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My dog’s barking is driving me (and my neighbors) crazy. He’s a healthy, two-year-old Sheltie mix, and I’ve been told that it’s impossible to train him to stop barking and that I should have him surgically debarked — which I find completely appalling. Please tell me there’s a way to teach my dog to stop barking.
Dogs who bark excessively can cause big problems for their humans, but even though it may seem completely out of control, this behavior can be modified to a bearable level. Sometimes barking dogs can cause such distress that people resort to having the dog’s vocal chords surgically removed, but I’m glad that you find that idea appalling, because most trainers and veterinarians would agree, and advise against taking such a drastic and frankly abusive measure.
Debarking can cause immense anxiety, as it takes away an important part of the dog’s ability to communicate. I do recommend, however, that you take your dog to the veterinarian for a thorough medical check up, since any extreme behavior can be exacerbated by a medical condition. Dogs bark for many reasons — to get attention, as a warning, in response to other barking dogs, out of boredom, out of anxiety, or when excited — and it’s important to identify the triggers before beginning training. Read on to learn why your dog is barking and what you can do about it.
1. The Trigger: Boredom
The Fix: These days, most dogs who were once bred to do a certain job find domestic life boring, and barking relieves that boredom. If this is the case, the first step in how to train a dog not to bark is increased exercise and mental stimulation. This will refocus your dog’s mind onto something more positive and help tire them out.
2. The Trigger: Attention Seeking
The Fix: If your dog barks to get attention, don’t reward their demands. Yelling at your dog is inadvertently rewarding them for barking, even if the communication is negative. It’s best to ignore the barking. Wait for five seconds of quiet, then reward your dog with attention. This way, your dog learns that they get nothing from you when they bark but gets everything when they’re quiet.
3. The Trigger: Excitement
The Fix: A dog who barks when excited (e.g., before going for a walk or being fed) is harder to work with because your pre-departure or pre-food cues are usually highly ritualized. Again, do not reward your dog with what they want until they’re calm. For example, if the dog barking happens as soon as you go for the leash, drop the leash and sit down. Keep repeating this until your dog is quiet. If you successfully attach the leash but your dog barks as soon as they get outside, immediately go back inside. This technique requires patience, but if you are diligent, your dog will quickly learn that quiet equals a walk.
4. The Trigger: Anxiety/Fear
The Fix: Dogs who suffer from anxiety when left alone will often bark a lot during the first 30 minutes after departure, while others continue until their person comes home. You’ll need to hire a trainer to help, as separation anxiety can be a very difficult behavior to modify. In the case of your dog, know that Shelties tend to be particularly sound-sensitive, responding to noises that the human ear cannot hear. Also, because they were bred for herding, some Shelties have a high chase and/or prey drive and are easily stimulated by fast-moving objects, such as squirrels or birds.
5. The Trigger: Territorial/Alarm
The Fix: If your dog barks excitedly in the backyard, for example, immediately take them back into the house and only allow them out again when they’re quiet. Keep repeating if necessary, but never leave them in the backyard unattended. If your dog barks at other dogs or people in or outside of your home, it might be because they haven’t received adequate socialization and they feel uncomfortable. In this case, your dog should go on a desensitization program so they can gain the confidence they need to cope in a social situation. In general, it’s important to note that it’s normal for a dog to bark to alert their pack about anyone (or anything) approaching their space.
As you can see, there are many reasons why dogs bark — and there are many ways to stop it. Please don’t listen to those who say that extreme dog barking can’t be modified. There are lots of ways to reduce what is a very normal (albeit annoying) behavior.
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Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer and star of It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, TV personality, and founder of both the Victoria Stilwell Academy and Positively, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.