When a dog is exhibiting a behaviour deemed to be a problem their guardian may seek help from a behavioural professional so that work can be done to change the behaviour to something more desirable. Many times, behaviours that people label as ‘problems’ are really just normal dog behaviours that are expressed in a way that creates a situation inconvenient for the people living with the dog. It is important to remember this, as the methods used to help change the behaviour must take this into consideration and account for the dog’s feelings/emotions throughout the process.
Barking for attention is often inadvertently reinforced by dog guardians and the issue can quickly escalate to a level where it is extremely frustrating and seems like there is nothing that can be done to ‘fix it’. To some extent barking can be a useful communication tool (for example, alerting owners when someone is approaching the house), but when it begins to trickle into daily situations and becomes a way for the dog to ‘demand’ owner attention, whether that be for play, food or something else, most people want it to stop and they want it to stop quickly. This can lead to people using positive punishment methods, such as a spray or shock collar, shouting ‘no!’, and even holding the muzzle closed and hitting the dog. Rather than resorting to these perceived ‘quick fix’ methods, that really only stop the barking momentarily by instilling fear at the time of barking, a positive and force free behaviour professional might try using the ABC method of behaviour modification, and if they are also a concept trainer they'd add in a prescription of games for good measure:-)
The ABC method of observation involves three steps: identifying the antecedent, the behaviour and the consequence of the behaviour. The antecedent can be either distant or direct and involves identifying what may have been happening in the past that is leading to the current behaviour happening, and what is happening immediately before the behaviour happens. Observing the behaviour itself is the next step. A behavioural professional would want to identify whether the behaviour is respondent (occurring naturally/reflexive) or operant (has it been learned?). The last step involves figuring out what the consequences of the behaviour are for the dog – what happens as a result of the behaviour? Does the dog get rewarded? Do they escape something? Are they able to avoid a task? In order for the behaviour to get to the point where it is considered problem enough to seek help, the consequence must be strong enough in the dog’s mind that they continued with the behaviour…”past consequences drive future behaviour” (Yablon, 2017). A dog will do what it's always done if there has been a benefit to the behaviour.
To help with a dog who has been reinforced for barking in the home, it would be important to first identify what the antecedents and consequences for the behaviour are. What is happening right before the barking starts and what are the potential triggers for the behaviour? Does it start at a particular time of day? What are the humans in the house doing when it begins? What has been happening in the time leading up to the barking? Are there possible health issues that could be a contributing factor (e.g. canine cognitive dysfunction)? Is there a pattern to the timing/location of the behaviour? If the dog is truly barking for attention, then that would be a learned behaviour and the next step would be to identify how this has been reinforced in the past. What sort of attention did the dog receive? Verbal? Physical? Food? Play?
Once these things are determined a plan can be put in place to begin to manage the environmental predictors that are leading up to the attention barking, and work to teach an alternative behaviour that will lead to a similar outcome for the dog. Routine leads to predictability and predictability leads to anticipation which creates an increased level of arousal (Mitchell, 2019). As a way to help change the behaviour of attention barking, begin with changing the antecedents to diminish the predictability of the situation. For example, if a dog is barking at its guardian every day at 5pm because that is the time it is usually fed, we might try feeding the dog slightly earlier than that for a few days and continue to vary the timing of food delivery so that it’s never predictable...ditch the routine - it will also help in other areas where predictors are creating excitement!
Better yet, ditching the bowl completely and using the dogs' daily food allowance to play games and reward good choices will help in more areas than just demand barking, but will also tire the dog mentally and physically and engage them in a variety of different ways. Specifically playing games to increase the dog’s flexibility and tolerance of frustration are key, as these concepts are often lacking in dogs who resort to attention barking in the first place. Increasing flexibility means that changes in schedule will be seen as 'ok' and not a reason to get upset. Increasing tolerance of frustration means that as changes happen throughout the day the dog has an increased capacity to deal with them in a more appropriate way.There are many ways to ditch the bowl and all will enrich the life of your dog, as well as help build valuable concepts.
If the consequence of the barking leads to verbal attention (either positive or negative) by the owner, work needs to be done to stop that and reinforce an alternative behaviour. Once the dog begins barking, wait for a quiet moment and mark (either with a verbal marker of ‘yes’ or a click from a clicker’) and deliver a treat. This is also known as the ‘Stop. Wait. Watch. Reward’ technique (Sullivan, 2013) and requires patience, good timing and consistency.
Ignoring the behaviour completely is sometimes recommended, however this can lead to an extinction burst where the behaviour actually increases in intensity, the dog’s stress level and frustration increase, and is not an easy process for owners to follow through with as it also increases *owner* stress level and frustration. They may be able to ignore for so long and then ‘lose it’ momentarily…and in that moment they have reinforced the behaviour with their attention (even if that attention is shouting 'quiet!') making it more likely to occur again.
All behaviours serve a function for the being expressing them and are always linked to environmental factors. If we are careful in observing the conditions occurring before, during and after a behaviour happens, we can narrow down possible triggers and reinforcers. Once these are identified we can work to modify the environment, play games to shape our dog’s brain a little differently and change what behaviour we reinforce and how. Having a full and complete understanding of the situation can help in knowing what exactly to focus on. Consistency in the implementation of suggested modifications to the antecedents and being accurate in the timing of reinforcing a new behaviour will help speed up the process of behavioural change.
“The ABCs of Barking” by Kiki Yablon (2017): https://www.clickertraining.com/node/3968
“Stop. Watch. Wait. Reward.” By Caryn Self-Sullivan (2013): https://www.clickertraining.com/node/3911
“How To Be a Concept Trainer” By Thomas Mitchell (2019)
“Barking: Please Stop” by Patricia McConnell (2017): https://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/barking-please-stop