Every time I teach a basic manners class at least one person in the class asks (usually rather off-topic) what to do about barking. Upon further inquiry (when/how/where/what/why does the dog bark?) it is typically discovered that the excessive barking is occurring in the individual’s backyard. Because the dog is in the yard the owner feels she has no control over him and can’t get him to be quiet. Everyone is frustrated.
If the dog is left unattended in the backyard all day/night, forget it. Unless you are willing to make big changes to your dog’s routine you can expect the barking to continue. This is like leaving a toddler unsupervised in a room full of breakable objects with no toys, and then complaining that he keeps breaking things. Dogs do not need to be left unattended in yards. Contrary to popular thought this does not do any good for your canine companion. It provides him with added stress and does not serve as a substitute for proper exercise. If you hadn’t guessed, strapping a bark collar that delivers electric shock or sprays a chemical in your dog’s face when he barks is not an acceptable solution, either. That’s like tying the above toddler’s hands behind his back before leaving him in that room full of breakables. The only thing broken when you return will be the child’s psyche–and the same goes for your dog.
When it comes to barking, don’t be selfish. If you want your dog to never bark again you can (unfortunately) have his vocal cords cut from his throat–that’s how much power you have. Wouldn’t it be nice if you used your almighty human power to teach your dog something instead? Most dog owners want their dog to bark some of the time, just not all the time, and not excessively. Trouble is you, as a human, have a complex brain that can separate a prowler from a neighbor’s child–your dog sees both as an intruder if they walk into his backyard. Your dog sees a million perfectly good reasons to bark and you only see a handful, and that is something you’re just going to have to compromise. No one held a gun to your head and made you get a dog, so you have to accept that your dog has his own set of reasons for doing things and you can’t change his mind. You can’t teach him to only bark when there is a real threat because what is a threat to him is probably different from what is a threat to you. Once you accept that your dog has vocal cords and the right to use them we are going to get much farther on this barking thing.
So you recognize your dog has vocal cords and gets to decide when to use them. You’re not going to cut them out or strap an inhumane device to his throat. Now you get to use your human powers for good and teach him to stop barking when asked. Remember that this post is specifically about backyard barking; there is a different formula for each kind of excessive barking. My personal solution to barking in the backyard is to teach your dog to run to the back door when it opens. If he is barking at the back fence and you open your back door, he should hear that sound and come running. This is a simple feat of classical conditioning. In the same way that your dog comes running when he hears you open the treat jar, he can learn to come running to the sound of you opening the back door. Simply pair the sound with something delicious or fun by making it a rule for the next few weeks that everytime you open that door your dog gets a tasty treat (or a game of fetch or tug if that’s what he’s into). Everyone in the house must do the same, and in no time your dog will come racing over when you open the door. Luckily, classical conditioning is so powerful you won’t have to continue to treat your dog every time you open the door for life–just occasionally to keep the response strong, and I would suggest almost every time you interrupt barking this way.
What if I have multiple dogs? Brilliant! For the first week or so, all dogs that come to the door get treats. After that, only the first dog to arrive gets treats (within reason–I’ve got a friend with a dachshund and a whippet–not a fair race!). This will create an even better response than the one you would get in a single dog household.
I use the same technique to teach my dogs all kinds of things I want them to know. I want my dogs to run from the front door and hop in my car when it’s open, I want them to run to their crates when I get ready to leave the house, and I want them to return to me frequently when we are on off-leash hikes. All of this is taught simply and easily with classical conditioning.
If you want me to talk about another kind of barking, leave me a comment!