Dogs bark for a variety of reasons:
Teach the dog a competing response, such as fetching a certain toy or doing a down-stay on a mat (which cuts barking in many dogs) for tasty food rewards. Practice out of doorbell or “intruder” contexts first and then incorporate the game or command into real-life situations. The dog will need some coaching and prompting the first few times in the real-life situation so budget some time for that. Even better, set it up with a cohort to play “visitor” a few times, so you can focus on the dog rather than being forced to attend to the person at the door.
Another effective technique is a non-violent penalty for barking. After a few barks, warn the dog to be quiet (“quiet please”). On the very next bark, mark the behavior (“Oh! Too bad for you!”) and immediately impose a time-out penalty in a bathroom or backroom: anywhere far from the action. With repetition the dog will learn that his barking results in removal and he will start heeding the warning.
Competing response and time-outs can be combined as a one-two punch. If he goes to his mat, he is rewarded as usual. If he barks, he goes into the penalty box.
If your dog “goes off” for the smallest sounds and changes in the environment, it would help the cause to get him better habituated. Take him out more, invite people and dogs over to socialize, expose him to a wider range of sights and sounds.
When they want something, dogs will experiment with various behaviors to see if any of them work. They quickly figure out that barking works. If you don’t like barking, stop rewarding it with attention, door-opening or ball-throwing services, releasing from crates, etc. Period. No buts.
Don’t provide door-opening services to barking dogs. Don’t let a barking dog out of a crate until he’s quiet. Ignore dogs who bark at you. And so on. If you have been rewarding it for a while, the barking will get worse before it goes away. You’re changing the rules and the dog will be frustrated at first. Whatever you do, don’t crack and reward WORSE barking!
Above all, start noticing the dog when he’s quiet. Teach him that there are payoffs for lying quietly, chewing on a chew-toy and refraining from barking.
Prevention is best here. When you get a new dog or puppy, set a good precedent right away. Don’t smother him with your constant presence and attention. Come and go a lot and never go to him when he’s vocalizing. Wait until he’s quiet for at least 30 seconds so you don’t risk rewarding the barking. Tire him out before longer absences.
Dogs are a highly social species. They don’t cope well with prolonged isolation. Consider daycare or a dog-walker at lunchtime if you work all day.
Increase physical and mental stimulation. In a natural environment, a lot of your dog’s energy would be spent acquiring his food. Take walks, play fetch, play tug-of-war, hide & seek, and allow opportunities for free-play with other dogs. Make him work to acquire his food. Stuff it into a Kong toy and hide it in the house before you leave for work, scatter it in the grass in the backyard, or make him earn it piece-by-piece for tricks.
Find out what kinds of chew toys he likes and stock up. Hold chewies for him. Teach him to find a toy that you’ve hidden in the room and then celebrate his find with tug of war or fetch. Teach him his toys by name. Ask him to bring you one when you come home.
If your dog is anxious to the point of panic attacks, he has separation anxiety and needs formal desensitization and/or medication. Contact a competent trainer or veterinary behaviorist.
In this case, it is important to get at the underlying undersocialization. Socialize puppies extensively to as wide a variety of people and dogs as possible. You cannot overdo it. Expose them to plenty of places, experiences, sights and sounds, and make it all fun with praise, games and treats. Find and attend a good puppy class.
If you missed the boat socializing your puppy, you’ll have to do remedial work with your adolescent or adult. Whatever it is that your dog is spooky about must now become associated with lunch. This is how undersocialized dogs work for their food. If he doesn’t like strangers, meals need to fed bit by bit around strangers until he improves. It takes a while to improve adult dogs so persevere.
If you don’t have time for a dog, don’t get a dog. Dogs are not space-intensive, they are time-intensive. If you have an outside dog, train him to be an inside dog. There is no quick fix here: you must meet your dog’s basic needs for stimulation, exercise and companionship.
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