Desensitization, counter-conditioning can help curb excessive barking

Desensitization, counter-conditioning can help curb excessive barking

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Jun 01, 2005

Q.How does one control barking in dogs?

A. Dr. Gary Landsberg at the 77th Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas gave a lecture on tips for controlling barking.

Although vocalization in dogs is a component of normal communication, it may be problematic for the owner when it is uncontrollable, excessive or at inappropriate times of the day or night. If sufficiently disruptive to the household or neighbors, the owners might be under pressure to resolve the problem or relinquish the dog. First, it will be necessary to determine when, where and why the dog is vocalizing, the impact on the dog's health and well-being, and why it has become problematic for the owners, in order to design a treatment program that can deal with both the needs of the dog and the family. Unfortunately, depending on the owner's expectations and the limitations that might be achieved with a particular dog in a particular environment, the prognosis can be guarded in some cases.

Diagnosis In each case, medical factors should first be considered. For excessive or nighttime vocalization, a decline in cognitive or sensory function, pain and other disease states might be factors. These medical problems might cause or contribute to heightened anxiety or restlessness, altered responsiveness to stimuli, untimely vocalization (e.g., night waking) or vocalization that out of context, intense or hard to interrupt.

There also might be a genetic predisposition to certain types of vocalization. Dog breeds that are bred as watchdogs and those with high working drive can be more likely to display vocalization that is excessive or difficult to control. Consequences including retreat of the stimulus and owner reinforcement in an attempt to quiet the dog may aggravate the problem further. Variable or intermittent reinforcement intensifies the problem and makes it more resistant to extinction.

In addition to medical assessment, a comprehensive history is required that may be accompanied if possible by a video to determine the situations and stimuli that incite the problem, the owner's response to the behavior, and how it has progressed from the first event to the present. In addition, the home environment, daily schedule, level and type training, relationships with other pets and family members, the dog's personality and other concurrent behavior problems all can be important considerations when determining the diagnosis and prognosis and selecting an appropriate treatment program.

Treatment Behavior modification should be aimed at resolving the underlying cause and modifying the dog's response to the stimulus by reinforcing desirable behavior and removing factors that might be reinforcing or aggravating the vocalization problem. Products that disrupt or stop vocalization are useful for achieving the desired response so reinforcement-based retraining can be implemented more quickly and practically. Preventing or reducing exposure to the stimulus might be another practical option. For medical problems, such as cognitive dysfunction and painful conditions, drug therapy might be indicated. Drugs also may be useful in the treatment of compulsive disorders, anxiety disorders and phobias.

Desensitization and counter-conditioning will be needed to resolve anxiety associated with the stimulus. This requires that stimuli are identified that might lead to anxiety so that a means for controlling the stimuli and reproducing them along an intensity gradient can be designed. In the interim, exposure should be avoided. In order to achieve a relaxed and positive response during exposure to a stimulus, the dog first should be trained to settle and relax in the absence of the stimulus.

The owners will need to be instructed on how to use favored rewards and shaping to achieve a calm response on cue. Depending on where and when the barking is likely to arise, one or all of the settled behaviors should be trained (i.e., sit, down, heel and go to your bed). By watching the dog's body postures, facial expressions and breathing, it should be possible to shape and reinforce gradually more relaxed responses. Training can then move to more distracting environments and gradually more intense stimuli.

A variety of techniques and training aids can help the owners achieve the settle response more quickly and reliably. A head halter can help guide the dog into position and may also serve to distract the dog, turn the dog from the stimulus and achieve eye contact during exposure exercises. A release on the head halter indicates to the dog that the desired behavior has been achieved. Physical exercises, clicker training and target training also can be considered.

Once a calm, settled response can be achieved on cue, the training should progress, in the absence of distractions to areas where the stimulus exposure would normally occur. Over time, distractions can be increased, and controlled exposure to the stimulus can begin.