In this episode, we are talking about Demand Barking. This is a three part series, at least for now. For the first two episodes, I’ll be sharing my thoughts and what I’ve learned about working with dogs that “demand” bark. And then for the 3rd episode, we’ll talk to a guest on the subject!
In this episode, we discuss:
- How barking isn’t just one behavior, it’s actually a lot of different behaviors that we lump into one category.
- In order to figure out what to do about problematic barking, we need to know what the function of that behavior is.
- We discuss the emotional underpinnings of the behavior we often label “demand barking”, why that matters, and why I keep using air quotes around those words.
- Why I’m no longer so invested in the most common advice, which is to ignore the dog.
- And we start getting into some other strategies to try out instead, like teaching a range of alternate behaviors that your dog can use to get their needs met – that you actively reinforce – that are not quite as annoying as being screamed at.
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Hannah Branigan: [00:00:00] What they need isn’t the problem, in and of itself – it’s how they ask for it and when. So, are there ways to signal that “this food is not for you, your behavior – no matter what you do – is not going to access this food.” (Or attention, whatever the thing might be.) And then let them know when it is available.
I love creating containers for “when you do get the food” and “when you don’t get the food,” “when you do get my attention” and “when you don’t get my attention.”
Hey there, fellow training nerds! You’re listening to Drinking From The Toilet. If you like to geek out about combining the science of behavior with positive reinforcement philosophy in real life, you’ve come to the right place. And I’m [00:01:00] your host, Hannah Branigan: teacher, trainer, podcaster, and author of the book Awesome Obedience and its companion, Awesome Obedience: The Field Guide, which are both available from clickertraining.com.
So, this week, we are talking about demand barking. This is going to be a three part series – at least for now. I started off with just a two part series and then it got too long and I was like, “Wow, it turns out I’ve got a lot to say.” So the plan is that for the first two episodes, I’ll be sharing my thoughts and what I’ve learned about working with dogs who “demand bark.” And then for the third episode, we will hear from a guest on the topic.
But before we dive in, I want to let you know that this episode is supported by the MET Conference and patrons like Kayla F, Eula L, Marie and Mark D. If you’d like to support the podcast, get your questions answered and get access to our super secret extra podcast episodes, you can go to [00:02:00] Patreon.com/DFTT
Okay. So let’s talk about demand barking.
This comes up a lot – or rather, barking comes up a lot and the term demand barking shows up, but anytime we’re talking about barking, it’s a little bit of a complex topic. And the reason is that dogs bark for a lot of reasons. It’s really not one behavior.
I think I’ve talked about this before. I mean, I know I’ve talked about this before. I think I’ve talked about it on the podcast.
Barking is like talking, right? It’s like all of the noises that humans make. Talking isn’t one behavior or vocalizing isn’t one behavior. We talk, we yell, we scream, we ask questions, we make statements, we make exclamations, we cry, we laugh. We make a lot of noises, and there’s lots of different behaviors. And you know what? So do dogs. Most animals probably. I’m sure worms make noises too. (And I would love you even if you were a worm.)
But when we’re talking about barking, I think [00:03:00] it’s really, really important to divide it up or at least start to partition it into different behaviors. And I think dividing it based on function and context is really helpful because each of these behaviors have– they take place– there’s a lot that goes in. There’s a lot of layers.
And the reason that I wanted to start here is that barking is often reported as a problem behavior independent of context, which is interesting. Because as humans, I think– Now I’m just making up a story here, but this is a story that I have around it. As humans, partly because loud noises are often alarming and sometimes irritating or maybe they’re all irritating and sometimes alarming. We don’t really like barking a lot of the times. We especially don’t like barking when we’re not prepared for it. We have some stories about what barking means. Maybe it means they’re dominant, maybe it means they’re aggressive. [00:04:00]
Sometimes we like barking. Certainly if you’re participating in a sport where barking is a requirement like some of the protection sports, you would like for your dog to bark when they’re supposed to bark.
But there’s also sort of a social or cultural expectation that barking dogs are bad dogs and like children, they should be seen and not heard, or something like that.
And that is kind of a problem because barking – and really, again, the whole range of vocalizations – those are normal dog behaviors. Like most problem behaviors, all problem behaviors really, are normal dog behaviors. And it’s the humans that have decided to label it a problem. So I just always want to keep that in mind whenever we’re talking about problem behaviors. These are normal behaviors and a lot of normal behaviors can be really irritating.
This is not exclusive to dogs. This applies to all organisms, including humans. A lot of my normal [00:05:00] behaviors are irritating, certainly to other people. They’re irritating to me. I’m sure my behaviors irritate my dogs. I don’t even have to ask that question. I know that they do.
But anyway, the label is the part that we’re responsible for. I think anytime we’re talking about problem behavior that is a normal behavior, whenever we’re talking about barking, we really need to be specific, because the context is often what determines whether it’s a problem or not.
If a dog barks in the woods and no one is around to hear it, is it really a problem? I would say no. But if a dog barks while you’re in the middle of an important meeting on Zoom, yeah, that’s a bit of a problem. Or perhaps recording a podcast for people who think that you know something about dog training and therefore expect that your dogs are trained. If people who are listening think that dogs that bark in most contexts are being bad dogs and your dog barks while you’re trying to record a podcast, they might think you’re a bad dog trainer! I don’t know. I haven’t really thought [00:06:00] about that at all ever, but let’s say that that were true.
But let’s talk about barking.
So I want to talk about a really specific and particularly annoying category of barking that is the one that we often refer to as – and I’m going to air quotes – “demand barking.” Like all other barking, like all other behavior, this category of barking happens for a reason. It has a function. Behavior always has a function. There’s some reason that dogs bark. There’s both the setting events, right? There’s the antecedent. They’re the things that cue the barking, that set the opportunity for barking. And then there’s an outcome, some change in the environment that the barking is hopefully aimed to acquire, right? Some outcome that it’s meant to accomplish.
And it is definitely something that, because of the context, it can be really hard to enjoy your dog’s companionship. Because almost by definition, it’s irritating as crap. Being barked [00:07:00] at, having a dog barking in your face, like a whining child, it’s just designed to get under your skin to get an outcome. Not because your dog is being purposefully manipulative or your child is being manipulative, but just that’s how behavior works, right? Like it’s not moral or immoral. It has nothing to do with that. It’s just that attention seeking behaviors work because they’re annoying and we pay attention to things that are irritating, right?
Like, if the seam on your sock is bothering you, you gotta fix it. Anything like that. We have to fix it. So we change our behavior to relieve the irritation in a lot of different ways. But here as well, right? So it works because it’s annoying.
So, something that I think about a lot. It seems like a lot of vocalization, a lot of different kinds of vocalization, including barking, it often has emotional underpinnings. And I really suspect that the barking that we label [00:08:00] “demand barking” is no exception. I think that there are emotional components underneath this that we need to take a look at.
I also think that we need to notice the human’s emotional experience here, because it matters. And also because it’s different in different contexts. Like how do we decide if something is a problem? It’s because it bothers us. Or it’s because we’re worried about it bothering other people and we’re worried about being judged by those other people because if they think that if my dog’s misbehavior through their perception is a judgment on me as a person then I will be rejected as a person so therefore my dog’s behavior needs to fall in line. I don’t have any thoughts about that at all.
But I do think the human’s emotional experience matters. As dog trainers, we are– Our real client is the team. It’s not the dog, it’s not the human, it’s the team. It’s the interface between those two. And when one member of [00:09:00] that team’s behavior is causing a big problem, it’s irritating or it’s damaging the relationship, then we need to address it.
And of course, by addressing it, we don’t need to throw the other member of the team under the bus. It’s the team. We’re focused on the team here.
So what do we mean by different contexts? Because that’s a big part of what’s happening here. So for example, the kind of barking that we tend to label as– we’ll call it reactive, right? It tends to happen out in public around other people. A lot of us experience that as being really embarrassing, sometimes even scary. Sometimes it’s a little bit scarier to be holding the leash of a dog that’s lunging and barking at another dog or a person.
But it’s definitely embarrassing because it’s a pretty normal human reaction to be worried about being judged as a person for your dog’s behavior. And I really wish that weren’t the case, but it’s real and I need to acknowledge it. And you know what? People absolutely judge us based on our dog’s behavior or our children’s behavior or a horse’s behavior. I mean, they’ll [00:10:00] probably judge you based on your axolotl’s behavior. I don’t know. So it’s hardly an unfounded fear.
Whereas the kind of barking that we tend to label as demand barking most often happens at home, usually when we (the humans) are trying to do something else, anything else. And often when we ourselves are really low on resources. So it’s extremely annoying and very frustrating.
So I know at my house, I am most likely to encounter or experience this kind of barking at the end of the day when I’m already real tired and just worn real thin and I don’t have a lot left in the tank. So any barking that comes up is much more likely to just zap my poor overstimulated nervous system.
And I bring this up, again, because it very much matters. When I am my best self, when I have a full energy tank, I’m much more likely to be paying attention to my dogs in the first place and notice smaller signs and request [00:11:00] behaviors. So there’d be no need for them to bark, right? But also, we got here in the first place because I have a finite amount of energy and at that point I just don’t have much left to give and that’s why I’m not able to pay attention to them. I probably paid attention to them all day and now, by necessity, I need to direct my attention and put some energy into other areas of my life because one cannot live by dog alone, I guess. I don’t know.
The reason that I want to bring that up is because I think part of the description around demand barking is that the dog is barking for attention. We often call it attention seeking and say, “Oh, it’s reinforced by giving the dog attention.”
And on the one hand, I really wonder if we shouldn’t take a deeper look at why the concept of soliciting attention is so often perceived as a bad thing, a character flaw. Think of the tone that people take when they say, “Oh, she’s just attention seeking” about like some other [00:12:00] humans, especially if it’s a child or a woman. The idea that someone with less power than you might dare ask for your attention is so offensive for some reason? It’s very judgy.
I don’t know, that was something that– Okay, I’ll be honest, like real talk here: I used to also think attention seeking behavior was a bad thing and therefore if I were to seek someone’s attention, that was because I was flawed as a person. (Which we all know we know that I am flawed. I’ve got many flaws and I’m very happy to list them for you.) And it is only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to question that and wonder, “Wait, is it wrong to ask for attention or is that like a normal request for an organism that, like, evolved to be social? Maybe asking for attention isn’t the end of the world. Maybe you’re not the narcissist or you’re not automatically the narcissist.”
Maybe your dog is also not a narcissist.
And you know what? There’s also this irony, [00:13:00] now that I think about it. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? That we have even more books and classes and webinars about trying to get our dog’s attention, right? That’s probably the number one problem or request that I get is, “Oh, you know, I have trouble getting my dog to pay attention to me.” And so, most of the time we have trouble getting them to pay attention to us. We’re trying to ask for the dog’s attention, but now we have the dog’s attention and we don’t want it. So context is everything, right?
It starts to sound like it’s more an issue of the where and the when. It’s okay to want my attention, but only some of the time, and I need a way to say “not right now.” And that starts to sound a lot like an issue of stimulus control. So I just want to plant that seed for now. Let’s come back to it. We’ve got more to talk about there. There’s so much I want to talk about there.
So if you accept my premise that wanting your attention isn’t inherently a bad [00:14:00] thing, then it’s completely okay to give your dog attention, petting, play, whatever interaction, as long as you want to. This is an issue of mutual consent, right? Does that make sense? I hope so.
So I really don’t think there’s a point in withholding your attention when you do feel like it. That’s part of why we have dogs, most of us, anyways. The attention itself isn’t the problem; it’s how they ask for it. And we need to have some control, right? We need to have a way to opt in or opt out. In the positive reinforcement world, we talk a lot about dogs having a way to opt in or opt out of things. And again, I think the human side matters too. We need a way to opt in. We need a way to say “not right now.”
Of course, we’re going to make sure our dog’s needs are met in general, but some of those needs are going to need to wait a minute and we’ll make sure that they’re met by the end of the day.
Okay, so we have a stimulus control issue [00:15:00] and a specific behavior issue. We need to address the cues and the way that they’re asking “when is reinforcement going to be available and for what behaviors,” assuming that the reinforcer is our attention.
But let’s go back to the emotional underpinnings issue. Okay, so we used to have explanations that dogs barking at strange people or other dogs on walks was a dog that was trying to be dominant. “He’s a very dominant dog and he thinks he can get away with that.” But I think now it’s more universally accepted that this kind of “reactive barking” is more likely to be motivated by fear and that the function of that behavior is to get the other person or dog to go away, to increase distance.
So is the dog trying to control his space? I guess that’s one way to look at it. But it’s easier to find some empathy, and I think from there design an objective training plan, when we shift our language over to an explanation that centers on our [00:16:00] dog being afraid rather than “he’s just being an asshole.”
So for those same reasons, I would like to suggest and encourage us to consider shifting our language away from the term “demand barking” and consider that the emotional underpinnings here are likely based in frustration. Much like the less socially elegant behaviors that you and I exhibit when we are frustrated, we’re often trying to access some resource or accomplish something and it’s just not working and we don’t know what to do about it.
You’re trying to get something done, everything you know how to do– It’s what’s supposed to work. This is supposed to work! I read in an article, I listened to a podcast and they said that this is how to fix this thing and I’m trying it and it’s not working and UGH!
What if your dog is trying to access an important resource? We’ll say your attention. But it could be some other resource that you control. And it’s not working and he [00:17:00] doesn’t know what else to do. What if that is the space where barking or vocalization emerges?
Okay, so keeping that in mind, let’s talk about some common strategies.
These are things that I used to say or do and things that I still hear often. So I used to do these things and I used to say these things. If you’re saying them, don’t feel bad. Please don’t feel bad. Or go ahead and feel bad; I feel bad all the time. I don’t know. Maybe misery loves company.
So, when I did a quick internet search, including important research on TikTok, I discovered that the most common strategy or piece of advice (that, again, I said this, I said this until fairly recently!) is that the number one most important thing to do is to make sure that you never, never pay attention to your dog when he’s barking. Other things, too. Maybe you correct it in some way or you ignore it, depending on the trainer that you’re looking at and [00:18:00] how you approach dog training in general But the most important thing is to never never ever pay attention to your dog or do anything that he likes when he’s barking.
Okay. Now I probably foreshadowed this, but I’m going to say something a little controversial here. And I don’t feel bad about this. (I might later. I feel bad about most things that I say at some point, but right now I don’t feel bad about this.)
All right. So the controversial thing is that I actually don’t think that that’s the most important thing.
And in fact, where I currently am in my current journey, my current state of dog trainer evolution, I don’t actually care if you pay attention to your dog when he barks. I don’t actually even care if you feed him or throw a ball or whatever when he’s barking. If your dog barks in your face and you throw a piece of food at him, I don’t care. I’m not that invested. I really don’t think it matters. In fact, I think it matters so much less than we ever thought, than I used to think.
Because I said the same thing too. And I want to relieve you of [00:19:00] that.
Okay, so you’re rolling your eyes and you’re disappointed in me. I understand that. I am a disappointment. But you’re especially disappointed to find out that I know absolutely nothing about dogs or dog training. I clearly don’t even understand basic learning theory. But let me explain, now that I have just thrown myself out there.
So I do think that probably, in a perfect world, if – this is a big if – if we know what the function of the behavior really and truly is (and we would need to check that rather than just assume! because a lot of times we think we know what the function of behavior is and we are wrong! So we’re not always really great at guessing. Always better to ask the question and collect some data).
If we know what the function of the behavior really and truly is, then it would probably be ideal to set things up such that the [00:20:00] behavior in question is truly never reinforced.
But here is my current problem. (One of my problems. I got a lot of problems. I got 99 problems.) But one of the problems is that the perfect world doesn’t exist. And as we’ve already determined, I am not a very good dog trainer. Far from perfect. And in particular – and this is why I brought it up – when I’m exhausted, strung out, and generally spread thin, which to be honest, is my baseline these days, I simply cannot ignore problematic behavior, irritating behaviors. I don’t have it in me. True ignoring is a skill because it means nothing changes. And true ignoring of really triggering behaviors is really hard and it’s really expensive and it It takes a lot of fuel. A lot of the [00:21:00] time, most days right now, I don’t have it.
So as a human, I have to have strategies that don’t depend on my ability to tolerate and not react to really triggering behaviors. And just for me personally, as an individual, barking (noise in general) is super triggering. So this is something I think about. This is part of my real life. I need other strategies.
Now on top of that, of course, let’s look at it from the dog’s perspective. Assume again that this is an expression of frustration, probably extinction. They’re trying to access a resource and they can’t get to it. Even if they believe– And this is real sketchy language here, right? I’m going to put all kinds of quotes and asterisks around this. [00:22:00]
Okay, but let’s say that, in a fully anthropomorphic sense, your dog is barking at you because he thinks he’s going to get rewarded. The experience of being ignored when you’re requesting that a need be met sucks. It sucks a lot. Up to the point of kind of being damaging, depending on the extent. I’m not saying that you not responding to your dog when he barks is abusive. Of course not. That’s ridiculous. There’s a huge wide range, like miles and miles and hundreds of thousands of miles of range, between those things. But also, it kind of sucks.
I have an important question for you. Are you in the Ken Ramirez fan club? Okay, I know that’s a silly question, because of course you are. We all are. All the cool kids approach their most perplexing training problems with the question, What Would Ken Do? WWKD.
So, you might be looking for another opportunity to hear Ken talk about things like improving stimulus [00:23:00] control in the real world through generalization and desensitization, which is something I’m very interested in. Or maybe an always-sexy topic, aggression treatment, comparing the most modern tools and strategies.
In that case, you’ll be very interested to know that he will be presenting at this year’s MET Conference, along with other familiar names like Simon Prins, the author of Dog Training Decoded and Victoria Stilwell, who needs no introduction. And maybe some less familiar names to most Americans, like veterinarian and dog trainer Veronika Uhlířová, who will teach us about taking care of our dog’s musculoskeletal system and veterinarian Jana Radošovská, who will teach us about dental health, and also someone named Hannah Branigan, who’s apparently planning to ramble on about reinforcement and building motivation in dogs that you might consider to “lack drive,” if you’re into that kind of thing.
So, MET stands for Modern Ethical Dog Training and this is the fourth year they’ll [00:24:00] be holding it. It is entirely virtual, and yes, it will be recorded. One of the things I like about this conference is there’s always time for live questions from the audience. This conference is approved for CEUs for both IAABC, and CCPDT, and you can find out more by going to their website, metconference.com, or of course, click the link in the show notes.
So, in general, you know I’m going to advocate for finding ways to work with behavior that don’t hinge on extinction, that aren’t based on waiting for the barking to extinguish. Because there’s always other ways. There are. And in this case, there are also other ways. There’s so many things that we can do with this.
I’ve often found that with behaviors that are born from extinction, frustration based behaviors like demand barking AKA frustration barking, that you really have to be prepared [00:25:00] to fully see extinction through and be 100% consistent if it’s going to work at all. But a lot of the times, most of the times, in general– I’m putting a lot of caveats here, or rather I’m being kind of waffly here.
In general, trying to extinguish a behavior that’s coming from extinction is maybe not our best path. Maybe it’s not the best way to handle things. It’s gonna get worse before it gets better, which is why I say if you’re not fully physically, emotionally, energetically prepared to really see through the full extinction process, best not to start it. Like, just don’t even go there. Because it will suck for everyone involved. So, let’s just take that off the plate, right? Like relieve you of the stress that you can never pay attention to your dog when he’s barking.
And I think that that’s super important. Again, it’s the number one piece of advice that you’re gonna hear from trainers of all philosophies. [00:26:00] “You cannot pay attention to them when they’re barking if you want the barking to ever go away.” And guess what? I have tested this. Small sample size, but I’ve tested this and it’s not true. The barking does go away. Or you can minimize it to the point where it’s no longer affecting your quality of life. There’s so many things that we can do without waiting for that barking to extinguish and without you having to be perfect all of the time.
Other challenges with this whole “never pay attention to your dog when he’s barking” thing– I’ve tested other training strategies. For example, there’s a training strategy that I’ve tested out that I call “knock it off.” Right. So like yelling “knock it off” or even “shut up.” Other, other words may be inserted into those. I’ve tested those as well. It turns out none of those really work. And, there’s a thing that we’ll say that “even negative attention can be reinforcing.” You hear that more in like child-centered– or [00:27:00] not child centered at all, obviously, but child focused circles, I guess.
And yeah, I certainly find, at the very least, that turning to my dog to yell at them or throw a shoe, it doesn’t help a lot with this kind of barking. I worked really hard for a long time to work with dogs who, for example, were barking in their crate, like puppies that barked in their crate at night. And I believed so fully that the only way to solve this problem was to never, never reward the puppy for barking in his crate at night. And even at that point, I knew that there was a function of behavior, though I did not have that language. And I knew that if you let the puppy out of his crate when he’s barking, then that’s what he’s always going to do. He’s always going to bark in his crate at night, and you’ll never get a full night of sleep.
Again, have tested this. Small sample size, but feel very comfortable saying that a lot of puppies will in fact learn to sleep through the night, just like children, you will not have to nurse your child to sleep in college. They’ll tell you that. I think it’s not true. Now that one, I haven’t [00:28:00] tested personally, but anyways, I digress as usual. This whole podcast for however many hundred and 80 whatever episodes is, is primarily digressions and occasional returns to the topic at hand, but let’s do that. Let’s return to the topic that I started talking about.
So one of the problems that I had with trying to – either myself or get my clients to – deal with the puppy barking in their crate at night is that even putting your feet on the ground, like even the sound of you rolling over in bed, could cause the puppy to stop barking, which even at the time I realized meant that I’d reinforce the barking because they were like, “Oh good, she’s coming. She woke up and now she’s coming to let me out.”
And I have such a different take on that. Now there’s a couple of reasons. One, again, just my threshold, my ability to cope with long durations of screaming is basically zero at this point. So I’m just not going to do it. I don’t have it. I am probably not the only person who is in this current state [00:29:00] of threadbareness.
Also, well, it didn’t work very well in the first place. Also, I have different thoughts around what the dog is experiencing when they’re in their crate at night. There’s more there to unpack in other episodes.
And also, what I discovered tends to happen when we try to employ ignoring as a primary strategy for irritating behaviors, is that it follows a pattern that looks like this.
So, the dog is barking and your trainer told you that – and you might be the trainer, this might be an internal conversation – but your trainer told you that the most important thing is to never pay attention to them, don’t react when they’re barking, and so you ignore and you ignore and ignore, and finally you can’t take it anymore and you move in some way, your behavior changes, you turn towards them, you yell “knock it off,” you open the crate door. Maybe you have to go to work, maybe you’re about to get evicted. There’s a lot of reasons you can’t ignore barking. And you can’t ignore it anymore, so you [00:30:00] open the crate door. Okay, great. So, they’re barking, outcome achieved.
But the next night, now this time, you’re not gonna let that happen again. Right? You are committed this time. This time you’re not going you’re not going to let them win. This is a war and you’re on opposite sides.
And so this time you let them bark and they bark and they bark and they bark and they bark and they bark and they bark even longer until finally this time you really can’t take it anymore. And so you open the crate door or whatever the thing is and then you feel terrible about yourself and you feel really shamed and maybe you even shoot your trainer an email (or you are the trainer) and you say “I really tried, but I just couldn’t!” And they say, “Well, you really got to stick to it!” And you’re like, “Okay.”
And so the next time you’re like, “I am renewed, I am fortified, I’m not going to fall for it this time!” and you wait even longer before you open that crate door.
This is how we train duration. This is exactly the formula that we use to train behavior, to train [00:31:00] duration on behavior that we do want. But here we are applying this incremental reinforcement to behavior that we don’t want and unintentionally and rather tragically training longer durations on the very behavior that we would like to eliminate.
So here’s my new/current/different opinion, different approach. Does it work better or worse? It’s less painful. So I’m going to say that if we’re going to have the same outcome, I would love to get the same outcome with a lot less effort than working really, really hard to make no difference at all.
So now here’s what I do. The dog, the puppy starts barking in the crate. I let him out immediately. As soon as I’m aware that what’s happening, open the crate door, because a little bit of barking is not great, especially at three o’clock in the morning, but. ongoing barking for 20, 30, 45 minutes is so much worse than like three barks. So much worse. Lots of barking is much worse than a little bit of barking. We [00:32:00] probably can mostly agree on that, right?
And again, separate from the experience of the dog, this is just a very selfish perspective in the moment. I’m still me and I am kind of a selfish person a lot of the time. Again, many flaws. From the dog’s side, again, probably sucks a lot to have to scream for 45 minutes to get to be let out. Because there’s a reason, there’s something going on that you need.
Any way you look at it, this is a terrible situation. Whereas small amounts of barking, needs met quickly, everybody benefits from this. Truly. Everyone benefits.
Now here’s what I do. If the barking happens, I go ahead and give them what they want if I know what it is. Let them outside, let them out of the crate, whatever the thing is. Give it to them right away.
Or if I have no idea what it is that they want, redirect immediately, even at the risk of reinforcing it, even at the risk of reinforcing the barking. This kind of comes to how I approach errors in training in general.
I would rather [00:33:00] risk reinforcing a tiny amount of barking than accidentally but very effectively build long duration barking and then generalize it. I would love for this to be something that the dog gets rewarded for for very short amounts of time, because then if it ever does come down to an issue of extinction, those are the behaviors that extinguish really quickly, right? Behaviors that are rewarded very quickly all the time, no duration ever built on them? They are the ones that tend to disappear more quickly.
But that’s not a whole solution right there. I mean, I guess it actually could be. Because if you’re not going to do anything else and ignoring was not available to you for various reasons, at least rewarding early is gonna minimize the amount of barking that you and people around you are exposed to. That’s fair, actually. I would say that that’s fair.
But also, we can add more to this. And so there’s the “what happens [00:34:00] next.” So the barking has already happened. We cannot go back in time and un-bark, have our dogs barking not have occurred. So we stop the barking as early in the process as we can, redirecting them or giving them what they need so we don’t train for the duration. But the next time we would really love – and this is the positive reinforcement philosophy part here – we would really love not to trigger the barking in the first place. We would love to change the conditions so that barking is less likely to happen, right? Like one of the, the key tenets of positive reinforcement-based training is to make the behavior that we do want really, really easy and the behavior that we don’t want not so easy, or hard to do, or less likely to occur.
All right. So we want to make the barking less likely to occur. We have a couple of principles or strategies that we can employ here.
If you know why the dog was barking, [00:35:00] one of the things that I look for is patterns, times of day, things that are occurring. There may be a place for management. Is the demand barking occurring during dinner? Then maybe, temporarily, popping the dog in a different room with something to keep them busy, their own dinner or a food toy, a stuffed Kong, something to chew on– Or just at least not being exposed to all of the cues, the whole antecedent picture of people eating when you can’t have any. Because that sucks. I agree. I don’t like it either. It makes sense to me my dogs wouldn’t like that. So maybe a little management. Antecedent arrangement so they’re not exposed to it.
Or if you can identify what’s cuing the barking, can we remove the cue? Either all the time or temporarily? Can we do something proactively to avoid exposing them to the cue? Can we also, of course, teach them to do other behaviors in response to that cue? So when people are [00:36:00] eating, what else could you do?
So this is where I’m going to circle back to the behavioral flexibility aspect. The barking itself isn’t the problem in and of itself. What they need isn’t the problem in and of itself. It’s how they ask for it and when. So are there ways to signal that “This food is not for you. This is not your food. Your behavior, no matter what you do, is not going to access this food.” Or attention. Whatever the thing might be. And then let them know when it is available.
So I love creating containers, metaphorically speaking, for when “you do get the food” and “when you don’t get the food,” “when you do get my attention” and “when you don’t get my attention.”
One of the containers that I talk about a lot is when I’m sitting down at my computer facing away from my dog, I am not available. The food is not available. None of the reinforcers that I control are available when I am facing my computer.
Now, they do have access to other reinforcers. And I think that this is an [00:37:00] important piece to it. They have access to dog beds. They have access to their toys. I do leave toys down for my dogs all the time. They have some soft toys because of Rugby’s mode of interaction with soft toys. Those are a little more limited. But they have things that they can chew and they have Benebones. They have other toys that are less likely to be eviscerated and become a foreign body. Safe toys. We’ll just say safe toys. That sounded a little bit like an after dark kind of reference.
But anyways, they have other reinforcers available to them, but my reinforcers are not, and that’s signaled by me turning. I’m turned away from them, facing my computer, which is against the wall like a lot of people’s computers, so I’m facing the wall. So as long as I’m sitting in the corner facing the wall, I guess that’s just part of how they experience me, I am not available to them. But all the rest of the reinforcers in the room are. [00:38:00] So I’m not withholding anything. They have access to other reinforcers, just not these reinforcers.
They have other ways to request the reinforcers that I do control. And, again, stimulus control plus behavioral flexibility. How do I want my dogs to request my attention? I love a chin rest. That is, to me, the cutest way to request my attention or request a bite of something that I’m eating. I tend to reward that very heavily. I think it’s adorable.
Now, this is a personal preference. You may hate chin resting as much as you hate barking and I support that if that is true for you. And you know what? If I had a bloodhound, I might also hate chin resting because I have a big problem with goo and all kinds of goo, but like slobber and saliva and drooling being one of those forms of goo. I love a hound. I love so many things about a hound. I do not love the long viscous droolies that certain dogs come with [00:39:00] and you will notice that for the most part my house is populated by dogs that don’t do that. I’m not saying they don’t foam at the mouth occasionally, but it’s not in the way that a hound does or a newfie or St. Bernard.
Where was I going with that? You may hate chin resting. I love it. I love a chin rest. So I reward the heck out of a chin rest. I tend to reward the significant look, where your dog comes and gets in front of you and Looks at you, and then Looks towards the thing that they would like you to help them access. Maybe it’s the door to go outside. Maybe it’s the pizza crust you overlooked on your plate. I’m okay with a significant look. Again, I may or may not reward it in the moment.
One of the things that I have found about problem behaviors that are based in frustration– Frustration is a function of extinction. Therefore behaviors that emerge in extinction conditions that I don’t like– Is that the more behaviors that I [00:40:00] teach that are reinforced with whatever the resource that the dog is trying to access, the more different behaviors that they have to cycle through before they run out of options, the less likely they are to run into that frustration-based problem behavior.
I think I talked about this a million years ago when I was talking about building frustration tolerance. You could view this as a frustration tolerance behavior. If we took all of the moral baggage out of barking as a behavior and we just looked at “how many behaviors does your dog know or how many behaviors do they have in their repertoire to access your attention before they get to barking.”
If they only have one or zero, they’re probably gonna hit barking pretty quickly. If they have three, they’ll cycle through those three behaviors and then bark. If they have seventeen behaviors that have been rewarded with your attention or your pizza crust, they’re probably gonna go through those behaviors before they hit [00:41:00] barking, especially if those behaviors have a larger reinforcement history than barking does. Notice larger reinforcement history. Not that barking has none reinforcement history.
One of the things that I think about– This is a kind of a little side note, sidebar. One of the things that I think about a lot with these emotional behaviors, frustration based behaviors, is that there is a self reinforcing quality. When I’m really frustrated with my computer and I yell “FUCK” really loud at it, I feel better. Never once has my computer changed its behavior. When I swear at Alexa– No, I’m sorry, Alexa, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t do that. She’s listening. But when I swear at Alexa, which I should not do because it is wrong and I should respect her and the machines and I hope that Skynet remembers that, she never hears me better the next time, right? It doesn’t help, but I still feel better and the behavior is still maintained.
There’s probably something about that with [00:42:00] this kind of frustration based barking. So, again, it turns out we’re not always the center of the universe. I’m as shocked as you are.
So ignoring isn’t always going to work. It’s probably imperfect, but if we can avoid hitting that threshold more often, we’re less likely to. So then even if they do occasionally bark and you do occasionally reinforce it or you aren’t in control of the reinforcer that’s maintaining the barking, if all of these other seventeen behaviors have been reinforced more heavily – they have more momentum, there’s more mass behind them – those are the ones that are going to come up first.
And if those are behaviors you can live with and they have some duration– If you’re going to use a chin rest here, build a lot of duration on that chin rest. It will serve you. Plus it’s cute. It’s just so cute when they put the little chin. One of the things I love about my dogs is they will – and this is all of them, which is interesting, and they’re different breeds – is they’ll chin me if they [00:43:00] can. But if they can’t get to me because of the way the sofa cushions are stacked up or how I’m arranged, they’ll chin near me, and I think it’s the cutest thing. And yeah, I pay it. I pay it with a pizza crust. I pay it with a piece of a chip. So they can access the reinforcer that I have that they want, but they access it through doing other things.
And that’s where I’m going to leave it for this episode. We will pick back up next week with the next episode in this series, talking more about training strategies, what to do about this problematic demand barking, particularly digging into how stimulus control comes into play here, which is something that I get really excited about.
All right, so stay tuned and I hope to see you right back here next time.
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