As much as barking is a natural dog behaviour, it can be embarrassing, frustrating and scary if your dog barks at other dogs during walks. Understanding WHY your dog is barking is vital in order to help improve their behaviour, without taking the time to understand the cause of barking, you are more likely to make the behaviour worse or be stuck with a dog who always barks.
Why Does My Dog Bark?
Typically barking at other dogs will stem from one of two reasons, and possibly a combination of both, FEAR or FRUSTRATION.
Distinguishing between these two emotions isn’t always easy and sometimes it can take a while to work out, especially in cases where both emotions are playing a role. There are a few ways you can tell the difference, but like with anything in dog behaviour, each dog is an individual and there are no hard-and-fast rules. It’s highly recommended that you seek the help of an experienced, knowledgeable dog trainer or behaviourist to help you out too.
Starting with fear, dogs who are fearful of other dogs may appear very confident and bold, they can wrongly be labelled as ‘dominant’ or ‘aggressive’ because they don’t look how we would usually expect a fearful dog to look.
Some fearful dogs will display body language we associate with this emotion, for example, they may try to move away from dogs, cower or roll over. But for others, they will have learnt that making a much bolder display is more effective, these dogs might bark and lunge, run to chase dogs away or approach dogs and pin them down.
In fearful dogs who display it very confidently and who have learnt to act defensively towards dogs, it can take time to work through the behaviour and teach alternative responses before you begin to see more obvious signs of fear.
For example, once you begin some of the methods outlined below, your dog may no longer instantly react with barking and lunging when they see a dog, but you may notice some of the subtle signs which indicate fear or uncertainty, such as licking their lips, pulling their ears back, freezing or lowering their tail.
Dogs who are fearful around other dogs are likely to try to avoid other dogs or choose not to interact. If you can look back to your dog’s early life, you may remember seeing these signals or there may have been past negative experiences (e.g. being attacked) which will indicate your dog is likely to now feel fearful around dogs.
Even fearful dogs who have learnt to act defensively when faced with another dog (i.e. they want to approach and scare it off), are likely to still try to choose to avoid where possible. Most dogs will only use more aggressive responses if nothing else works or if they’ve learnt it’s the only way to make the scary thing go away.
Dogs who feel frustrated around other dogs can display very similar reactions to fearful dogs, they are also likely to bark and lunge, they may react aggressively when other dogs come into their space, or behave inappropriately towards other dogs.
However, dogs who are purely displaying frustration-reactivity are also more likely to be able to interact happily and politely with dogs when off-lead and free to make choices themselves.
Frustration is much higher when on the lead or when choices are restricted so typically reactions, such as barking and lunging, will occur predominately at these times.
CONFLICT OF EMOTIONS
Where it gets complicated is that in many reactive dogs, there are actually multiple emotions occurring together. Fear may be an underlying emotion, perhaps from past negative experiences or lack of social skills, but frustration can be there too and may have developed if a dog has learnt to enjoy interacting with some dogs but hasn’t learnt to cope when they can’t approach dogs or when dogs don’t behave how they expect.
How Do I Stop My Dog Barking?
It’s important to begin with a realistic goal and attitude, so rather than aiming to stop your dog barking, set yourself the goal of helping your dog feel more relaxed around other dogs.
Whether they feel fearful or frustrated, your dog will be stressed in the presence of other dogs so firstly you want to focus on reducing this and building more confidence and control.
The basis of improving reactive behaviour is the same, regardless of the underlying emotions. It’s still important to understand the emotions behind your dog’s behaviour but sometimes that only becomes clearer once you begin working through it.
While training, you can observe your dog and start to pick up on signals which indicate fear (e.g. lip licking, trying to move away, cowering, freezing) and this can allow you to understand what your dog can or can’t cope with.
Before you begin training, you need to be ready with the basics of good equipment and suitable locations. Using a longline is essential so you can work through behaviours and maintain control when your dog is ‘off-lead’, and a well-fitted front-clip harness to aid lead walking.
Some training needs to begin away from the trigger of other dogs, depending on your dog’s current training level.
Foundations like these are a good starting point:
Name response – teach your dog to look at you when you say their name
Marker words – ‘yes’ (or any other chosen word) should be paired with a treat i.e. yes=treat
Lead skills – for dogs who feel fearful or frustrated, pulling on the lead can increase reactive behaviours so teaching loose lead walking away from triggers is essential
Food motivation – teaching your dog to enjoy food rewards is another essential starting point … see this blog for more
Once you and your dog are confident with the basics and you’ve found some suitable areas to begin training, you can start to work more around other dogs. You may find it beneficial to have a visual signal on your dog, for example, a jacket which states ‘Training’, ‘Nervous’ or ‘I Need Space’ depending on your dog’s issues. This helps signal to other owners to keep their dog under control and reduces the likelihood of others disrupting your training.
The Training Part
When working with a fearful dog, choice is always key. Your dog needs to trust you to keep them safe so they don’t have to warn dogs away. This means choosing areas to begin with where you can get gain space from other dogs and work at a safe distance.
With dogs who feel frustrated, space is also important so you can work through calmness at a distance where they’re coping and not feeling frustrated. If they are also experiencing some fear or lack of confidence then space is important to help them feel safe.
Your training can gradually progress to closer proximity to other dog, while always keeping in mind what your dog’s coping level is. Many fearful dogs will never want to interact with lots of dogs, they may learn to briefly greet and move on, or they may only ever be comfortable with familiar dogs. This is not a problem and it’s important you respect your dog’s choices. For example, if you know they find bouncy young dogs more scary then make an effort to always keep more distance from these.
Likewise, when frustration is involved, you may need more distance from dogs who are running around or behaving more excitedly, chasing balls, or giving off threatening body language (e.g. fixed eye contact, stalking).
Some of our go-to methods here at Adolescent Dogs …
DMT – there are many names for this concept but the idea is to mark (say YES) when your dog looks at a dog and then immediately reward them. It pairs the sight of something scary or exciting with a treat, encouraging your dog to check in with you and feel a calmer response to the trigger. This concept is very versatile and easy to use, whether your dog is fearful, frustrated or both, it’s a great method to apply.
Let’s Go – for many reactive dogs, they get ‘stuck’ when faced with a trigger, they feel they can’t move away or they don’t know how to so they use barking and lunging instead.
Teaching your dog how to move away can make a huge difference. If your dog is fearful, this helps give them the space they need. If your dog is frustrated, it breaks their fixation and reminds them to turn to you, reducing the build-up of frustration.
Backaways – similar to Let’s Go, teaching your dog to turn to you when they feel the lead go tight can be a game-changer in reactivity. For so many fearful or frustrated dogs, tension on the lead is an instant trigger for a reaction. Changing the association so they learn to look at you when the lead goes tight, can avoid them tipping into a reaction and gives them an additional reminder to look at you for support.
Eye contact – keeping the trust and communication between you and your dog is essential in improving reactive behaviours. If you shout at your dog or tell him off for reacting, he’s likely to have lost some trust and may feel worried or confused, so working on pairing eye contact and check-ins with great rewards can help rebuild your relationship and the trust between you. Eye contact is also a good way to help your dog not become fixated on other dogs, it’s great for them to look at dogs and observe, but they also need to turn away and look at you so they don’t become increasingly stressed
Scatter Feeding – sniffing is a very calming behaviour for most dogs and for those who feel stressed, either through fear or frustration, when they see another dog, sniffing can help bring them into a calmer mindset. Scattering some treats on the floor helps bring their focus away from other dogs and encourages more calmness.
Obedience Cues – being able to cue behaviours from your dog can help keep them in a focused mindset so they’re able to observe dogs around them without instantly reacting. It’s important obedience cues don’t trap your dog, asking your dog to sit-wait while another passes or approaches can be unproductive if it takes away the ability for you dog to choose to move away. But for some dogs, offering a ‘middle’ or a relaxed ‘down-wait’ can be hugely beneficial.
When it comes to reactive behaviours, it’s never a quick-fix or a straightforward training journey, it usually comes with ups and downs, bits of progress and some regressions. It’s impossible to control the other dogs and people we meet during walks so naturally there will be experiences and situations which set progress back or make us feel like we’re doing it all wrong.
However, if you can keep your dogs needs as the priority, aim to give them choices and support, and work within their abilities, you will see gradual progress.
It can’t be emphasised enough that working with a knowledgeable, force-free trainer or behaviourist is invaluable in helping understand why your dog displays reactive behaviours and how best to help them. having someone working alongside you can also help when things go wrong or when progress is slow, sometimes just small adjustments can make all the difference in training.
Written by Naomi White