A common issue that dog guardians seek out help and advice about is their dog barking at other dogs. This situation can cause stress and embarrassment for the guardian, and lead to clashes with other guardians and their dogs. What some fail to realise is that the barking itself tells us that dog is stressed. This stress could be caused by a fear of other dogs, or it could be frustration and not having learned when younger appropriate social behaviours around other dogs. Whatever the root cause of that stress, to stop a dog barking at other dogs we need to find a way to reduce the stress levels around other dogs and promote a calmer emotional response. The kindest and best method is to employ counter conditioning.
Conditioning describes the process by which dogs learn, by making associations, and so counter conditioning is replacing that initial association that is causing raised stress levels (dogs are scary for one who has been attacked or wanting to greet every dog whether they like it or not for dogs who have not learned proper social behaviours around other dogs). Counter conditioning using food rewards is a highly effective method for stopping most dogs barking at other dogs.
To employ counter conditioning, we must first find the dog’s ‘threshold’, that point at which they start barking. For counter conditioning to work, the dog must be under threshold and therefore not so close that they are barking at other dogs, but must be able to see other dogs. While they are calm and quiet but have noticed the other dog, start feeding them a really high value treat. This needs to be something they really like and really want to get. Some people use liver cake, or tiny slivers of ham. The important thing to remember is that these treats are only handed out when other dogs are in sight but your dog is quiet and calm. If your dog starts barking at other dogs again then they are too close and need to move further away to continue. If they are watching the other dog and not able to pay attention to the ultra high value treat you are offering, they are too close and need to move away. As soon as the other dog is out of sight again, the super tasty treats go away.
Because of the conditioning process of making associations by which dogs learn, the dog starts to associate the presence of other dogs with really good things. Instead of barking at other dogs, they begin to look to their guardian in anticipation of their tasty reward. As this falls into place, we can add to the counter conditioning process something called desensitisation. To use systematic desensitisation for an issue of a dog barking at other dogs around them means slowly over time moving closer to other dogs, while still using the high value rewards. Be sure to note any signs of tension in your dog when you move closer and, if they stop taking the rewards or again start barking at other dogs, move away. The first thing to do is always increase the distance to reduce stress levels.
With regular and kind consistent training sessions with the dog’s stress levels in mind, we can stop many instances of dogs barking at other dogs. If unable to make progress or unsure how to start counter conditioning alone, a positive reinforcement based trainer or coach can help you on those early steps and throughout the process.
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