Leslie Hayes is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the co-owner of PupLife.com, Inc. and the author of many Positive Reinforcement Dog Training articles. Submit your dog training questions to Training Talk via our Contact Us form. Due to the high volume of questions we receive, we cannot respond to everyone.
My father works at a major university and because he has an office within his own laboratory, he is allowed to bring his standard poodle to work every day. He started this tradition with his previous dog, an adorable Wheaten Terrier who even rated his own nameplate on the office door!
The problem with his poodle, Penne, is that she barks her head off at my dad all the time. She wants attention, and he’s nervous that she’s going to mess things up for the other dog owners there! How can my dad curb Penne’s barking habit? – JT, Evanston
It’s wonderful that your dad has the opportunity to bring his best friend to work with him on a regular basis. And, you bring up an important point about excessive barking and its implications in the workplace (as well as at home). Let’s face it, unless you work at a doggy day care or as a dog trainer, a bark-a-holic is not an ideal office mate.
Looking at things from the dog’s point of view, we need to remember that barking is a very self-reinforcing behavior. In addition to providing a means of communicating with other dogs, animals and people, barking gives dogs something to do and, in many instances, helps calm a dog’s nerves and alleviate boredom.
When excessive barking becomes a behavioral issue for an owner, the first thing to look at is the underlying cause. Is the dog alert barking out of fear or nervousness, play barking to engage passersby or barking for attention? By identifying the underlying cause of the barking, it becomes easier to create and implement an appropriate training program.
In your case, JT, it sounds like your dad has determined that Penne is an attention barker. Generally, dogs are pretty good at assessing us humans, and they learn fairly early on how to get what they want. If Penne’s barking has been inadvertently rewarded with attention it will take some time to convince her otherwise!
The following three-pronged approach may help your dad redirect Penne’s excessive barking into more appropriate behavior. First, increase the amount of exercise Penne gets. Most dogs (and people) simply don’t get enough. Healthy, young dogs need at least 30 minutes to an hour of exercise each day. A brisk 30 minute walk combined with 5 minutes of fetch and 10 minutes of basic training is a good place to start.
Second, the concept of Crate Training should be revisited with a focus on calm, quiet behavior in the crate. Set up the dog crate in the living room and work on Penne sitting in the crate each day for 3-5 minutes. Stay in the room with her but do not pay her any attention while she’s in the crate. If she pitches a fit, ignore her. Release her from the crate when she’s calm, cool and collected. It may take some time but try to build up to 10 minutes of quiet crate behavior.
Third, go back to basics like sit and down maintain. The key is “the maintain”. Once a cue is given, you want your dog to maintain the behavior until you release her. To teach the maintain, you’ll need a leash and collar, an indicator word (or clicker), a release word and some yummy dog treats. The sequence should look something like this: give your dog the “Sit” cue. The dog sits and you indicate with a word (like “Yes” or a click) and reward her with a Healthy Dog Treat. If the dog breaks the sit (“self-releases”) remind her with GENTLE pressure up on the leash until the dog is reseated. Once your dog commits to the sit you can release her. I encourage the use of release words like “Ok!” or “All done!” When you say the release word, your dog is free to get up and move around. Repeat basic maintain behaviors with increasing duration until your dog can do a 30 second sit or down. Now start adding in “proofs” like distance. Using distance as your “proof”, the dog maintains the sit position while you take a few steps away. The goal is to be able to leave the room and have your dog maintain the sit until you come back and release her.
Finally, here are some suggestions for dealing with attention barkers in general. Try not to reward your dog for barking. If she barks when you come home from work ignore her until she is calm and then say hello. You can also enlist the help of family members to work sit maintain with your dog as you walk in the door (this is an advanced proof!) If your dog barks to go outside, cue her to sit before you let her outside. Be sure to use your release word before opening the door! Work the sit maintain if your dog barks while her food is being prepared. Again, cue the sit, prepare the food, set the Dog Bowl down and then release your dog to eat. Ultimately, you want to reward the behaviors you like and discourage (by withholding rewards and/or attention) the behaviors you don’t want. Remember, our dogs are learning what works and what doesn’t work each and every day! There are plenty of opportunities throughout the day for you and your dog to practice the behaviors you want.
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From time to time we will feature guest trainers who will respond to selected questions. Our training advice and information is not intended to provide an alternative to professional veterinary treatment. We do not offer diagnoses or treatment for any medical condition and strongly recommend discussing any changes you wish to make regarding your dog’s health, diet and care with your veterinarian. If warranted, we may suggest seeking a behavioral evaluation by a professional dog trainer or animal behaviorist in your area.