Nuisance barking is a major reason why dogs are relinquished to shelters.
Even if you tolerate a dog’s barking, it can wear down on all but the most patient dog owners. Teaching a dog to bark on cue and be quiet on cue can help curb the problem. Putting a nuisance behavior on cue will reduce the frequency of the behavior occurring on its own. Simply put, if we teach the dog to bark when we ask for it, and reinforce that behavior, the dog will be less likely to do it unless it’s requested. Teaching a quiet cue allows us to stop barking. Dogs learn behaviors quickly if we can teach them in opposite pairs (in this case, bark and quiet).
So how do we teach “quiet” and “bark”?
First, setup the environment so that the dog is likely to bark. In the case of Elaine, I knocked on the wall to prompt a bark, and clicked then treated for the bark.
After a series of repetitions, I stopped knocking and waited. I wanted to see if Elaine would offer the behavior and bark on her own. As soon as she did, I clicked then treated.
Elaine’s offered bark ranged from a low growl, to a quiet bark, to a loud, piercing bark. I want the finished behavior to be a loud bark, so I simply stopped reinforcing low growls or quiet barks. I only clicked loud, piercing barks.
Once Elaine was offering a bark of a volume I liked, I added a cue. I cued a “talk-talk” hand gesture just as Elaine was about to begin barking. Then, I progressively cued earlier and earlier, until when she was silent, I could cue the “talk-talk” hand gesture, and she would bark after it.I chose a non-verbal cue, as for film and television work, you can’t say “speak” aloud – otherwise the camera would pick you up. You can use a hand gesture or a word for your cue – but you never know – your dog might be on TV one day!
It is important that Elaine only be reinforced for barking when cued (the “talk-talk” hand gesture). So, I intentionally allowed Elaine to offer a bark (uncued), and intentionally did not click then treat for it. After a moment of silence, I gave the cue, and then clicked then treated the resulting bark. The dog must learn that reinforcement only comes from this behavior when it is cued.
Teaching a “quiet” cue is easy with classical conditioning. Simply give the cue for quiet (I used a “shhh” hand gesture), pause for half a second, and then give the dog a treat. With the consistent pairing of the quiet cue to the delivery of a treat, the dog will start to anticipate the delivery of a treat once the cue is given.It is very important that during this process that when you give the quiet cue, you give a treat. Using classical conditioning to train behaviors means that once you give the cue, you PROMISE to give the treat, no matter what the dog is doing… including when they continue to bark. In the above video, on the last trial, you will see Elaine look down at the floor when I cue quiet. She’s looking for the treat.
After enough repetitions of pairing the quiet cue with a treat, you should observe that upon giving the quiet cue, the dog stops barking and eagerly anticipates (or scans) for delivery of a treat. At that point, you can start to reinforce that behavior by clicking and treating the absence of barking. Give the quiet cue, observe silence of a short duration, then click then treat for silence. Bark and quiet together make a lot of sense! Cue her to bark, and once she barks, cue quiet. When the dog is quiet, click then treat.
For dogs who find barking a reinforcing activity in itself, you can actually cue your dog to be quiet, and then after they have been quiet, reinforce them by cueing them to bark. Permission to bark is the reinforcer for quiet.
(Image by Nakisha VanderHoeven)