The next few sections review some basic elements of what you need to keep in mind while you come up with a plan to curb (or at least cut down) your dog's barking. The philosophy is the same for training any behavior: Have a plan, be patient, be consistent, and reinforce the right behaviors.
Doin' What Comes Naturally
Some breeds are prone to barking, but all dogs can learn not to bark excessively or inappropriately. If you have a breed that is known for barking, nip the problem in the bud while the dog is still a pup. Some dogs were bred for their ability to chase or guard, and barking is sometimes part of the package.
If you know what sets your dog off into a frenzy of barking, think carefully about how you can prevent these episodes from happening. The more barking your dog does, the more she gets reinforced for barking. The more reinforcement a behavior gets, the more likely the behavior is to occur and become stronger. If you want to have a quieter household, you need to find your dog's triggers for barking and short circuit as many of them as you can.
Set a Reasonable Goal
A dog that barks a lot isn't going to just quit one day when you find the magic cure. Barking is reinforcing to dogs, and it often gets worse before it gets better. Sit down with your family and set a reasonable goal for your dog. Maybe your dog is the type that barks when the doorbell rings; in this case, your goal might be that she's allowed to bark for 30 seconds and then she must be quiet when you tell her to be quiet. Or if she hears a noise, she can let you know something's going on but then must stop barking and go to her bed. It really doesn't matter what the goal is, so long as it is simple and fairly easy for the dog to do.
It is your job to sit down, agree on something reasonable, and teach it to the dog. Don't be afraid to set small goals and build up the time the dog is required to be quiet by seconds. It isn't reasonable to expect a dog that has been barking excessively for years to suddenly quit overnight.
To change your dog's response to a typical antecedent to barking like the doorbell, ring the doorbell at random times and give the dog a handful of delicious treats or play a favorite game like tug or fetch. Your ignoring both the bell and the door will teach your dog an alternate expectation to the ringing of the doorbell.
Find the Antecedents to Barking
An antecedent is the trigger or the cause of a behavior. For instance, your dog barks at the sound of a knock or a doorbell. The knock or doorbell would be considered the antecedent for the behavior of barking. Knowing what triggers your dog's barking can be crucial to teaching her to be quiet. The pattern or chain of reaction goes like this: antecedent, behavior, consequence, appropriate behavior, reward. You need to complete this entire circuit of behavior to teach your dog not to bark excessively.
A good way to find antecedents is to keep a chart of when your dog barks and what happens right before she barks. Write down exactly what you think triggered the barking and time how long it took her to stop. If you time how long it takes your dog to calm down, you will know when you are making progress in your training program and when you are spinning your wheels. You'll know you're on track if the number of seconds it takes your dog to calm down becomes smaller over time. Good dog trainers chart progress to see results!
Set the Consequences
For dogs that keep at it and barely take a breath between barks, you may want to use something to interrupt the barking. This way you will be stopping the barking for a second so that you can reward him for being quiet. A consequence is the same as punishment, so alone it will only stop the behavior. It will not teach the dog what he should do instead.
Some ideas for consequences might be a squirt of water, a loud noise, shaking a can of pennies, a nonelectric no-bark collar. (This device is worn around the neck and distracts the dog by squirting a blast of citronella when she barks.) Consequences are used to interrupt the behavior of excessive barking to get the dog to stop for a second so he could be rewarded for being quiet. You will want to plan out ahead of time what the dog should do instead of barking so that you know what behavior to reinforce.
If you only correct the dog for barking and fail to reward him for being quiet, you will get a dog that eventually goes back to barking because he isn't being reinforced for anything else. Remember, what gets rewarded gets repeated.
Notice the Right Stuff
Too often with a noisy dog, we tend to notice only when she is barking and not when she is quiet. A good part of the solution for barking is catching and reinforcing the dog for being quiet. Each reinforcement you provide for a quiet behavior will be money in the bank for a quieter dog overall. Pay attention to your dog at times like this by petting or playing with her, giving her a treat, bringing her inside, letting her outside, opening the crate door, and so on. Whatever would be reinforcing at the moment, reward your dog with it, and you will notice that your dog barks less over the course of several days or weeks, depending on the value of the reinforcement and the severity of the problem.
Remember that barking is just like any bad habit; it is easier to slip back into old patterns of behavior because they are familiar and sometimes reinforcing. Management and prevention is critical.
Set for Success
If you live in a busy neighborhood, be smart. Letting your dog have unsupervised free access to your yard is not a good idea. She will only find things to bark at, effectively reinforcing her obnoxious behavior over and over. This poor management encourages more barking, because dogs think that barking is fun and will continue the behavior in the absence of anything better to occupy their time. Setting up your dog to succeed means that you use prevention to help your dog to be quiet, and then make sure you notice and reward her for being quiet. The following are some tips for setting your dog up to succeed:
Give her exercise. A dog can never have too much. Try play dates with other dogs, games of fetch, Frisbee, hide-and-seek, doggie day care, pet sitters, dog walkers, or anyone who will exercise your dog for you.
Occupy her. Try interesting toys, bones, and chew treats that let your dog exercise his jaws. Dogs that bark are often big chewers, so make sure your dog has plenty of good stuff to chew.
Pay attention to her. Be there to supervise and redirect your dog. When you are present in the yard, for instance, practice calling your dog away from what she is barking at and reward her for engaging in a different behavior.
Keep her busy. Stuff hollow toys with peanut butter and dry dog food, and hide them all over the house and yard; this will give her something to do while you are out.
Remove the antecedent. Prevent barking as often as possible by blocking her view with shrubs, closing the blinds, or rearranging the furniture. Not allowing your dog to practice the wrong behavior is more than half the cure.
Meet her needs. Have a schedule and stick to it as much as possible. Hire a professional dog walker or a doggie day care to help you with walks and exercise if necessary. The more predictable your dog's routine, the better it is for her. Try to feed, walk, and play with your dog on a predictable schedule so that she will learn to trust you and feel secure.
Be ready. It is very important to be ready to reinforce what's going right. Make a plan with your family and stick to it. The more you know what you want, the more likely you are to get it.
Use a marker signal. The use of a clicker to identify which behavior is rewardable (the quiet behavior) is crucial information for the dog, and it is difficult to provide it any other way. Remember that the click marks the quiet behavior so you can then follow through with the reward.
Find the methods that work best for your dog and be patient and consistent in marking her desirable behavior.