There was Henrietta, whose owner told me: “The UPS man told me that he will not deliver packages to my address again until I get Henrietta some training. She barks and throws herself against the glass so hard when he comes to the door that he’s afraid she’s going to crash through the window at him!”
There was Charlie, whose owner had contacted me about his lunging and barking at dogs on leash. She reported: “Anytime he sees a dog outside, he barks, and I have trouble getting him to stop. He also barks at kids and the mailman. And don’t even get me started on squirrels. If he sees a squirrel or rabbit out my window, he’ll race back and forth, jumping and barking. But I think he really LIKES looking out the window and watching the animals. He’d be bored if he didn’t get to see outside, right?”
Both of these dogs, and so many of my clients, have something in common: their dogs barking through barriers (such as windows or fences) has become a major headache. Read on to learn more about why this kind of barrier barking can cause trouble, both at home and when out and about.
Note: names and sexes of dogs have been changed in this post to protect privacy.
Should we be concerned about barrier barking?
In a word, yes.
Barking on occasion is normal dog behavior. For dogs that quiet back down relatively quickly, there’s no cause for great concern. However, if your dog is unable to calm back down, or spends a great deal of their day barking, that’s a different story.
First, behaviors that dogs practice will often become stronger. For many dogs, barking at drivers dropping off packages or people passing by is very reinforcing: at the end of the encounter, the driver leaves or the person walks out of sight.
Huzzah! Your dog feels that they have saved the day once again, chasing off this scary passerby with all that barking and bravado. This behavior, which may have started with a few woofs, can gradually become a high intensity barking blitz as it is reinforced over time.
Secondly, it’s important to point out that what starts as barking outside your window or behind your fence is not necessarily going to stay confined to your home or yard.
Consider the case of Tahlia, a dog I worked with starting when she was a teenager. Tahlia and I were working on other things unrelated to barking, but Tahlia’s owner mentioned that she enjoyed looking out the front window and barking at any dog that went past. She also barked ferociously at the reactive dog who lived next door if they both happened to be in the yard at the same time: they would attempt to fight through the fence, and no amount of calling Tahlia could get her to come back inside.
Unfortunately, as Tahlia reached adulthood, she became reactive towards other dogs on leash and started trying to pick fights with dogs in dog park settings. While it’s impossible to say for sure whether practicing window barking and fence fighting cause this behavior change for Tahlia, I feel it certainly could have been a contributing factor.
Or, consider the case of Duke. Duke spent a lot of time barking at a particular neighbor from his backyard or out the screen door. One day, Duke got loose out the screen door and encountered the neighbor. When Duke’s owner caught up to him, he was in a frenzy barking at the neighbor, spittle coming out of his mouth, hackles raised. Duke’s owner called him over and over again, but was unable to get Duke to back away from the neighbor. The neighbor was too scared to go back into her home, afraid that Duke would bite her if she turned away.
Thank goodness that Duke’s owner was finally able to collect him without any bites occurring. Again, while we can’t see into Duke’s head, I think that having a long history of barking at this neighbor through the screen door and through the fence in frustration primed Duke to run after her when given the chance.
This connection is established enough that most experienced professional trainers will ask about it when doing a consultation for dogs exhibiting growly behavior on leash. Whenever I am asked to help a dog become less reactive on leash, I ask if the dog is barking at home in the yard or out the windows. If they are, part of our plan is to how to stop that barking.
I explain to clients that we might be spending a lot of effort teaching their dog not to bark at bicycles and other dogs on their 30 minute daily walk; however, if that same dog gets to practice barking at bikes and dogs for 3 hours a day through the fence in the yard, then they are undoing a lot of their hard work and behavior modification.
There really is an important connection. Connection is not necessarily the same as causation, but…you get the picture.
When what’s fun isn’t always what’s best
If your dog reaches the stage where they are spending a lot of their day on alert and barking, this can elevate stress hormones and interfere with your dog obtaining adequate sleep (dogs need a LOT more sleep on a daily basis than humans do). Elevated stress levels can cause all kinds of undesirable health issues and other behavior issues.
Many well-intentioned owners express concern to me that their dogs may be bored without their window watching privileges.
This may be true, in the same way that a child might be disappointed if you don’t let them drink 2 liters of soda in one sitting. However, even though that’s something that they may want to do…that’s not what is healthy or best for them, so it’s up to us as responsible adults to intervene with a healthier alternative.
You can give the child some juice instead, and you can give your dog some fun activities to keep them entertained that don’t involve barking at everything that passes your backyard.
There are plenty of activities that your dog can do to keep their brain busy other than looking out the window and going crazy. If you need enrichment ideas for your dog, check out this blog post. Of course, adequate exercise is also important, and can make a surprisingly big difference how much your dog barks throughout the day. This exercise does not always need to be vigorous: decompression walks can be an excellent tool to both exercise and relax your dog.
Solutions for barrier barkers
I own a miniature schnauzer who would love nothing more than to bark at every delivery on our street all day long. My simple solution? I keep the front window blinds closed so she cannot see out the window. If there is a lot going on outside our home that day, I may also turn on a fan, air filter, or calming music for white noise to drown out the sounds outdoors (this is especially great for dogs that live in apartments or condominiums with noisy neighbors).
Don’t have blinds? You can get creative with window film, window frosting, or other alternatives. If you have a smaller dog, some people even choose to rearrange their furniture so their pup has no viewpoint from which to see outside. There is no end to how creative you can get in cutting down the sights and sounds that are triggering your dog.
In addition to changing your environment as described above, this may include going out into the yard with your dog and calling them back inside immediately if they begin to bark. If your dog doesn’t come when you call him, you may even need to have him on a long line in the backyard for now so you can collect him if barking begins (until you improve your dog’s recall with a trainer).
Some folks prefer not to make environmental changes, or at least would prefer for them to not be permanent. The great news is that you can also use training to improve this kind of barking behavior. However, one of the most important elements of reducing this kind of barking is not allowing your dog to get a lot of practice while you work through your training plan; therefore, some changes to your home will be necessary, at least temporarily. As discussed above, many dogs find barking to be very reinforcing. In order to replace this barking with a more appropriate behavior, we need to give our dogs a break from being on “window guard duty.”
In addition to removing opportunities to “practice” barking and making sure your dog is getting plenty of exercise and enrichment, a couple of my favorite strategies to change barrier barking are below.
Strategy One: No Worries about Noises
If your dog tends to be mostly worried about noises, one helpful strategy involves getting your dog gradually accustomed to these sounds through a process called desensitization.
This works best if you are also rewarding your dog for calm behavior when they are NOT barking in the presence of these noises. This training strategy can be great to help your dog be calmer when they hear things like a door knock, a door bell, etc.
To be successful, you will need a clear list of what particular sounds set your dog off. To see a wonderful detailed video of how to work on this strategy with your dog, see trainer Emily Larlham’s video here.
Strategy Two: Thank you, Next
To use this strategy, immediately after your dog begins barking, you acknowledge your dog, then redirect them to another appropriate activity that is already rock solid.
Example: if my dog Ada starts woofing at the landscaping crew, I say “I see, them thank you,” (sometimes just acknowledging that I’ve seen the “threat” is enough for her to quiet down), and then “Ada, go to your bed.” She then receives some praise and petting for settling in her bed. It’s hard to bark at the landscapers when you’re laying down in a bed, so this tends to be pretty successful.
Notice that I already trained the behavior of settling in a bed to fluency before I put this into place with the landscapers. Other alternative behaviors could include sit, down, doing several tricks, etc.
This technique has worked SO well for Ada that now she will often seek me out when she hears a delivery truck rather than barking at the door. She knows that I will cue her to do something else and give her attention, so she likes to run to me to “tattle” on the intruder on our property. When she does this, she gets a few “woofs” in while she’s coming to find me, but it’s very easy to interrupt and quiet her down.
Don’t like the idea of your pup checking in with you? Consider this brilliant strategy by my colleague and fellow trainer Emily Tronetti. She has a sign on her porch that instructs any visitors to ring her doorbell. She then taught her dogs that the doorbell meant that dog treats were going to fly out of their Furbo. The Furbo is linked to the doorbell and spits out treats automatically when the doorbell rings. Now, when her dogs hear the doorbell or deliveryman, they just run to the Furbo and wait for their treats. Now, THAT’S some clever training!
While management solutions (like blocking windows) are easy for anyone to implement, training solutions can be a bit more time consuming and nuanced. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional trainer for help. Some folks choose to forego the training and simply stick to using environmental changes to block out sights and sounds, and that’s OK too, as long as it’s successfully preventing your pup from practicing their barking.
Different strategies can tend to work for different dogs. One thing is for certain: there are humane, force-free methods that can be used to help any dog learn to bark less at sights and sounds they hear around your home. Unpleasant tools like “bark collars” that shock or spray your dog can come with risks and negative side effects. If you need help with your dog’s behavior modification, seek out the help of a professional positive-reinforcement based trainer.
In conclusion, if your dog is doing more than an occasional “woof” out the window, you should consider making changes to your home environment and/or training plan to address this behavior and prevent bigger problems down the road. I hope this blog post brings more wiggles and less woofs into your home!