Barking is a very common problem in dogs and one we receive many telephone calls about. Dogs are biologically predisposed to bark and they bark for many reasons. Barking can be reinforced with either positive or negative reinforcement, they bark to access things, such as treats or attention, or they bark to avoid or remove unpleasant things from their environment, such as threats, strangers or other dogs. The problem with barking could be an intensity issue, a duration irritant or a frequency concern.
To really understand why a dog is barking you need to identify the antecedents, what triggers the behavior, and the consequences, what maintains the behavior. Is the barking the result of fear and therefore a respondent behavior or is the barking operating on its environment and being maintained through the accessed consequences.
Look at the setting events and motivating operations, one of which could be fear, and the direct antecedent the SD that triggers the barking. In other words is the dog getting enough daily exercise and is its living environment offering it enough mental stimulation. Is the dog barking to access people, is it lonely and isolated from its family members. Is the dog in any pain, have you ruled out any potential medical problems?
In many situations the barking is an operant behavior and can be manipulated and controlled through the consequences. The dog can be trained to bark ‘speak’ on cue and then trained to ‘be quiet’ on cue. This teaches the dog to do a different behavior to access the desired reinforcement. In some cases teaching some control behaviors such as sit/wait/down and maintain behaviors can help prevent and manage the problem. When barking becomes habitual the barking itself can be reinforcing for the dog. When a dog barks there can be a release of neurochemicals such as endorphins, dopamine or cortisols. These chemicals produce pleasant sensations for the dog and thus encourage the problematic barking behavior.
If the dog is barking due to anxiety, panic or fear then this becomes a little more complicated. The dog needs to be systematically desensitized to the item or situation that creates this emotional response.
So to change or modify a problematic barking behavior you need to understand how the dog interacts with its environment. Is the behavior being strengthened or weakened through its consequences or is the barking problem the visible signs of a fearful, anxious or panicked dog.
Punishing a barking behavior is ineffective and can make it worse, it will certainly affect how the dog perceives you and it is highly likely that the punishment will lead to other ‘fallout’ problematic behaviors such as fear or aggression. It is far more pleasant and far more effective to teach your dog an alternative behavior or change its views on certain situations to eliminate the need for the dog to bark.