Q: I have a soon-to-be one-year-old golden doodle female puppy. Our problem is that she barks at any noise, person, or car going by. The barking is so loud and disruptive at our home—and it can be startling, too. How can I desensitize my puppy?
A: When dogs bark at passersby, they are usually trying to alert you that something or someone is approaching. This explains why dogs bark when the mailman comes, when someone is walking by, and when the doorbell rings. With passersby, the dog barks and, lo-and-behold, the person, dog, or other bark trigger goes away. The disappearance of something that the dog hopes will go away is reinforcing. Plus, if the barking got you to scold or yell, there was another reinforcer for the behavior!
When you want to change behavior, instead of focusing on eliminating the unwanted behavior, it’s much more helpful to think about what you can teach the dog to do instead. Get your dog’s attention by saying her name. Then cue a replacement behavior like “sit” or “down” and reinforce that behavior appropriately. If your dog is outside, ask the dog to come in, or be present in the yard so that you can redirect her to a more appropriate behavior. The steps look like this:
· Dog barks at passing children
· Say your dog’s name and call her. Sometimes you need to be right there with your dog to get her attention.
· Prepare several food toys, such as Kongs in ziploc bags, in the fridge or freezer to be at the ready. Fill the toys with a bit of peanut butter, cream cheese, or canned cheese to create distractions.
· Redirect your dog to play or to come into the room with you and lie down. Then, reinforce this behavior with a food treat.
When you’re not training, manage the environment so that the barking isn’t triggered and rewarded inadvertently. If your dog spends all day barking at passersby and “getting them to go away” when you’re at work, you will have a difficult time changing the behavior when you are at home. Can you pull the blinds? Can you place the dog out of the rooms where she can see outside? Can you place decorative film on the lower half of the window?
You can find helpful articles and further suggestions on this topic here. Good luck!