Desensitization, counter-conditioning can help curb excessive barking - DVM
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Desensitization, counter-conditioning can help curb excessive barking


A calm, relaxed response and a positive outcome must be achieved before progressing. The goal is to achieve both the desired behavior (response substitution) and an emotional and physiological response that is calm and positive (counter-conditioning). The response of the owner will influence the outcome either positively or negatively. Owners should be consistent and calm in trying to settle the dog during exposure exercises as anger, anxiety, threats and punishment will enhance the dog's anxiety.

The owner also should be taught to reinforce desirable responses and not those that are undesirable. The response of the stimulus will also influence the outcome either positively or negatively. This means that the stimulus must be carefully selected and well controlled so it does not enhance fear or anxiety. If the stimulus retreats before the dog is quiet, the behavior will be further reinforced (negative reinforcement).

Punishment is not recommended because it can increase fear and anxiety or might serve as reinforcement for dogs that crave attention. Even if the barking is immediately and effectively suppressed by punishment, anxiety, owner-absent barking and other behavior problems might continue or even increase, and the barking may ultimately recur since the underlying cause has not been addressed.

Attention will also be required to reducing or avoiding the stimuli that incite the barking, at least from the outset. For example, greeting strangers might be avoided; the dog might need to be housed away from doors and windows, where it might be exposed to outdoor stimuli, or some white noise, a music CD or television set might help to mask the stimuli.

Training quiet on cue versus reinforcing quiet Depending on the type of vocalization and the household, the options might be to reduce the vocalization by reinforcing quiet behavior or to be able to stop the vocalization on cue. To reinforce quiet behavior, it is necessary to first achieve quiet behavior and then to reinforce, while avoiding any, and all, reinforcement for vocalization.

Waiting until the dog is settled and quiet is perhaps the most practical way to achieve quiet. Providing an enriching and predictable home environment that serves to calm and distract the dog also can help ensure quiet behavior.

Using a bark-activated device (citronella spray collar or bark-activated alarm), quiet behavior might be achieved more quickly, but the owner should be present to reinforce the desired response.

For a bark-activated device to be effective, it must interrupt the barking immediately, must be sensitive enough to detect vocalization and specific enough that it is not activated by extraneous stimuli. Bark-activated products either can be placed in an area (front hall, cage, etc.) or mounted on a collar. Audible and ultrasonic devices are seldom sensitive, specific or noxious enough to be effective. Bark-activated spray collars have been shown to be effective especially when combined with owner supervision and training. In one study, owner satisfaction with a citronella spray collar was 89 percent compared to 44 percent with electronic shock collars. In a study of dogs admitted to veterinary hospitals, the citronella collar was effective at stopping or reducing barking in 78 percent of dogs while a scentless version of the collar was effective in 57 percent of the dogs.

Some barking, such as territorial and alarm barking to novel stimuli, cannot be inhibited entirely. In these cases, training the dog to quiet on cue might be the most practical option. Using eye contact, food-lure, a head halter or disruptive device such as an audible alarm or citronella spray, the desirable behavior can be achieved, reinforced and then put on cue or command. Shock products and debarking surgery might be a consideration when there is no other practical option and the dog may otherwise have to be relinquished; however, even these techniques are likely to be unsuccessful without appropriate accompanying behavior modification.

Treatment of barking problems requires an accurate diagnosis and attention to the underlying cause. Prognosis will vary with the diagnosis and owner expectations. Barking might be prevented, reduced or resolved by avoiding exposure to the stimulus and by modifying the dog's response to the stimulus with desensitization and counter-conditioning.

Dr. Hoskins is owner of DocuTech Services. He is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine with specialities in small animal pediatrics. He can be reached at (225) 955-3252, fax: (214) 242-2200, or e-mail:


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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