As you are aware, dogs bark for many reasons. This blog addresses how to manage dogs that bark at people. It could be a guest at your home, or a person on the street.
Usually, dogs give subtle signs of what is about to come. Their body posture usually stiffens, and their tail usually freezes for a moment. Their mouths close and then you know a bark is about to follow. They may also stare at the person prior to the bark. In general, the period before a bark, when it comes to a person, is usually a time when their stress level and anxiety rise as a result of an unsure-ness about the the person in their vicinity.
All dogs have a threshold, an invisible line where, once crossed, the above happens. On the other side of the threshold, in contrast, the above does not happen and the dog will be calm. The goal is to move this threshold closer to the dog or eliminate it entirely. There are many ways to do this, and they are not mutually exclusive.
First and foremost, exercise is the key to eliminating or reducing 60% of behavioral issues in dogs. Exercise to a dog is like a Zanax to a human – it has a calming effect. Exercise can take many forms – it doesn’t just have to be a walk. It could be fetch, tug of war, a flirt pole, or just plain wrestling. Whatever it takes to get the dog’s heart rate up will work – I recommend that the typical dog get at least an hour of exercise per day.
Mental enrichment is another way to get a dog’s blood pressure down. You can take a Kong and fill it with wet dog food and freeze it. That will give your dog at least a half hour of fun. Puzzle toys are a great way to get your dog to use his/her brain-power. A snuffle mat is another way – or just hide treats throughout your home and play “find it”.
But how do you teach your dog that strangers are not scary? The first method is desensitization – the process of exposing your dog to his/her trigger, beginning at a lower intensity. For whatever reason, perhaps it’s past trauma or just genetics, your dog has discomfort or just plain fear around people, and develops negative feelings. To desensitize your dog, you must start where the dog is under his/her threshold, usually at a distance from the person. While your dog is looking at the person, say “yes!” and give your dog a treat. The “yes!” is a marker that helps the dog equate the word with a positive emotion. This process often requires giving many treats as the dog glances back and forth to the stimulus, in this case the person. Eventually, you will be able to move closer to the threshold and beyond it as the dog becomes more desensitized to the stimulus. In time, and it could be weeks or months, your dog will no longer be reactive to people.
Counterconditioning is another way to get your dog to stop or reduce his/her barking at strangers. Counterconditioning is changing the dog’s emotional response to the stimulus. To do this, enlist a friend or relative to toss treats to your dog from a safe distance. If your dog won’t take the treats, have the person move away and try again. Sometimes having the person sit down will help the situation. Also, it may be helpful to start outside in neutral territory, and sometimes it just requires putting your dog in a different room with a chew toy or a Kong for a while before restarting the process.
Barking at people can be a tough habit to break, but repetition, patience and time will eventually change how your dog reacts in a positive manner.