Ending Problem Barking, Part 3: Desensitization Therapy
Many owners are all too familiar with the triggers that get their dogs barking. Whether it’s the mailman delivering a package, a certain voice on the television, another dog in the neighborhood or a response to being removed from a situation, barking is the way your dog expresses her excitement or annoyance. It is a vocalization method almost entirely targeted at human beings. Your dog has other ways, like whines, growls and body posturing, to express herself to members of her species. A dog bark is usually a way of communicating with you in response to external stimulus.
Occasionally, you will come across circumstances in which certain stimulus triggers your pup to bark excessively. Often, they will not stop until or unless that stimulus is removed. In some cases, that’s easy enough to accomplish, but in other cases the stimulus is basically unavoidable, leading to problems for you and your pet. If your barking dog will not stop reacting to other dogs or situations and people that cannot be and should not have to be avoided, using desensitization therapy to calm them and train them out of their bad habits is one avenue that can be explored. Many pet owners wondering how to stop a dog from barking are surprised at how this training trick can take an overstimulated dog to one who is calm and quiet. In part 3 of a 5 part series on problem barking, we’ll examine how desensitization therapy can benefit your pet.
Desensitization Through Distance
Picture it: your brother got a sweet new puppy, and you can’t wait to be able to take the two dogs for Sunday walks through the park. It’s never happened before, but from the very moment your pet sets eyes on your brother’s new pup, she just won’t stop barking. She seems a bit afraid, but the situation and reaction are very disproportionate. What can you do?
Desensitization therapy is ideal in situations like these because it allows you to teach your dog over time through the use of positive reinforcement that a stimulus itself is a positive one. Like all training, this method requires time and consistency. No dog learns overnight, but long time problem barkers and dogs being trained inconsistently are more likely to have issues with following through on the training in a way that demonstrates long-term success.
You’ve likely noticed that the distance between your dog and the “offending” stimulus can play a large role in just how noisy they’re being. When you get far enough away, chances are your pup quiets down. That’s the distance you need to be from that little puppy before you start this training. Have your dog sit quietly and calmly as your brother and the puppy make themselves visible. As they approach, offer your dog positive reinforcement by feeding them some of their favorite treat. This leads to an association in your dog’s mind between the presence of that stimulus and the reward of treats, making the association a positive one. When your brother is out of sight, the feeding of the treats must stop. The process must then be repeated several more times at that distance before your brother ever comes closer.
This training method can be extremely effective, but it is one that must be spaced out over significant time. Almost no dog will progress from being afraid of another dog, object or other stimuli to wanting to cuddle up and be best friends in one training session. Keeping the distance between your pet and the other dog, object or situation is best at first, as this will allow your pet to internalize the connection of stimulus and reward without being overwhelmed and distracted by the immediate presence of the stimulus.
Long Term Training Success
As we touched on, time and consistency are absolutely essential when it comes to desensitization therapy for your dog. The psychology of dogs is different from that of human beings, and they cannot be desensitized safely by simply being immersed in the negative stimulus causing problem barking. This can be ineffective at best and dangerous at worst for you, your pet and anyone else involved. The desensitization training method simply doesn’t work if one person decides that your dog and the new pup could be friends if they would just get a little closer. The distance between your pet and the stimulus should increase, but the increases must be gradual and take place over time for the therapy to be successful in the long term.