It’s time for another great Ask the Trainer column from Colleen Safford from New York Walk & Train, named “Best of NY” by New York Magazine! This week Colleen tackles a common problem that plagues many pet parents: dogs that bark at everyone during the walk!
My Chihuahua has always barked at everyone when we go for walks and will try to bite if they get too close. I’ve been really diligent at desensitizing him around people with treats and petting over the past year and he’s gotten remarkably better. He even runs towards people while looking at me because he knows to expect a reward. I’m wondering if he will ever stop with the initial instinct to bark or if it will always be something that I will need to be on top of through distraction. He’s 4 years old and has always been around people. Is there any hope?
First, congratulations on making progress with your pup this year. I love to hear stories of people committed to helping their dogs with training hurdles. Keep up the good work! It sounds like you are making some real strides and some tweaking can get this sorted for you.
The straight answer….yes or no. It depends.
OK, just being silly.
There certainly is hope. Just think of it this way. Your Chi can get better and better at anything he practices or he can drop old habits. He can continue to strengthen his barking at people if he practices every day, or he can start to forget about barking at people if he is simply not afforded the opportunity to practice, but instead learns to offer a new behavior.
If he is not provided barking practice time, the behavior weakens and extinguishes. This is similar to my soccer skills. I was great when practicing (OK, and younger). The less I practiced, the less skilled I was with the ball. Now…let’s not talk about. My soccer skills have been replaced by racing after toddler skills.
Two things could be happening:
- The initial bark has become part of the trained routine and response. Inadvertently, it may have been reinforced by your offering of treats AFTER he barks. This is one of those be sure what you are training type situations.
- Your pup is still a feeling anxious about people and just needs to progress a bit slower.
In either case, you just need to tighten up the process. By doing so, you will eliminate the barking as well as ensure that you are creating a positive association with strangers at a level where your dog is comfortable.
What to do:
1. Take the roll of being the lookout – As a diligent dog parent, you must anticipate that your dog is going to bark at an oncomer on the street or stranger entering your home. Yes, there will be moments where you don’t catch something before him, but generally, your job is to see things before your dog. Once you see someone, do not wait to see if he will bark at the person, assume he will and before he does……
2. Redirect and reinforce your Chi for offering you another behavior like “look at me” BEFORE he sounds off. The second you see someone you will quickly use “look” (chirpy- happy voice and keeping a loose slack leash) to grab your pup’s attention. When he offers you his attention, reinforce the behavior by offering him treats (keep them exciting, fresh and rotate the variety to keep the motivation). The key here is that he is being reinforced for looking at you and remaining quiet instead of barking first and then being offered a tasty crumb. If your pup is more toy motivated, play a walking game a tug as you pass by the on comer.
Whatever reinforcement you offer, continue dole it out as you approach and pass the person. Yes, the entire time! Every few steps! You must offer him reinforcement at a rate which keeps his attention keenly focused on you. Once you’ve passed, the treats stop coming or the toy is put away until your next encounter.
Over time, as you have seen already, he will associate people with good things and you’ll gradually decrease the reinforcements (never getting rid of them all together, but cutting back). You need to cautious and be sure no one is pushing his limits while you expand on his association and confidence building by doing the following….
3. Strangers or friends feed your Chi – Ask friends and strangers to feed your dog. If he is extremely shut down….they begin doing this at a distance. A distance that does NOT elicit a bark. They literally toss him piece by piece of his dog food (or Natural Balance Dog Roll diced into the tiniest of bits). Gradually, decrease the space between the person and your dog as he is comfortable. If he barks or backs up fast…he’s not comfortable. Progress to a point where he is taking food from their hands. Be sure they do not reach for him or over do it with syrupy sweet talk. They should be a calm food dispenser. This is a gradual process and one that takes time.
Tip: What to do when guests come over: Either be prepped and ready to practice step three OR your Chihuahua is given a interactive toy or chew toy to work on safely confined to a crate or bedroom where he feels safe.
As always, the timing and coordination of this is important. If you feel like you just keep slipping and he is barking before you get to it, it would be wise to work with a humane trainer. Association of Pet Dog Trainers is a good place to search.
Wiggles and wags!
Do you have a dog training or behavior question for Colleen Safford? Please submit your question using our submit a question contact form (or if you have any problems with the form, just drop us a line at editors AT dogtipper.com and we’ll forward your question to Colleen.) Questions will be answered online in this column and not individually. (See more articles by and about Colleen Safford on DogTipper.)