Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
To teach a dog to bark on command, you need to first find out what gets your dog to bark in the first place and then use this scenario to your advantage. Despite many people complaining about their dogs barking at the faintest sounds, there are many dogs that may be reluctant to bark. Some even do bark and often do lots of it, but then, right when you want to train them to bark, they suddenly turn on the mute button.
If you are trying to teach the "speak" command to a dog that doesn't bark much, there are fortunately several strategies to get them barking in no time. However, teaching a dog to bark on command to stop obnoxious barking behavior is not as easy as some folks describe. There's much more to it, and, when trained incorrectly, the barking behavior may backfire.
Step 1: Evoke the Barking Behavior
In order to teach your dog to bark on command, you will need to first evoke the barking behavior. Back when I was working to help train dogs for search and rescue, we got dogs to bark fairly quickly by just building up their frustration. We would, therefore, start by showing them something they strongly desire (a ball, favorite toy), wiggle it around, and then we would suddenly hide it behind our backs. In no time, dogs were barking in protest: "Hey, gimme that!"
Now, the beauty of training dogs relies on the fact that not all methods work for each and every dog. Using a "cookie-cutter" approach to train dogs, therefore, doesn't always work. You often need to get creative. There are other methods to evoke the barking.
Another method that may work may be to bark yourself. Dogs are often prone to naturally engage in barking when they hear other dogs barking through a phenomenon known as social facilitation. Therefore, if your dog hears you bark, there are chances you'll evoke them to bark.
With dogs who are not too prone to bark, you may have to think over scenarios where these dogs have barked in the past and replicate them. With some dogs, you may need to start with low expectations and reinforce those little muffled barks or little puffs of breath and build up from there.
Step 2: Reinforce the Behavior
Science tells us that behaviors that are reinforced tend to strengthen and repeat. If we want the barking behavior to strengthen and repeat, we would have to reinforce it with a consequence that is reinforcing to the dog. Most dogs respond well to food or toys.
Once you find what gets your dog barking, it's time to mark it and reward it. As soon as you hear your dog bark, click your clicker or deliver a verbal marker such as "yes!" followed by a treat (of giving the toy itself, if you are using one).
Timing is important here, so that's why you want to use a clicker or a verbal marker. These markers provide cutting-edge precision in pinpointing the exact behavior that earns the dog the reward. Ideally, to be the most effective, the click or verbal marker must take place within half a second of the barking behavior.
Step 3: Put the Behavior on Cue
Successful dog training requires keeping in consideration several important guidelines and mechanical skills which can make a difference between success and failure. For example, an important rule is that you must name a behavior (put it on cue) only once you're getting it consistently and in the finished form. The vast majority of people seem to add cues way too fast which only leads to confusion.
A good general rule of thumb is to not add the cue (in this case, "speak") at least until the behavior is about 80 percent trained. This numeric formula simply means that your dog must perform the behavior 8 times out of 10 trials. Therefore, keep marking and rewarding the barking behavior up to the point where the dog starts offering the behavior on his own. When you can reliably predict the behavior, you can then add the verbal cue.
Say "speak" right while your dog barks and give a treat (or access to a toy) right afterwards. Repeat several times so that your dog associates the word with his action. Then, say "speak" right when the dog starts barking, rinse and repeat several times, and then finally say "speak" a split second before he barks. At some point, your dog will start offering the behavior in response to the cue.
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"Before a cue can be used to induce a behavior, the dog must associate the cue with the behavior. So first I say the cue 'as' the dog is doing the behavior. I'll do this for 30+ reps. Then I'll say the cue just as the dog 'begins' to do the behavior. I'll do that for another 30+ reps.
"Then I'll say the cue just before the dog does the behavior (but only when he's about to offer the behavior) for another 30+ reps. Only then, after the dog has heard the cue associated with the behavior for a minimum of 90 reps will I attempt to induce the behavior using the cue."
— Dog trainer Melissa Alexander
How to Train Your Dog to Speak
Can Training a Dog to Bark Help to Stop Unwanted Barking?
It's important to be wary of bold statements made by some trainers sometimes such as "putting a behavior on cue will get rid of it." Dogs are animals and not robots; no behavior can ever be guaranteed to be totally removed completely.
First off, let's consider it's close to impossible to have a behavior such as barking placed 100 percent on stimulus control and it's impossible to stop behavior such as barking with a single, simplistic technique, such as putting barking on cue.
Barking is part of a dog's natural communication repertoire, and therefore, it can never stop completely. Criteria two of Karen Pryor's criteria for stimulus control mentions: "the dog does not perform the behavior if the cue is not presented." This criterion cannot be met with a behavior such as barking as a dog will eventually perform the barking behavior in the absence of the cue at some point or another.
On top of this, it's important to consider that barking is often self-reinforcing behavior. Barking can help dogs vent or express their frustration and solitude and therefore this self-reinforcement maintains the behavior preventing it from extinguishing.
Barking is often a manifestation of an internal emotion (fear of noises, separation anxiety), and if emotionally charged, may be dealt with better by using desensitization and counterconditioning to any provocative stimulus by using something like the "hear that" method. It's therefore important to understand why the dog is barking in the first place and tackle any underlying issues (boredom, anxiety, fear).
However, something to consider is the fact that permitting a dog to perform a barking behavior on cue may provide an outlet. This may help take the edge off a bit, in a similar fashion as allowing sheepdogs to herd sheep helps control their inappropriate herding behaviors directed at children, joggers, and people on bikes.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 09, 2020:
We never taught our dogs to bark on cue, but we could start one of our dogs singing by a particular song. It was so cute, and sometimes our other dogs would join in and do some singing also. Indian love call was the song that would instantly start our Kerri singing. Haha! She loved it!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 08, 2020:
Hi Devika, glad you enjoyed my article and video on how to train a dog to speak. Thanks for stopping by!
Devika Primic on January 07, 2020:
This is something I did not know of dog training. I like how you explained in detail of training dogs to speak. Interesting and worth a try for dog owners.