s not available generally, that’s all. I would prefer this be the Barking Mad piece I stand behind. You might be able to spot the tone and content that I don’t really like, or certainly, have moved on from.
Today’s piece sort of got away from me and is really a full dog-nerds program, but was inspired by some pretty funky “demand barking” advice being shared so I thought an update was needed. If I am calling out others’ advice, I may as well highlight that I too am not always happy looking back at what I may have done in times gone by (*cringe*). Fair is fair.
He’s not really barking…he’s catching kibble.