Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
A puppy barking at other dogs and people on walks can be embarrassing for puppy owners. Yet, this behavior is not at all uncommon, but of course, this doesn't make it less annoying to deal with. What can puppy owners do to teach their puppy to shush and ignore other dogs and people on walks?
A good starting place is to stop thinking in the realms of: "How do I stop a dog from performing a certain behavior" and instead replace this way of thinking with the more productive: "What would I like my dog to do instead?" This way of thinking opens up the path for successful, positive-based training and behavior modification.
In this article the following topics will be tackled:
- The importance of evaluating the potential underlying emotions triggering the puppy's behavior
- The impact of fear periods in puppies and when they occur
- Two common emotions often seen in puppies who bark at people and other dogs on walks.
- Does your puppy need training or behavior modification? A general guide to differentiating the two.
- Effective strategies dog trainers use to tackle puppies barking due to fear-based on powerful behavior modification techniques.
- How puppy owners may be inadvertently paving the path to barrier frustration
- Strategies to tackle barrier frustration barking
- Some general guidelines to help differentiate fear from barrier frustration.
- What to do when unsure of what approach needs to be taken and the importance of seeking a professional for help.
Consider the Underlying Emotions
Whether solving the barking problem requires training or behavior modification may vary based on the underlying causes of the puppy's behavior of barking at other dogs and people. Often, puppies bark at other dogs and people on walks simply because they are fearful.
Fearful Reactions in Puppies
Puppies go through several "fear periods" generally taking place between the ages of 8 to 10 weeks and then again around 6 to 14 Months. There is a belief that there may also be a third fear period during the adolescent life stage. During these times, puppies may show fearful reactions to things they appeared to be just fine with in the past.
Fear periods aside, often puppies display fearful reactions as a result of lack of early socialization which should take place before the prime socialization window closes at 16 weeks. These puppies are stressed when they encounter people and other dogs and their barking is a "distance increasing" behavior because these puppies want these scary stimuli to go away so the puppy gains space and feels relieved.
Frustrated Reactions in Puppies
On the total opposite spectrum are puppies who are social butterflies and bark on walks because they want to meet other dogs and people, but since they are leashed and can't do so, they get frustrated. The technical term for this is "barrier frustration."
Puppies as such have a history of getting along well with other dogs and people when off-leash and perhaps have been allowed too many times to greet people or other dogs on leash. The leash acts as a barrier and puppies get frustrated as they hit the end of the leash unable to reach their best friends. Often, these pups are seen biting the leash as well.
The way the issue of a puppy barking at dogs and people on leash is tackled therefore tends to vary based on whether the puppy is fearful and wants to increase distance or the puppy is overly enthusiastic and wants to decrease distance.
Tackle Barking Due to Fear
When it comes to puppies barking at other dogs and people due to fear, more than training, this requires behavior modification. There are some significant differences between training and behavior modification.
Training Versus Behavior Modification
Training focuses on conditioning dogs to perform operant behaviors such as sitting, heeling, coming when called, etc. Behavior modification focuses on modifying a dog’s emotional response to a specific situation, and along with that, by default, modifying the dog's behavioral responses.
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Because these are two different areas of specialty, each requires different professionals: for training dogs to perform operant behaviors you want a dog trainer, while to modify dog behavior, you ideally want a behavior professional.
Certainly, there are dog trainers well-versed in solving dog behavior problems, but dog behavior professionals such as certified applied animal behaviorists (CAAB) and board-certified veterinary behaviorists (DACVB) have made the study of animal behavior their primary area of specialty. It is in the dog's and owner's best interest to find a behavior professional who is highly experienced and who uses humane behavior modification (no harsh methods and no use of aversive tools).
Common Behavior Modification Techniques
So in the case of a puppy barking at people and other dogs due to fear, treatment would involve keeping the puppy under threshold, strategically managing the environment to prevent rehearsal of the problem behavior and working on the puppy's emotional and behavioral responses through the use of powerful desensitization and counterconditioning based techniques.
Some useful techniques include Leslie McDevitt's "Look at that" game, Jean Donaldson's "Open Bar Closed Bar" Alice Tong's Engage -Disengage Game and Susan Clothier's Treat/Retreat Game specifically for those closer encounters/ interactions. Each professional dog trainer/behavior consultant may have his/her own preferred methods.
Tackling Barking Due to Frustration
A dog barking due to frustration is often a dog who simply needs to better learn impulse control and frustration tolerance . Puppies are in many ways like children: they can become quite persistent when they want something, and when they don't have it, they may get "temper tantrums." Now, these temper tantrums are not a sign a puppy is spoiled or trying to be bossy and have it his way, it's just that the puppy wasn't given a chance to learn how to cope with his emotions in a productive, socially acceptable way.
A History of Reinforcement
Now, something to consider is that often barrier frustration is simply the manifestation of an extinction burst. If you have allowed in the past your puppy to go meet and greet people and other dogs on walks in the past every time your puppy showed an interest in them and pulled, by now your puppy has come to expect that.
But what happens should you suddenly one day decide not to longer allow this (perhaps because your puppy has now grown quite large and pulling risks popping your arms out of their sockets or people are frightened by your dog)? Very likely, frustration will set in. This leads to pulling with more force and barking when the pulling no longer yields the desired encounters. If the puppy is allowed to greet other people or dogs sometimes yes and sometimes no, this will make the behavior more difficult to eradicate.
Training Alternate Responses to Barking
Regardless of whether your puppy has a history of being allowed to meet people and dogs while on leash, the way to tackle barking due to barrier frustration is different than tackling barking due to fear. There are no negative emotions to work on. The dog already has a positive emotional response to other dogs and people only that it is magnified excessively and needs some level of "buffering."
Training entails implementing impulse control. Young puppies love to move about and explore everything, and when you are training puppies to do stationary exercises (like sit/down/stay) you are teaching them to control their impulses. Puppies will therefore need salient incentives initially to accomplish this, and then, as time goes on, with proofing and the puppies maturing, they will become more and more capable of dealing with their impulses.
Tackling puppies barking at other dogs and people, therefore, entails initially keeping the puppy under threshold (gradual exposure and walking at a distance from people and dogs which evoke the pup's "bark, bark, bark, I so badly want to go greet" behavior) and training alternative responses to the barking and heavily reinforcing them.
My favorite alternate response to barking is heeling exercises because many puppies struggle to sit or lie down for long especially when excited. These exercises can be really fun and are dynamic offering the pup the opportunity to release some frustration under the form of movement (in lieu of barking or performing displacement behaviors).
There are however several other options of alternate behaviors such as training the puppy to perform an emergency u-turn or doing several reps of hand targeting or fun recalls as you walk backwards.
What If You're Not Sure
At times, things may not be as clear as desired. There are cases where dog owners may struggle in telling apart a puppy barking from fear from one barking from frustration. Below is a general chart to differentiate the two.
However, this chart is just general and needs to be taken with a grain of salt as things aren't always cut-and-dried when it comes to dog behavior. There may be instances where puppies may feel both excited and anxious about the approach of people and other dogs.
These ambivalent emotions are not uncommon. Many puppies engage in approach/avoidance behaviors and barking may be due to the conflict.
If you are unsure about what's triggering your puppy's barking behavior, enlist the help of a dog behavior professional to evaluate the behavior. Perhaps, your puppy may require a personalized approach, involving a combo of methods firstly aiming at changing the emotional responses, and then later, training to perform operant behaviors.
Fear Versus Frustration in Puppies
The puppy's body language denotes fear (puppy backs up when barking, has ears folded back, tail tucked)
The puppy's body languages doesn't appear fearful (however it may often resemble aggression)
The puppy has a history of acting fearful around other dogs
The puppy has a good play history with other dogs
The puppy's barking is contingent upon seeing/hearing stimuli that frighten him. Barking on leash may be seen more because there is not much opportunity to retreat
The puppy's barking behavior is contingent upon being leashed/behind a barrier (does well when off leash or no barriers)
The puppy has a history of acting fearful around humans
The puppy loves people and hasn't shown any signs of fear
The puppy hasn't been socialized with people or other dogs
The puppy has been well socialized with people and other dogs
The puppy has a tendency to readily bark when something novel is encountered and is hesitant/very leery to investigate
The puppy has a tendency to bark when frustrated and struggles with waiting or not having immediate access to things
The puppy has been rehearsing barking behaviors in other contexts with the result that other dogs and people move away and the dog appears to feel relieved by that.
The puppy has been allowed to pull and greet people in the past or people have approached when the puppy pulled
The Importance of Hiring a Professional
Regardless of whether your puppy is barking due to fear or due to frustration, it is important to hire a professional to help you out. The reasons for this are several. Puppies who bark due to fear have the potential to become fearful aggressive given the right circumstances, while puppies who bark due to frustration can get so worked up that this can lead to redirected bites (targeted towards the leash or even the handler)
Enlisting the help of a professional is important for safety and for correct training or behavior modification implementation. The expert can help you in several ways such as:
- Identifying what evokes the behavior (fear? frustration?) and what consequences drive the behavior (increase distance, decrease distance?) through a functional assessment.
- Helping you find strong reinforcers to create strong associations and/or to motivate and maintain behavior.
- Suggesting effective training tools that may help (clickers, harnesses, head collars)
- Ensuring your dog is not over threshold.
- Helping gauge signs of progress and instructing you on how to increase criteria (progress to the next step).
- Helping gauge signs of setbacks and instructing you how to lower criteria (go back a few steps).
- Ensuring you do not progress too fast but keep going at your dog's pace.
- Taking preventive measures and precautions to ensure safety to you and those around you.
- Coaching you through the process giving you clear instructions based on observations.
- Answering any questions and troubleshooting problems that may arise.
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.
© 2019 Adrienne Farricelli
Sp Greaney from Ireland on September 24, 2019:
It is great to learn that there is a very good reason behind a specific behaviour by the animal. I know some people who don't address this and the poor animal suffers because of their laziness. Great hub.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 23, 2019:
Thanks Linda, this is an important issue that needs to be tackled earlier than later considering the power of rehearsal histories. Barking is just the external manifestation of an internal emotional turmoil. Fear or frustration are both emotions that needs to be addressed.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 20, 2019:
This is an informative article that gives some great guidelines for analyzing a puppy's behavior. Thanks for sharing your expertise, Adrienne.