Ruf ruff sorry about my dog....
June 21, 2010 11:03 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to get a dog to stop barking at people? We have a three year old mini poodle rescue. I don't know if she was abused but she definitely wasn't socialized. We had her a year and a half and we've worked through a lot of issues (house training, fear, and severe separation anxiety) but the barking is the one issue we have never been able to fix. She's easily spooked by people and she barks if they even look at her let alone walk near her or reach for her. In our house she has actually chased house guests down the hall barking and circling. My husband and I are both able to bring her to our workplaces but the constant barking makes it difficult to do so.

We have tried a trainer who suggested hissing and poking her. We have tried an anti bark collar (no real effect). And we tried giving her positive experiences with people (eg letting strange person give her a treat or giving her a treat when a strange person walks in the room). Nothing has worked. We are considering a pinch collar which a trainer says will not hurt her if we are gentle. We are also considering water guns. We are reluctant to use negative reinforcement on a dog that has a negative experience with people but the positive reinforcement hasn't worked. Help!
posted by bananafish to Pets & Animals (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
We had a dog who was separated from his mother too soon and who barked every day, pretty much all day long. Between bites of food even. It was unbearable. We tried being stern (ended up just yelling at him a lot), shaking a can of coins at him or spraying water at him - all to no effect, other than feeling like we were just abusing him. We basically just shut him up in a back room when guests came over, but you could hear him barking far away the whole time.

In the end we decided either to give him away to a farm (if they would take him) or have his vocal cords snipped. Despite the nuisance, we still wanted to keep him, so we had the vocal cords taken out. It seems cruel or inhumane, but his life improved so much. He still tried to bark, but could only ever manage a weak rasp. Everyone who met him would ask "aww, does he have a cold??" and he got tons of love and attention. A big improvement from the harshness and separation of trying to train him and deal with the loud bark.

All that is to say, despite what others may think, it is not cruel to have her vocal cords taken out if you are not able stop the barking. And at 3 years old, it is very likely too late.
posted by molecicco at 12:39 AM on June 22, 2010

Training her that "people are nice" is too complicated for a dog. When the stranger gives her a treat, is she behaving correctly already? If not, then this stranger is rewarding her for barking and running around.

Try training her to actively "be quiet" on command, instead of training her to not bark in the first place. Specific positive behaviours are easier for you to train. Reward her consistently for performing a specific simple action that you have asked her to do - not just for "seeing a person".

In this case, reward her for being quiet long enough to scoff a treat (it's hard to bark while eating). Make her wait quietly longer and longer for the biscuit. If she starts barking again, leave off.

There are plenty of dog trainers who will work with mostly positive reinforcement rather than concentrating exclusively on anti-bark collars and so on; maybe you could find a different dog trainer.
posted by emilyw at 2:13 AM on June 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

The spray bottle method, along with some verbal correction and a pull on a martingale collar, seems to be working for us.
posted by emkelley at 4:35 AM on June 22, 2010

We had success with our rescue dog by giving her a crate to go into; it gave her a safe place to hang in, and it calmed her down enough to stop barking when we left the house.
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:01 AM on June 22, 2010

Once upon a time I had 3 Maltese puppies. Every. Single. Time. someone came to the front door they barked like crazy. The answer was to desensitize them. I enlisted a neighbor child who-- for several days running-- knocked and rang the doorbell over and over, sometimes 10 or more times an hour. Eventually the puppies stopped barking automatically and if they were completely quiet, they got lavished with praise and a small treat. This was reinforced for several weeks and it got to the point where they could hardly be bothered to jump down off the couch.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:14 AM on June 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

I used a spray bottle. Now when I even motion to get it or shake it, the barking will stop.
posted by spec80 at 7:23 AM on June 22, 2010

I haven't done this (yet) but I've read in many dog books that the first step of the solution is to teach them to bark on command. Once you're able to get them to bark on command you can start to control when and where they bark.
posted by frenetic at 8:02 AM on June 22, 2010

Someone calling themselves a "trainer" suggested hissing and poking?!? Yikes...

It sounds like your dog has a fear/aggression problem. I think emilyw has the right idea. Your best bet is using positive reinforcement to condition your dog to do something different in these situations. You'll probably need helpers in the early stages of her training.

--Helper walks by
--The instant the dog starts to react, you say "Fifi, enough" and distract her with a treat and a command to sit (Does she already know how to sit on command? If not, teach that first.)
--As she starts to get up or even look at the helper, you say "uh-uh, enough" and offer another treat. Keep "feeding the meter" until dog's attention is focused on YOU and not on the helper. Praise!
--Do this over and over. Eventually, when you say "enough" the dog will run to your side and sit waiting for the treats.

Basically, you want the dog to start associating other people with good things coming from YOU. Dog sees someone outside walking past the house and immediately looks to you for a treat. It's about distraction and defusing the tension the dog feels.
posted by rhartong at 9:04 AM on June 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sounds to me like the hissing and poking is a poorly articulated version of Cesar Milan's methods.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 10:18 AM on June 22, 2010

I am a dog trainer, but I am not _your_ dog trainer. :) Without being there to see body language, behaviour, etc, I can only give you some rough suggestions. As for the trainer you've already worked with who has instructed you to use aggressive, fear-based, and positive punishment-based methods on your Miniature Poodle, I'd suggest that you find another trainer, preferably one certified by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers or the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers. Both organizations are passionate about continuing education and science/behaviour based methods -- ways to teach you how to communicate with your dog instead of intimidating her. If you can't find someone certified (and there are plenty of great uncertified trainers out there), talk to them about what methods they use and their philosophy regarding dog training.

Okay, off the soapbox and onto the advice. Barking is what's known as a self-rewarding behaviour. It feels good to bark, so it's rare that negative punishment (the withdrawal of attention, etc) works. Many behaviours can be ignored (and then rewarded for the correct behaviour) away, but self-rewarding behaviours need more active participation.

First thing to try is the most counter-intuitive thing in the world. To stop barking (or licking), you first have to capture the barking behaviour and get it on command. Luckily, it's easy to capture barking if you have a barker. :D Click (you have a clicker, right? If not, go buy one. Right now. I'll wait. Okay). Click and treat when she barks, ideally after a bark, and even more ideally before she starts the next one. Do that for a few repetitions. When she starts looking at you expectantly after she barks, add the vocal cue. Say "Speak" (or whatever you want the cue to be) when you are expecting her to bark. Ideally, it'll be right before she barks, but during the bark works too. Don't repeat the command. Click and treat. When she has that down, stop rewarding for barking you don't ask for. Only give her a treat when you ask her bark, and start only giving her a treat some of the time when you ask her to speak (It's called a variable schedule of reward, and it is the most powerful force on the planet). Now it's time to add the command that is the Holy of Holies, "Quiet". Ask her to Speak, and as soon as she has barked, say "Quiet" and click and treat her. If she barks without being asked, say "Quiet" and as soon as she stops barking, click and treat her.

Keep in mind that you have to teach a dog to generalize -- if you teach her 'Quiet' in the kitchen, she'll think that she only has to do it in the kitchen. Teach her in different rooms, in the yard, anywhere you can. After a couple of repetitions in different places she'll understand that 'Quiet' means the same thing everywhere and she'll be generalised.

*However* (and this is why I suggested finding a new trainer), from what you said about chasing people down the hall, this could be an aggression problem, not a 'barky' problem. "Quiet" is still a wonderful command to teach, but a dog who barks and chases and circles could be trying to control her environment, and that's not something that can be diagnosed or cured over the Internet. That needs a good trainer who understands canine behaviour and who is on the scene.

Finally, 'debarking' is *not* a good idea. The surgery carries a not-insignificant risk of scar tissue or fibroids growing to block the airway (which means more surgery), and it doesn't address the cause of the behaviour. If there is an aggression issue (fear or otherwise), just cutting her vocal chords to address the symptom could mean that her behaviour escalates to biting, which then becomes harder to address and potentially a death sentence.

Hope this helps, and feel free to MeMail me if you have any other questions.
posted by Concolora at 11:26 AM on June 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

This is a great list of books & resources about fearful dogs. A bark collar won't help with protective or fear-based barking, just with nuisance or boredom-related barking. The suggestions above are useful, and it's really just something you have to work with over time.
posted by judith at 2:19 PM on June 22, 2010

[Not a dog trainer, just a longtime dog person.] Part of the barking problem seems to be your pup's fear and spookiness around people who approach her. I have one very reserved dog and one insecure spooky one, and what helps them is for me to instruct people to completely ignore the dogs' presence -- pretend they don't exist. (Actually, I also ask visitors and passersby do that with my overly affectionate dogs, to discourage them from begging for attention.)

Any dog can be nervous with new folks who approach it straight on, make eye contact, and loom over to pet it, but insecure and small dogs often react extra badly because all those can be threatening behaviors in canine-speak. (Really, how would we feel if total strangers walked up, grabbed us, and tried to kiss us?) So as you're working on Concolora's excellent suggestions and working with a trainer, neutralizing situations by asking people to just tune out the dog rather than interacting with her can be calming. It'd be a huge victory if she could eventually learn to share [wide] spaces with people comfortably.

My border collie lab mix Mathilda was kept in a basement for her first 8-9 weeks with little if any human contact. She just turned three, and when the piano tuner came over last week, she barked a few times in her crate, and then after a few minutes, I let her out, and she quietly walked over and sniffed him (and he calmly let her and didn't reach for her) and then walked across the room and lay down contentedly on her futon.

This is such impressive progress I felt like throwing her a tickertape parade. When we run into neighbors on our walks now, she might bark once or twice and then, if I stop to chat, she'll sit or lie down and watch with interest. But it took many, many baby steps and good, trust-building experiences -- and just some time to mature and learn about the world. And plenty of things still spook her at times.

So, practice, humane professional desensitization training, and patience.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:12 PM on June 26, 2010

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