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Help! My dog barks at people

Having a dog who barks at people can make life very stressful, whether your dog barks at every person or whether it’s more random and ‘unpredictable’, it can make walks and outings difficult and embarrassing.

As with any problem behaviour, we must always think about WHY barking is happening. Dogs rarely bark for absolutely no reason, nor do they bark to annoy or embarrass us, they bark because they’re communicating and showing how they feel. This means, in order to improve or resolve barking problems, we first need to work out how they are feeling and what is causing them to bark.

Fear is often the underlying cause of barking behaviours towards people and there may be a few reasons for this:

  • Bad experiences – if your dog has had bad experiences around people as a puppy, or a significant scary experience later in life, it can leave lasting associations and cause your dog to feel fearful around people

  • Lack of experience – not meeting or seeing many people, especially in early puppyhood, can contribute significantly to fears around people

  • Novelty – some dogs struggle with novel experiences, either through lack of good early socialisation or due to their nature. People who appear more novel may cause a fear response, for example, people carrying a random object, someone appearing suddenly, a person wearing a hat or a fluorescent jacket

  • Predisposed nervousness – some individuals will be genetically more nervous and prone to fear issues. This can lead to a higher chance of reactive behaviours like barking at people

Understanding that your dog is barking due to fear is an important step in working towards improving their behaviour and knowing how to support them. In some cases, a dog will bark due to excitement or frustration, but we will focus on fear as this is the most common cause and the methods can easily be adapted for frustrated or excited individuals too!

Signs of Fear

It can be easy to assume your dog is not fearful when they’re barking, it can often look very bold and confident, making it harder for us to understand that the dog is feeling fearful.

However, we must remember our dogs tend to communicate in subtle signals which we are guilty of missing or ignoring, leaving our dogs no choice but to increase their communication signals to appear much bolder and more obvious.

With this in mind, you need to observe your dog closely to pick up the more subtle signs of fear, or you may need to think back to how your dog behaved towards people as a puppy.

Let’s think about a few classic signs of fear around people:

  • Shying away (avoiding people, shying away from hands, trying to move away from new people)

  • Going silly if your dog bounces back and forth in a frantic manner, you may think they're just excited, but alot of the time, the dog is trying to diffuse a stressful situation

  • Tail tucked, ears back (especially if this happens when being stroked by someone less familiar)

  • Hiding or cowering (behind you, under a chair etc.)

  • Rolling over (not a relaxed, happy belly rub roll over … look for wide eyes with the whites showing, stiff body language, tail tucked or wagging tense and fast)

  • Growling (a clearer sign of the dog being uncomfortable)

  • Barking/lunging

These may be some behaviours you saw in your dog as a puppy, they can often be mistaken for a puppy who needs more socialisation or who is just quiet and reserved. Without proper support and guidance, these are the puppies who are most likely to develop into the barking, lunging adults who are using scary signals to warn people to stay away.

What do we do?

Firstly, it helps to think about your dog’s trigger points, i.e. what situations cause them to bark. As a few examples:

  • A solo person appearing when no or very few other people are around

  • A person approaching you/your dog, talking to you, looking at your dog or trying to touch your dog

  • A person coming close to you/your dog, not to interact but simply walking close past you

  • People who appear ‘different’ in some way, for example, wearing a hat, holding an umbrella, wearing sunglasses or brightly coloured clothes

  • People talking loudly or behaving differently to others around (e.g. waving their arms, running, doing exercises etc)

Your dog may have specific triggers or they may react to wide range of people and situations. Thinking about what exactly causes them to bark is the first step to be able to manage situations better and put training in place.

We always start with management, without this, training will make no difference to your dog’s behaviour so let’s think of a few possible management strategies:

  • Have a visual sign to prevent people coming close to your dog (e.g. a jacket that says ‘I Need Space’ or ‘Nervous of People’).

  • Keep your dog on a lead or longline so you can move them away if someone starts to approach

  • In some cases, muzzle training can provide a visual signal and a safety net, it’s not necessary for all people-reactive dogs but worth considering for some dogs

  • Choose where you walk, both for the purpose of reducing your dogs triggers but also for training. Your dog may need quieter locations without the stress of seeing many people, or you may need a few busier locations where you can work through the behaviours. Open spaces can be better for giving your dog chance to see people at a distance and reduces the sudden appearance of people

  • Don’t let people interact with your dog if you see any sign of fear and also advocate for your dog

  • Read this blog for more about consent:

The Next Steps

With management in place, you can begin training and helping your dog feel more confident and relaxed around people. The goal of this training is to teach your dog to trust you to advocate for them and get them out of any scary situations, while doing this you can also start to create positive associations with people so your dog learns to feel more relaxed and less fearful.

There are a few key behaviours you can teach your dog to help them out in a variety of situations:

1. DMT (engage-disengage, mark-reward) – the idea is to pair the sight of a person with a positive reward from you. Your dog will start to build an association that the sight of a potentially scary person means they look at you for a treat

a. Consistency is key with this, lots of repetition so your dog quickly starts to anticipate a positive reward whenever they notice a person or a potentially triggering situation

b. Start at a safe distance, this training won’t work if your dog is still being triggered into barking or feeling fearful

c. Gradually progress to being closer to people or to more challenging situations but do this very slowly so your dog isn’t reacting negatively, if they do then you need to go back to easier situations again

2. Lets Go and Walk Away – for those times where people take you and your dog by surprise and appear suddenly or those people who ignore you and try to keep approaching, it really helps to have an emergency U-turn cue

a. This cue should signal for your dog to change direction and run the other way (throw a treat for them to chase!)

b. With lots of practice and repetition, this can create the perfect way to quickly get your dog out of tricky moments and show them how to move away when they’re unsure of someone

3. Eye Contact – while we want to build positive associations around people and not fully

distract the dog from seeing anyone, there are times when encouraging your dog to stay focused on you and keep eye contact can help them feel safe and avoid a reaction

a. This can be done while walking so your dog can hold eye contact with you while you walk them away from a situation or gain more distance from a person

b. It can be a good way to walk past people in closer proximity by holding your dog’s focus fully on you. This takes time to teach and still requires your dog to be feeling less fearful so it’s a progression rather than a starting point!

We recommend working with an experienced professional who can guide you through training with your dog and create a training plan specific to you and your dogs needs. It can be complicated behaviour to work through and every situation is different, so working alongside a professional is highly beneficial.

Make sure you choose a trainer who fully understands and unpicks the behaviours your dog is displaying, and works in a force-free, reward-based manner.

Throughout training, it’s vital that you support your dog and understand their limits, the goal of improving behaviour around people is never to teach your dog to make friends with lots of people or to ‘socialise’ them better. It’s all about showing your dog how to move away when they’re unsure of someone and to never feel any pressure to interact.

When your dog no longer feels pressure to interact or fearful that they might be forced to be close to someone, they should feel less need to bark and scare people away. To reduce their need to bark, you need to be one to recognise when they’re fearful so you can help them out of situations.

With good management and training in place, your dog will be able to learn to turn to you for guidance and no longer need to use their own voice to warn people away or express their feelings.

For many people-reactive dogs, they are likely to always be fearful of people and unlikely to ever learn to love everyone, they may always take a long time to get to know anyone new so expecting them to accept the friendly stranger on the street or the visitor in your house is an unlikely dream.

We have to change our own expectations and understand the behaviour from our dog’s perspective. When we start doing this, we often see our dogs make more progress and gradually gain more confidence around people because we’re no longer putting them into situations they can’t cope with, instead when we advocate for them and work with them, they’re in a much better place to gain confidence.

Written by Naomi White

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