dog barks excessively

Morgan: Alright, Mike – welcome back to the show. I’ve got a great question here for you today, something that I think will resonate with a lot of people.

So, here’s the question: “My dog barks excessively. Does this present a problem in terms of preparing my dog for a child, and what can I do?”

The Problem, And Some Simple Solutions

Mike: Well, does it present a problem? Yes, it presents a problem, firstly from a straight noise standpoint.

I guess there’s two ways to think about it. On the one hand, most parents I know work pretty hard to get their kid down for a nap, right?

So then, if you’ve got a dog that’s chronically barking, you’ve just spent 30 minutes trying to get the kid to sleep, and then a squirrel steps on a twig three blocks away and your dog goes bananas, and starts barking and bouncing off the walls. And then the baby’s up.

So, that’s one side. And on the other side, when my sister had her kid for example, they told her: “Whatever noise you usually make around the place, keep making it. The kid will sleep right through it, and get conditioned to it.”

So, there’s that. But it’s an annoyance – barking is a pain in the neck. It’s common, it’s natural, and it’s something that we want to get on top of as soon as possible.

There are dogs like that – any little noise outside and the dog’s going bananas, right?

So, the most common way to deal with it is to just put a citronella barking collar on the dog.

There’s various barking devices that you can use that are pain-free. They’re just annoying to the dog.

They correct the dog for barking immediately, and they can be very helpful. That’s a one-dimensional solution.

Morgan: What is a citronella collar?

Mike: Oh, it’s a little aerosol collar – it has a compressed citronella spray in it, and when the dog barks it just blows an aerosol of citronella spray up under the dog’s muzzle.

It smells like orange juice. It’s harmless, but they’re about 85% effective – which means they work pretty well on about 85% of dogs.

Morgan: A lot of humans could use something like that [laughter].

Mike: Yes, that’s true. It’s a one-dimensional solution – there are more complex and sophisticated ways to approach barking, but that’s one that, if you’re just hassled and in a hurry and you need to get on top of the barking, a citronella barking collar will often do it.

They also sell these ultrasound systems that you can just put up in the room where the dog barks, and it sets off an ultrasonic soundwave that you can’t hear, but the dog can.

And they can be effective – the only issue with those is that, if you have other pets in the house, everybody gets corrected. And that’s not fun.

But if you have a single dog, that may work. And they’re inexpensive enough to just experiment around.

Morgan: Does that affect cats, do you know?

Mike: Yes, it does – so if you have cats in the house, you probably wouldn’t want to get an ultrasonic system, or they’re going to hate that dog even more [laughter]. “Every time that stupid jerk barks, I get blasted with all that noise.”

Morgan: Yeah, totally – that’s awesome.

Mike: There are more nuanced ways. So, that’s the top layer, right? That’s the quick fix.

Then there are more nuanced ways to deal with it, depending on what kind of time you have to deal with it.

Desensitising For The Door

I’ll give you an example (and I did this many times over the years): most dogs go crazy when somebody comes to the door, right?

So people who want to decondition the dog from barking like crazy at the door have done the following routine.

I would start by putting a citronella collar or something like that on the dog, to just temporarily suppress the barking.

Then, I would get an iPhone or whatever phone people are using and record the doorbell ringing.

So, you have a friend or somebody stand outside and, in 5-second increments, ring the doorbell. And you record it for about a minute, by putting the phone up to wherever the doorbell chime comes out in your house.

Now, you’ve got a minute’s worth of doorbell ringing in 5-second increments.

So, now what I do is: I get a pile of treats, and walk around with that phone and play back the ring. And every time the phone makes the ring, I call the dog to come to me and give him a treat.

It’s got to be, obviously, a really good treat that the dog likes.

So now the dog’s experience is: “If I bark and go crazy, I get sprayed (so that’s being suppressed). But if I don’t bark, and I run over to mom or dad every time that ringing goes off, I get a good piece of cheese or a chunk of hot-dog, or chicken, or whatever.”

That’s pretty good. Now, it can take a few days to recondition it, and a few hundred reps, probably. But it definitely works.

And because the front door sound is going to sound different than the sound coming out of your phone, you go back and have somebody ring the doorbell, and you do the same thing.

The doorbell rings, you call the dog and have him come to you, give him a treat. Usually within a week of doing that on a daily basis, you’ve got a situation where the doorbell rings and the dog comes running to you looking for a treat.

You can also use a trick from one of my blogs.

Morgan: The toenail clipping thing?

Mike: No, using the Sonos sound system.

Morgan: Ah yes, you have a great blog post on it.

Mike: Yes, and I encourage people to look at that. If you’ve got one of those sound systems, a SONOS (where from your phone you can send the sound to any speaker in any room), you can do the same thing.

You can send the doorbell ringing sound to a speaker in some other room. It’s going to produce a very realistic sound that’s going to be very difficult to tell apart from the front door.

And teach the dog that, wherever that sound comes from – whether it’s the front door, one of the bedrooms, your phone – you run to mommy or daddy, you get a treat.

And again, you’ve got to just do a lot of reps initially, because it’s a deep behavior to change, and it takes a lot of repetition and intensity to shift.

But in about a week you can do it, if you hit it a bunch of times every day, pretty good. And then it’ll stick. So, that would be my recommendation on barking.

Front doors trigger barking like nothing else does.

Morgan: One thing: so what you just described is a classic systematic desensitizing, right?

Mike: Absolutely, yes.

Morgan: Alright, cool. So, everyone, we’ve done quite a lot of these episodes on systematic desensitizing, so you can go back and listen to almost any episode, and we hit on this topic of systematic desensitizing.

So, there’s insights you can glean throughout. But again, just coming back to that blog post that Mike talked about, he really goes through, systematically, and explains how he did that, in just the same way he did here, in terms of desensitizing for the doorbell.

So it’s obviously a huge answer to a lot of the issues around preparing your dog for your child.

Mike: Yup.

Morgan: Anyways, it just struck me: “Alright, this is another classic example.”

Squirrel Madness!

Mike: Let me go on about it just a little bit. So the doorbell thing is predictable. Other stuff is less predictable, and more difficult, right?

I had a client about a year and a half ago, and she had this tiny, little, black dog. And they were pregnant; they were about 4 or 5 months out from the due date.

And they lived in a beautiful place in San Francisco, and apparently they had money. So, what they did is: they landscaped their backyard really beautifully, including putting up a big redwood fence, and they also blew the whole back wall of the apartment out, and replaced it with one solid piece of glass.

Morgan: Oh, wow.

Mike: So now, they have their beautifully landscaped backyard, and a complete perfect view over it from their living room, with the fireplace.

Morgan: Beautiful.

Mike: Yes, it was very nice. And the big redwood fence, unfortunately, in the back, had become a highway for squirrels.

Morgan: Yeah, I knew you were going to say that.

Mike: And the little dog went apoplectic whenever it saw a squirrel running across the fence – absolutely out of its mind, crazy, it would wind itself up barking.

Even if the squirrel was gone, it would stand at the back window for 10 minutes just going crazy. And as soon as it would start to settle down, the next one would come by.

And so, they had gone to [laughter] the San Francisco SPCA, where they have these purely positive, force-free veterinary behaviorists. So the main mission for these people is that the dog never experience anything unpleasant in the name of training.

They said that the dog was very nervous, so it needed to be on a load of anti-anxiety medication – we’re talking about this little 60-pound dog.

So they put him on anti-anxiety meds, and then they said: “Well, we have to make sure the dog is not exposed to the stimuli of seeing the squirrels, so we suggest that you cover your back window.”

So, they ended up taking garbage bags, plastic garbage bags, and taping them all over this beautiful, expensive back window, so the dog wouldn’t see the squirrels. And then they did this whole bunch of nonsense protocols [laughter].

Then they were supposed to go out in the backyard and approach the squirrels from a distance, so the dog could see them but wouldn’t bark – which is impossible, because the backyard is only so big. You can’t get a big enough distance.

They gave them all this nonsense advice. They worked at this for two months, with no results – predictably.

Plus, they were living in the living room now that is darkened by black trash bags all over the window, which is ridiculous, right?

So actually, in the book I’m working on right now there’s a case history review which shows the lengths to which these people will go in their “force-free ideology.”

Getting no training results for the owner – but the main thing is, really, that the dog didn’t have anything unpleasant happen to it, except being on meds, not being able to go out any more, living in a darkened little apartment.

So, anyway, the whole thing was absurd. So, I got over there to get rid of all the stuff, put a little citronella collar on him.

Morgan: Get rid of the medicine?

Mike: I’m not opposed to anti-anxiety meds, because the dog was very nervous and overwrought. But if we can decrease the meds and see what happens.

And then I said: “Do you know when the high traffic times are for the squirrels?” Because some of this stuff is just a knee-jerk trigger on prey instinct. But other stuff is just getting bored and having nothing else to do.

So, I said: “Put a citronella collar on the dog – that will deal with the barking (which it did). At key times during the day, maybe have a tether in the house for the dog, and then give a bunch of really nice chewies to it.”

I don’t remember when the high traffic time for the squirrels was, but during those times, they got the dog to lay down on its bed and chew on really nice chewies – raw frozen beef bones, bully sticks – and just chill out.

He learned that after a while, that between such-and-such a time and such-and-such a time you’re over here. And we worked all that together, and then slowly started getting the dog out in the backyard around the squirrels.

We used a bunch of treat training, just to get the dog used to being able to put his attention on something other than squirrels there, and start to disregard them more, and more, and more. It took about 3 or 4 weeks of all this – and it completely changed everything.

But it’s more tricky – dealing with barking in those situations is just a lot more tricky, because it’s hard to know when the squirrels are coming around. It’s just more challenging.

The Simple Solutions Can Be The Best

But even there, the citronella collar made a huge difference. We didn’t need it very long – we probably put that citronella collar on the dog for a couple of weeks – and then did a lot of other sort of pseudo defense-type exercises to help out.

But we got over it. But that story was amazing because of the absurd lengths that these people would go to.

Morgan: I’m going to stop you right there: I know you’ve got an axe to grind with these people, and I appreciate it, but we need to wrap [laughter].

Mike: Yes, because I can go on, I know I can go on.

Morgan: I know you’ve got a ton of good stories about them, and Mike’s about to publish his book, which is all about… Well, maybe you should just say a word about it.

Mike: Yes, it’s about the problems with the whole purely positive training, where you never say no, there’s never any reprimands, etcetera.

It all sounds good on paper, and it’s certainly commendable to do whatever we can to minimize or even eliminate any unpleasantness from training. I’m completely down with that.

But there’s times when you need to do something. So, when people tell you – like these people will tell you – that spritzing a dog with a water bottle is morally equivalent to kicking it across the room, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

That’s crazy – and that kind of talk basically just removes effective and harmless options from people who really need help.

These people are a case in point – they spent months doing this, at great expense. It was probably a couple of grand with the behaviorist, who never came to the house. They would just go to the office, report back, and be charged $400 for the hour.

Morgan: That is insane!

Mike: And they’d just tell them: “Just keep practicing.” Because they’d always say the same things: “You’re either not working hard enough or your dog isn’t trainable.”

They’d never say: “Let’s try something else.” So, anyway – I’ve got a book coming out about all this that I’ve been working on for two and a half years, so hopefully it’ll be out this year.

Morgan: So, everyone, this is Mike’s 10 kiloton bomb that he’s going to drop right on top of all these people, with all sorts of scientifically-backed, deeply scientifically-backed arguments and proofs that just upset that whole perspective.

Mike: Yes, definitely. I could literally go on for hours, so I’ll stop [laughter].

Morgan: Yes, alright. So that’s great. Basically, to summarize very quickly, in both instances – as you said at the beginning, and then in that anecdote – you have simple things like a citronella collar which can quickly affect as a deterrent for the barking, and recondition the dog relatively quickly.

For example, my neighbor has a little shih tzu that used to bark incessantly at the door, and she just put a little collar on the dog that beeped when the dog barked.

All it does is beep – and that’s actually completely stopped the dog’s barking.

Mike: Yes – every dog is different, every dog is different like that. Some dogs will respond to the mildest things, like a beep.

Some dogs will respond to the ultrasound, some dogs will respond to the spray. Some dogs don’t respond to any of them, unfortunately, and then this is like a taboo thing you’re not supposed to mention these days, but there’s electronic barking collars. They will stop them, in almost every case.

Morgan: Got it.

A Word Of Warning

Mike: They have their own problems.

Morgan: Is it like a little shock?

Mike: Yes – I just have to throw the caveat in: if somebody’s listening and they’re thinking about using it, I’d get some professional advice and help with it.

Because electronic collars – whether they’re barking collars or remote-controlled recall collars – are difficult to use properly, and they need to be used carefully by somebody who knows what they’re doing.

Otherwise there’s the potential for a lot of unintended consequences to kick in. So, I just recommend: try everything else first. And then if you feel like you’re stuck and you have to do this, get some help.

Morgan: Cool, really good. So we’re talking about, again, a classic example of systematic desensitizing, and reconditioning your dog.

And actually, the solution to this – all things being equal – sounds relatively simple, compared to the deeper issues we’ve discussed on the podcast.

Mike: Yes, I mean there can be complexities to it, but certainly suppressing the barking with something like a citronella collar is usually going to be some kind of a program.

You always want to figure out: “How can I use routines of systematic desensitizing to teach the dog a new set of expectations with an old trigger?” Like somebody knocking on the door, or whatever. And sometimes you have to get creative there, a little.

Morgan: Got it.

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