Desensitization, counter-conditioning can help curb excessive barking

2005-06-01
Johnny D. Hoskins, DVM, PhD, DACVIM

Waiting until the dog is settled and quiet is perhaps the most practical way to achieve quiet.

Q.How does one control barking in dogs?

A. Dr. Gary Landsberg at the 77th Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas gave a lecture on tips for controlling barking.

Although vocalization in dogs is a component of normal communication, it may be problematic for the owner when it is uncontrollable, excessive or at inappropriate times of the day or night. If sufficiently disruptive to the household or neighbors, the owners might be under pressure to resolve the problem or relinquish the dog. First, it will be necessary to determine when, where and why the dog is vocalizing, the impact on the dog's health and well-being, and why it has become problematic for the owners, in order to design a treatment program that can deal with both the needs of the dog and the family. Unfortunately, depending on the owner's expectations and the limitations that might be achieved with a particular dog in a particular environment, the prognosis can be guarded in some cases.

Diagnosis

In each case, medical factors should first be considered. For excessive or nighttime vocalization, a decline in cognitive or sensory function, pain and other disease states might be factors. These medical problems might cause or contribute to heightened anxiety or restlessness, altered responsiveness to stimuli, untimely vocalization (e.g., night waking) or vocalization that out of context, intense or hard to interrupt.

There also might be a genetic predisposition to certain types of vocalization. Dog breeds that are bred as watchdogs and those with high working drive can be more likely to display vocalization that is excessive or difficult to control. Consequences including retreat of the stimulus and owner reinforcement in an attempt to quiet the dog may aggravate the problem further. Variable or intermittent reinforcement intensifies the problem and makes it more resistant to extinction.

In addition to medical assessment, a comprehensive history is required that may be accompanied if possible by a video to determine the situations and stimuli that incite the problem, the owner's response to the behavior, and how it has progressed from the first event to the present. In addition, the home environment, daily schedule, level and type training, relationships with other pets and family members, the dog's personality and other concurrent behavior problems all can be important considerations when determining the diagnosis and prognosis and selecting an appropriate treatment program.

Treatment

Behavior modification should be aimed at resolving the underlying cause and modifying the dog's response to the stimulus by reinforcing desirable behavior and removing factors that might be reinforcing or aggravating the vocalization problem. Products that disrupt or stop vocalization are useful for achieving the desired response so reinforcement-based retraining can be implemented more quickly and practically. Preventing or reducing exposure to the stimulus might be another practical option. For medical problems, such as cognitive dysfunction and painful conditions, drug therapy might be indicated. Drugs also may be useful in the treatment of compulsive disorders, anxiety disorders and phobias.

Desensitization and counter-conditioning will be needed to resolve anxiety associated with the stimulus. This requires that stimuli are identified that might lead to anxiety so that a means for controlling the stimuli and reproducing them along an intensity gradient can be designed. In the interim, exposure should be avoided. In order to achieve a relaxed and positive response during exposure to a stimulus, the dog first should be trained to settle and relax in the absence of the stimulus.

The owners will need to be instructed on how to use favored rewards and shaping to achieve a calm response on cue. Depending on where and when the barking is likely to arise, one or all of the settled behaviors should be trained (i.e., sit, down, heel and go to your bed). By watching the dog's body postures, facial expressions and breathing, it should be possible to shape and reinforce gradually more relaxed responses. Training can then move to more distracting environments and gradually more intense stimuli.

A variety of techniques and training aids can help the owners achieve the settle response more quickly and reliably. A head halter can help guide the dog into position and may also serve to distract the dog, turn the dog from the stimulus and achieve eye contact during exposure exercises. A release on the head halter indicates to the dog that the desired behavior has been achieved. Physical exercises, clicker training and target training also can be considered.

Once a calm, settled response can be achieved on cue, the training should progress, in the absence of distractions to areas where the stimulus exposure would normally occur. Over time, distractions can be increased, and controlled exposure to the stimulus can begin.

A calm, relaxed response and a positive outcome must be achieved before progressing. The goal is to achieve both the desired behavior (response substitution) and an emotional and physiological response that is calm and positive (counter-conditioning). The response of the owner will influence the outcome either positively or negatively. Owners should be consistent and calm in trying to settle the dog during exposure exercises as anger, anxiety, threats and punishment will enhance the dog's anxiety.

The owner also should be taught to reinforce desirable responses and not those that are undesirable. The response of the stimulus will also influence the outcome either positively or negatively. This means that the stimulus must be carefully selected and well controlled so it does not enhance fear or anxiety. If the stimulus retreats before the dog is quiet, the behavior will be further reinforced (negative reinforcement).

Punishment is not recommended because it can increase fear and anxiety or might serve as reinforcement for dogs that crave attention. Even if the barking is immediately and effectively suppressed by punishment, anxiety, owner-absent barking and other behavior problems might continue or even increase, and the barking may ultimately recur since the underlying cause has not been addressed.

Attention will also be required to reducing or avoiding the stimuli that incite the barking, at least from the outset. For example, greeting strangers might be avoided; the dog might need to be housed away from doors and windows, where it might be exposed to outdoor stimuli, or some white noise, a music CD or television set might help to mask the stimuli.

Training quiet on cue versus reinforcing quiet

Depending on the type of vocalization and the household, the options might be to reduce the vocalization by reinforcing quiet behavior or to be able to stop the vocalization on cue. To reinforce quiet behavior, it is necessary to first achieve quiet behavior and then to reinforce, while avoiding any, and all, reinforcement for vocalization.

Waiting until the dog is settled and quiet is perhaps the most practical way to achieve quiet. Providing an enriching and predictable home environment that serves to calm and distract the dog also can help ensure quiet behavior.

Using a bark-activated device (citronella spray collar or bark-activated alarm), quiet behavior might be achieved more quickly, but the owner should be present to reinforce the desired response.

For a bark-activated device to be effective, it must interrupt the barking immediately, must be sensitive enough to detect vocalization and specific enough that it is not activated by extraneous stimuli. Bark-activated products either can be placed in an area (front hall, cage, etc.) or mounted on a collar. Audible and ultrasonic devices are seldom sensitive, specific or noxious enough to be effective. Bark-activated spray collars have been shown to be effective especially when combined with owner supervision and training. In one study, owner satisfaction with a citronella spray collar was 89 percent compared to 44 percent with electronic shock collars. In a study of dogs admitted to veterinary hospitals, the citronella collar was effective at stopping or reducing barking in 78 percent of dogs while a scentless version of the collar was effective in 57 percent of the dogs.

Some barking, such as territorial and alarm barking to novel stimuli, cannot be inhibited entirely. In these cases, training the dog to quiet on cue might be the most practical option. Using eye contact, food-lure, a head halter or disruptive device such as an audible alarm or citronella spray, the desirable behavior can be achieved, reinforced and then put on cue or command. Shock products and debarking surgery might be a consideration when there is no other practical option and the dog may otherwise have to be relinquished; however, even these techniques are likely to be unsuccessful without appropriate accompanying behavior modification.

Treatment of barking problems requires an accurate diagnosis and attention to the underlying cause. Prognosis will vary with the diagnosis and owner expectations. Barking might be prevented, reduced or resolved by avoiding exposure to the stimulus and by modifying the dog's response to the stimulus with desensitization and counter-conditioning.

Dr. Hoskins is owner of DocuTech Services. He is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine with specialities in small animal pediatrics. He can be reached at (225) 955-3252, fax: (214) 242-2200, or e-mail: jdhoskins@mindspring.com.