What’s my dog trying to tell me? In this wide ranging, inspiring conversation I talk barking and behavior with certified professional dog trainer Kiki Yablon. In addition to holding a master of arts degree in applied behavioral science, Kiki is faculty at the renowned Karen Pryor Dog Training Academy. We chat about what barking is and some ways we can help minimize this sometimes undesirable behavior. This conversation has been edited for clarity; for more, listen to our full conversation on The Baroo Podcast!
The Baroo: Well first of all, thank you for taking the time out to do this with me. I wanted to jump into barking because I thought we could clarify what it is and why it's important to your dog, and kind of clear up a little bit of the misinformation around it before we jump into some of the ways that you suggest to help curb your dog barking and maybe get a better understanding of your dog.
Kiki: Honestly the most important thing to recognize about barking is that barking is behavior, right? And so it operates the same way as any other behavior. With dogs, it's a behavior that comes with the package. Sort of like, you know, in typical humans talking comes with the package. It's just one of the behaviors that we do. But then once we start doing it, we get feedback from the environment. So we talk, we say something, and there's an effect on our environment. And if we like that effect or if that effect is satisfactory to us, it could be that we get something we want. Or it could be that we stop something that we don't want, or avoid something that we don't want, and then that is going to affect how likely we are to do it again next time. So that little unit of the situation that's happening around the behavior and the outcome of the behavior and the behavior, that's the smallest unit that is useful to look at.
So just asking about how do I stop barking, our first question should be, what are we talking about? What does the barking look like? What behavior are we talking about? And then it should be, when does it happen and what seems to happen in the environment when the dog barks? What changes to the dog's environment does it produce? So asking, why does a dog bark is sort of like asking why a person talks, right? How do I stop this person from talking? I think if you think about it that way, a lot of the questions you might wanna ask suddenly become really clear. Like, what are they talking about? Why, why are they saying that? You know, what are they getting out of saying that?
The Baroo: That’s a great way to look at it.
Kiki: So where it gets, I think, really interesting is then you have to think about talking – and talking is just behavior too, right?
The Baroo: Right.
Kiki: And talking is behavior that is separate from the feelings or whatever that you might be representing with your talking. We often think like, oh, you know, that person is angry, or that dog is angry, because they're talking in a certain way or growling in a certain way. Or we might say, oh, that person seems totally happy, because I asked them how they were and they said they were fine! But the behavior of saying, “I'm fine, thanks” could be a behavior that you're doing to get someone to stop asking you questions. Or it could be trying to convey your inner state of fineness to your doctor, or whatever. So, the same behavior can look different …
The Baroo: … in different situations.
Kiki: So, commonly – I do this too – we look at a dog who's barking in a low tone with a stiff body and ears pinned back, or tail up, or whatever, and we assume that the function of that barking is to make something go away. I think the jury's out on whether dogs are as complicated as humans in terms of how many functions their barking can acquire or how faithfully we can interpret their body language. It may be that because they don't have language, which creates this complex network of associations and functions and stuff like that, that it's fairly safe to assume a dog is barking at something based on what it looks like. Right. But it's certainly not always true.
I gave a webinar on barking for a German dog training club and I had two video examples. One was my friend Kira Moore's dog Frida (who's on instagram as @frida_pawlo_does_tricks ). I just showed Frida growling and with her tail moving rapidly, and I said, what do we think the function of this behavior is? Why is this dog growling? Oh, you know, it's afraid. And then I showed the whole clip, which was [Kira] going “Inside voice!” and the dog going, grrrrrrr, and then the clicker. So dogs can learn to act, right?
The other clip I showed – I was dog sitting for the last month up in Maine, and I took some video of one of the dogs when I was sitting on the couch working on my computer and he was barking out the window. And, you know, the assumption looking at that is, you know, he is barking at something out there, he wants it to go away. Or he's alerting you or whatever. But, there's nothing out there, I'm 99% sure. And he did this frequently when I sat down with the computer.
The Baroo: Ahhhhhhhh.
Kiki: I wasn't really there as a trainer, I was supposed to just be dog sitting, and so I hadn't taken a history on this behavior or anything, and the owner was outta town, so I didn't have a chance to ask her about it. But it sort of came out in conversation that often when he does that while she's working, she gets up and gets him a toy or he really likes to be chased around the house. So, it's possible that's what he was looking for by barking out the window.
The Baroo: That's so fascinating. That he was like facing the window and barking out into the world, like she's not doing this!
Kiki: Barking is the behavior that I think ends up acquiring a lot of functions. Because it's a really normal dog behavior to do. I would say that dogs often use it when quieter or other ways of getting things from humans are not working. It's probably really effective because it's annoying to a lot of humans, and they'll do anything to get it to stop. So it often comes out in circumstances that we might call frustration.
The Baroo: Would the same be true if you have dogs that have excessive barking? I have a few clients who just really don't turn it off very often. One of them is super sound sensitive, and so we think he's just wired a little differently, so there might be some other things going on there. But the other one just barks constantly. And I mean, I don't know how that was reinforced. She was a rescue, and every time you turn on the water, she barks; you walk, she barks. You open the door, she barks. You read a newspaper, she barks – and she's a very vocal dog in general, she growls just when she’s talking. She’s just always talking.
Kiki: Well, it's hard. I can't really say without knowing the context, but the first thing you would do is sort of look at the situations where the dog barks and say, what helps me predict it? What is the cue from the environment or from me that seems to evoke the barking. And then, what happens when the dog barks that would seem to make it worth doing that again next time? Sometimes that can be really tricky to ferret out, because things that maintain outcomes that make behavior worth doing don't necessarily happen every single time the behavior happens.
The Baroo: Got it.
Kiki: When the dog barks, a lot of different things might happen, like the dog barks and sometimes the person yells at them. Sometimes the person, you know, grabs them by the scruff. Sometimes the person goes and gets them something to do. Sometimes, the person talks to them and says it's okay. In some of the more difficult cases, it can take some real figuring and some testing to try to figure out what the purpose of the dog's barking actually is. It's not everything that it produces, it's some of the things that it produces. One of the features of doing that is that you can make behavior very persistent. The classic metaphor for this is the slot machine. Like, why do people keep pulling the lever on the slot machine when they only win sometimes? That’s sort of the classic example of intermittent reinforcement, making behavior persistent.
That said, I kind of have problems with that metaphor because I think there's a reason that slot machines have lights and bells and pictures and stuff, and I think it's probably also sort of fun to pull the right well could lever and see all those things.
The Baroo: Could it be fun to bark?
Kiki: When I say fun, I'm still talking about what outcome it produces, like when you pull the lever. And I think that's often the case with when we say somebody does something for fun. Mm-hmm. Like, my dog that I took, the dog that I took through Karen Pryor Academy, Guffman, I had a behavior where he went and pressed the Staples “easy” button. And then it would say, “That was easy!” And I had to takee it out of our final performance for th final exam because the behaviors had to be under control of your cue, and I could not get that under control of my cue, because if he hid it and it made the sound, he was like, delighted, and I didn't have to give him a treat!
The Baroo: I wonder if there's some sort of endorphin rush or something when a dog barks.
Kiki: Yeah, I mean, why do people scream into a pillow. It’s hard to say because we can't observe those effects or measure them, [at least] from a standard dog trainer perspective. There are people who are doing research where they measure hormone releases and things like that, but even those, they interpret by what behaviors they're correlated with. So you got a spike in cortisol, they're usually also looking at the dog pacing as well.
So if you're gonna try to change barking to something else that you like better, it can be really helpful to try to make at least an educated guess at what the dog is barking to get, because that gives you some tools. You can try to give the dog the thing they're barking for proactively so they don't need to bark. That's often an easy one. You can teach the dog to do something other than bark to get the same thing. Say, if you can come over and gimme a chin rest and I get up and get you a toy, then you don't have to stand there and bark at me.
So learning the function of the behavior can help you decide on an effective way to reduce it because you're meeting the need that it is expressing.
Going back to the intermittent reinforcement thing, there are certain well-intentioned approaches. Like, someone has the idea, okay, I get it: If I don't want the dog to bark at me, then I should reward something else. And I think that that gets applied in some incomplete ways because people don't have all the information about how these things work. So let's say the dog comes over and barks at you and you ask him to sit, and then you give him what he was barking to get, you're probably going to increase barking because he had to bark at you to get the opportunity to do the behavior that would get the reward.
So better would be, so in addition to figuring out what is the function of the behavior and trying to provide that for something else, we also wanna pay attention to what’s cueing the behavior. Is it that the dog has been alone for four hours? And you just got home from work? Is it that you're on the computer? You want to notice those things and you want to ask the dog to do the alternative behavior before they start barking and then reward it. So they're learning in this situation, do this, you get your thing, we can skip the barking.
Another place I think people go wrong with barking is they have been told to ignore it. That has a couple of pitfalls. One is if you ignore barking and the purpose of that barking is not something that they're getting from you, ignoring doesn't do anything. What generally happens there is there's a phenomenon called an extinction burst, where behavior that has worked before is now suddenly not working. So you (the dog) don't just stop doing it and never do it again. What tends to happen is you do it a bunch of times, maybe more intensely. Maybe you try some other behaviors that you think might work, right? And then maybe you stop, but then next time you're probably gonna try again. And it just can be a very slow way to get rid of a behavior and it's very frustrating for the learner to just suddenly have your behavior that worked before not working.
And then if you're trying to ignore it and you can't ignore it 'cause you're on the phone or you're on Zoom or you have dinner guests or whatever, and, and you're like, oh, okay, just be quiet, I’m getting you a toy or whatever, then what you've done is reinforced a very big, long duration, intense version of the barking –
The Baroo: Until it gets to be bonkers Magoo ….
Kiki: Because you tried to ignore it and that failed. And dogs will learn, oh, this works when you're on Zoom.. Or this always works when there's guests over. And it's not malicious on their part. That's just how learning works.
Like we do our behavior, we learn that it works, and we also are going to, we're also built to learn under what circumstances does it work. So those are tricky situations.
The two biggest complaints I hear about are things like barking at other dogs or strangers, like in a way that seems like go away, or frustration at not being able to get to them. And then the other big one I think that people have trouble living with is owner-directed barking to get stuff from the owner.
The Baroo: So I have a friend whose brother who has special needs comes to visit on the weekends, and her dog goes bonkers at him. She will hear him pull up on a Friday and she starts barking, and she'll see him walk in and he can't ignore her or do the appropriate things because he has special needs and so he doesn't quite understand what it is that he supposed to be doing. So she doesn't know what to do with her dog in a situation like that.
Kiki: That's a tough situation. I can’t say what she should do, but it may be a case where the best thing to do is something that just prevents the dog from seeing him. If you can change the relevant environmental conditions, you can almost always change behavior.
Can you change it enough? That depends on a lot of things. Do the people involved have the skills involved? If you can't control the environment, you're gonna have some trouble with the behavior. But, options in situations like that are, you know, can the dog go in another part of the house? Or can the dog go to daycare that day? Not everything has to be trained.
The Baroo: Right. Just manage the situation so she doesn't have to interact in some form or another.
Kiki: I'm all for easy solutions too, right? I don't think he'll mind me saying this, but one of my early clients had this, this amazing dog who was just like this little short-legged guy. He looked like a corgi with a German shepherd head. I was told that he was kicked out of school, for – I think the way the owner put it was he was a deleterious influence on the other dogs. But one of the issues was he would run out the front door and go running around the neighborhood. And when I got to the house, it was like, there were literally like three doors that the dog would have to get through to get outside, and I was like, We can, we can work on like waiting, holding back when the door is open, but I can save you like 500 bucks here and just tell you to put up a sign that says close this door before you open that door. There's nothing wrong with that! If you only have to be on Zoom for half an hour and it works to just give your dog a bully stick before you sit down. The knowledge that you should do it before you sit down, not after he starts barking is critical. But like, if that works for you and your dog can tolerate bully sticks and he's not gonna overeat or throw up or have diarrhea or whatever, like give him a damn bully stick. Just make suree you do it before he starts barking.
But if you have to be on Zoom for hours a day, you can't have your dog eat their way through 20 bully sticks. Then you might have to do some training.
The Baroo: What about the other common thing, when dogs are barking and doing on-leash reactivity or yelling at other dogs and people.
Kiki: Yeah, I think this is a huge problem anywhere the dogs are on leash mostly. I think there's a lot less barking when dogs are off leash and can just do what they want. Which kind of feeds into my half-ass hypothesis that a lot of barking dogs do is in situations that we would label “frustrated.” But I think there are some general tips that you can give to dog owners, which are to sort of be a defensive driver.
Like if your dog barks on lunges at other dogs from 50 feet, then when you see a dog coming down the street, you know it's time to cross now. Like, don't wait until your dog is right there stuck in the tractor beam of the Death Star. There’s not a lot you can do in that situation. You're gonna end up hauling your dog out there on the leash and it's not pretty.
The Baroo: Can we briefly talk about bark collars? I know that I've had clients, you know, just be still frustrated and they just, they usually try a bark color at some point. Can you touch on the bark color a little bit and why it's not really an effective tool?
Kiki: Well, it can be effective if your only interest is, does it stop barking? But I would say the same thing about the bark collar that I say about any other use of punishment as the primary tool against suppressing any other behavior. It doesn't teach the dog what to do instead, so it doesn't address that function of the behavior. And using aversive stimuli has some well-documented side effects. I mean, what you're trying to teach with a bark collar is you're trying to teach the dog to avoid getting the shock or the spray. So you are trying to teach, some avoidance behavior, but that behavior is not specified. So that's hard.
And when you use something like that, you can create other avoidance behaviors that you didn't mean to? The dog may learn that its bark produced a shock, but it may also learn that the shock happened in a certain environment. So, for instance, this is not quite the same thing as a bark collar, but with an invisible fence collar, I've seen a few dogs that were afraid of other things, like the microwave beeping or other things that made a tone. I know trainers have reported having dogs that don't wanna go outside anymore because they can't figure out where that shock is coming from.
The Baroo: One of my dogs, when she was younger the woman who took her hiking used to use shock collars.
And Irith Bloom was over working on a toy that they had were testing, and it's like a really fun toy, but the toy makes a sound. We didn't realize until we turned the toy on – it makes a really subtle buzz – and she just like bolted to the other side of the yard. And she just sat there and stared and I was like, okay. She's been really conditioned to that sound.
Kiki: Awwww. Yeah. So she behaved to turn off the shock, right? The behavior is to, you know, close your mouth or stop making the barking sound or whatever. Or run away from it. That turns the aversive thing off. You can get unintended aversive behaviors, where they overgeneralize to other things that are similar stimuli, like what you were just talking about. With a lifestyle of getting shocked or aversive stimulation for lots of behaviors, you can get animals that just don't behave very much, which is sad.
The Baroo: So they shut down kind of.
Kiki: Yeah, apathy. Like, none of my behaviors work, so I’m not gonna do anything. It's a sad state.
The Baroo: I never really thought about it in that way.
Kiki: And then there is a phenomenon of, you know, what's called elicited aggression or or even really evoked aggression. Like if you get hurt, something hurts you, you may lash out. There are two ways humans and other animals respond to aversive stimulation and one is to try to get away from it, turn it off, and the other is to go toward it and be aggressive. Those are some of the risks of using something like a shock color or a citronella spray collar for barking.
As professionals, the trainers that I run with and that you run with, have ethical standards that require for each individual you're gonna start with less intrusive, effective procedures. It's tough though, because I mean, I have had some clients where, you know, they're gonna get kicked out of their housing because the dog is barking. I have empathy for people who are in dire situations where they're having a hard time living with what their dog does. I worked with [one client who was using a shock collar] on trying to get some other skills for the dog so that she didn't need it anymore. Because basically, I'm not gonna ask somebody to stop doing what makes them feel safe until we give them some skills.