It is not uncommon for people who share homes with a dog to complain about their furry friend bursting into a barking frenzy as a response to seeing or hearing something outside the window. Understandably the noise can be really annoying to human ears, especially when it comes at inopportune times.
There are so many reasons why dogs react to stimulus by barking, panting, running side to side, and have accelerated heart beats. It could be territorial or fear or barrier frustration, or for herding dogs, it could even be due to your dog’s instincts to herd.
If this happens on a regular basis, you may want to take steps to modify your dog’s behavioral reaction.
Here are a few suggestions. Please note that behavior is always the study of one, with differing environments, stimulus and animals. These are some general considerations to think about.
Let’s look at this behavior modification plan from the standpoint of the Humane Hierarchy, a ranking of training methodologies going from least intrusive for the learner to most intrusive. For more on this, please see my post.
If you have ruled out a medical or nutritional variable, then let’s begin with antecedent arrangement. What can be done to manage the environment so that a) your pet will not have access to practice that unwanted set of behaviors and b) your pet will have less motivation to do the unwanted set of behaviors.
Remember, practice strengthens behaviors and if your pet has access to seeing and hearing those outside stimulus when you can not be in teaching mode, you will be setting your pet up to keep practicing and getting reinforcement from those behaviors.
If your dog is barking at what he sees out the window, then consider blocking access to that window. Drawing the curtains may not be the solution as curtains can be moved by a pushy nose. Some suggestions are preventing access to the window or applying a cling film (that can be easily removed) to the window (purchased at a home supply store).
If your dog reacts strongly to outdoor noises, playing white noise or a radio may help.
As a motivating operation, if you increase your dog’s mental and physical exercise, you will be making resting more valuable to your dog. Think in terms of exercising your dog’s mind and body through training, thinking toys and games.
In a controlled setting, when you are fully focused and in training mode, you can teach your dog behaviors you would like to see in him when he sees something outside.
A friend of mine saw trouble ahead when her neighbor began letting two dogs out to run and bark on the other side of the fence. Karen first saw Baxter, who is a certified therapy dog, running back and forth and she anticipating the barking that would come next. In that moment, she averted his attention quickly and then started putting together a plan. With high value treats, she began teaching Baxter that the cue ‘doggie doggie’ was for alerting (turning his head to look at them) to the other dogs, and then running to Karen for something awesome. She began teaching this inside, behind a window where Baxter could succeed before moving to outside.
What Karen was doing was very similar to Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That Game beautifully detailed in one of my favorite books, Control Unleashed. In a very simplified description, Look at That teaches your dog that *when* he looks at a stimulus, *then* something awesome happens like a pretty tasty treat getting delivered by a well liked human. As your dog’s teacher, playing this means being in a location and at a time when your dog will not be over threshold (in other words BEFORE the lunging, barking behavior begins). Begin by teaching your dog to look at something more neutral. As soon as your dog notices the stimulus, then you mark that behavior such as with a verbal Yes! or a click, and then follow it with a high value treat. As you have continued success, you can first move this game to a more distracting environment, and then a more distracting stimulus. (Leslie recommends teaching this with a cue.)
As for timing, remember, for your dog to learn that one stimulus (in Karen’s case, the barking dogs next door) predicts another stimulus (tasty food), then the dogs barking must come before the tasty food. Marking the very moment your dog sees the stimulus is very important as the quicker that consequence occurs after a behavior, the easier it is for an animal to build the association between behavior and consequence.
The management portion of this plan is important because if you allow your dog to practice reacting to his environment outside of your limited training time, you will make behavior change very difficult.
As for Karen, with enough practice, instead of barking back to the dogs next door, when he hears them outside, he runs to find his housemate.
In your house, you can practice classical conditioning without the cue as well. In a controlled learning environment and without the cue, practice having your dog see stimulus such as people walking to your door or riding a bike down the sidewalk and immediately follow that with giving your dog a super tasty treat. (beginning this at a distance from the window or with people at a distance from your house where your dog will not begin barking and progressing only at the pace at which your pet can succeed at remaining calm – having relaxed body muscles and normal heartrate). The changes you are seeking are internal, involuntary responses. As trainer Kathy Sdao says, the emotional response to the second stimulus infects the emotional response to the first stimulus. You can do this exact same process only with sounds instead of visual stimulus.
To see a fun example of the effectiveness of classical conditioning, please watch this video.
On a last note, remember, if your dog jumps and barks at the sound of your doorbell, chances are pretty likely he has learned that jumping and barking at the doorbell causes the door to open and either – incredible people or scary creatures to walk in. That is another lesson for another day.