By Gary Wilkes
Barking is a problem for just about everyone other than New Zealand shepherds. They use “Huntaway” dogs to drive sheep with incessant barking. For them it is functional. For the rest of us it is problematic. People can be driven from their apartments or condos because their dogs bark incessantly. Shelters have trouble featuring adoptable animals because they cannot hear amid barking dogs. OSHA noise level standards require kennel workers to use hearing protection. I was in a salon last week and, wisely, everyone wears hearing protection. Knowing how to control barking is a valuable skill for anyone who boards, grooms, trains, or owns dogs.
There is an old joke that asks, “What do you call a Cocker Spaniel that barks 900 times in ten minutes?” This number is based on the research of Drs. John Scott and John Fuller in the late 1950’s and is not a hypothetical exaggeration. The answer for any real dog person is, “Normal.” So, how do you get such a dog to shut up? There are four approaches to this problem. One is ineffective and the other three are dependent on which dog you are trying to silence.
1. Gradual Desensitization and Psycho-tropic Drugs
This is the favorite solution of out-of-touch trainers and behaviorists. It implies that the dog is barking because it is anxious about isolation or bored. The reason I suggest “out of touch” is that real dog owners don’t have countless hours to spend in order to get a marginal lessening of the barking. It is entirely likely that they have a civil or criminal citation for nuisance barking or a complaint from a tenant in a neighboring apartment or condo. That means that money and eviction are the real consequences of failing to stop the behavior immediately. Note: Positive reinforcement or letting a behavior decline over time does not create an inhibition against barking.
2. Bark Collars
There are several types of automatic anti-bark collars on the market that can immediately terminate chronic barking. They are all intended to use aversive control; AKA punishment. There are three types of negative consequence associated with the barking; electric shock, ultra-sonic noise, and a mist of citronella spray.
- Electric Shock: The most effective aversive stimulus to stop a dog from barking is electric shock. This is produced through several mechanisms. Some electric collars listen to the dog’s barking and then produce a shock. Some feel the vibration in the dog’s neck to trigger the shock. Some have complex circuitry that claims that it can memorize the sound of one dog’s bark to prevent accidental triggering if multiple dogs are making noise. Others have gradually escalating levels of shock if the animal persists after the shock is triggered. Some have a tone that comes on when the barking is sensed, followed by shock. A combination of the last two features is the most logical combination to fix the most number of dogs.
- Ultra-Sonic Noise: We all know about dog whistles and that dogs can hear things we can’t. To take advantage of this, ultra-sonic systems generate very loud noises that we can’t hear. The good side of this is that the neighbors do not know that the dog is being punished. The downside is a risk of hearing damage. Some dogs do stop barking in response to these loud noises. In thunder-rich locations like Oklahoma and Arizona, one must decide if using loud noises to punish a dog is a good idea.
- Citronella: Citronella collars are a form of chemical warfare. When the collar is triggered, a puff of noxious vapor is released in front of the dog’s face. This aversive event is supposed to stop the barking. My experience with reports from owners is that citronella is not very effective. This may be the result of the properties of the tool. A windy day makes a puff of vapor dissipate rapidly and may not be perceived as aversive. There is no way to escalate the puff if the dog persists in barking. I have seen a dog intentionally move to step outside the puff-area when he triggered the collar. It did not stop the dog from barking, it negatively reinforced him for intelligently moving around. Also, it is possible for the dog to habituate to the scent of citronella, thereby neutralizing its function as an aversive stimulus.
To affect this form of conditioning would require a very long article. I will mention it anyway as food for thought, without any details.
This is an outline:
- Associate a unique signal with food.
- Discover the conditions that surround the barking events.
- Trigger the food association before the barking typically starts.
An alternative is to specifically associate sounds (children screaming, fire sirens, people walking down a hall-way) with food. This process uses respondent conditioning to neutralize the dog’s reaction to a specific event. So, if the dog barks at sirens, keep a bowl of treats around. When the dog hears a siren, shove a treat in its mouth. Repeat as needed.
4. Direct Contingent Punishment
The most effective way to stop barking is to apply a signal (NO!) at the instant the behavior starts and then provide something the dog really, really doesn’t like. Most people assume that punishment equals abuse. That is a misinterpretation of the term. Punishment is any behavioral influence that suppresses or stops behavior. Contingent punishment implies an “if-then” relationship. “If” you bark, “Then” I say “NO” and throw a pillow at you or spritz you with water. If you have ventured out of your salon in the last ten years you will realize that even suggesting something as harmless as a pillow may receive backlash.
This is a good place to state that I am giving you information about controlling barking – I am not recommending anything. What I have offered simply describes the various kinds of solutions trainers are going to offer your clients. Unless you know what they are likely to hear, you cannot retain your place as trusted friend and advisor. ✂