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  • April Schrader, CPDT-KA

Reactive Barking: What You Need to Know

Reactive barking can be a challenging behavior for many dog owners the incessant noise can cause frustration and stress for both dog and human. To completely get rid of barking, it can no longer work for your dog. Barking can not get them attention, get people come to them, result in playtime, or lead to a meal etc. But don't give up, this blog will guide you through everything you need to know so that you can eliminate your dogs reactive barking.

Behavior Modification: Patients is a must, behavior modification does NOT happen overnight it might take weeks, months, or even longer to see substantial changes. The most important thing to remember is that consistency is the key!! Every interaction you have with your dog should be seen as an opportunity for training. Always be on the lookout for desirable behaviors such as not barking and reward them every-time. If you neglect to reward your dog for the good behavior you want, they won't repeat them because there's no benefit.

Extinction: Extinction refers to a behavior modification method where an undesired behavior is eliminated by removing the reinforcement that was maintained that behavior. Meaning that the dog's unwanted behavior is no longer rewarded, leading the behavior diminishing and eventually disappear. If even one person in the household is still reinforcing the unwanted behavior it will NOT go away.

How Unwanted Behaviors are Reinforced: You can accidentally reinforce your dog's bad behaviors by interacting with them when they are doing a behavior you do not like. This includes talking to them, making physical contact, offering eye contact, giving praise, or providing treats when your dog exhibits unwanted behaviors. If the barking is to much to ignore, move to another room or step outside until they stop. The only time to interrupt your dog during an unwanted behavior is when it poses a danger to them or someone else.

Behavioral Thresholds: If your dog is already barking, they are above threshold. Meaning they are too close to the trigger, and a dog over threshold cannot learn! Dogs who are above threshold typically won't take treats and won't respond to cues. To address reactive barking, determine the distance from the trigger (people, other dogs, etc.) at which your dog can be without reacting. This distance is where you would start exposing your dog to triggers using desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques.

Desensitization: Desensitization involves exposing your dog to triggers that causes fear, anxiety, or reactivity in a gradual and controlled manner. During this process you slowly decrease the distance between your dog and their trigger, as your dog becomes more comfortable. The goal is to help your dog associate the trigger with positive or neutral experiences, eventually reducing their anxiety or fear response.

Counter-conditioning: Counter conditioning goes hand-in-hand with desensitization. This process is designed to change your dogs emotional response to a trigger by pairing it with something your dog loves. This "something" is typically high-value treat, when your dog encounters the trigger, you provide them with that reward immediately. Over time this helps your dog create a positive association with the the things that scare them.

What to do When Triggers are Present: Start by clicking and treating the moment your dog notices the trigger and continue to click and treat until it's out of sight. Practice for 5-10 minutes, then give your dog a break by increasing distance from the trigger or going home. Gradually decrease the distance between your dog and the trigger as they become more comfortable.

Corrections: Using any form of corrections is an ineffective approach, never use corrections (yelling, saying no, saying stop, clapping, spray bottles, etc.). Corrections do not teach your dog what to do; they simple instill fear. The goal should be to change your dog's emotions from negative ones to positive, using corrections will do the opposite.

Socialization: Start with quiet places to expose your dog to new experiences. Maintain a safe distance from triggers and use a long leash for exploration. Be patient and click/treat if your dog remains calm around people, dogs, or other triggers. Socialization is essential, but ensure it's positive and gradual.

Reactive barking is a common challenge, but by focusing on rewarding the behaviors you want, being proactive, and prevent unwanted behaviors as much as possible you can change your dogs behavior. Remember to avoid corrections, and use positive reinforcement to create positive associations which will help your dog become more comfortable. With these strategies, you and your dog can enjoy a quieter, less stressful life together.

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