How to Stop Demand Barking

What to do if your dog barks at you to demand things, such as food.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
October 11, 2011
Episode #122

This week, a little lesson in accidental training by a Facebook fan. Katherine posted that her two Shih Tzus always bark at her while she’s eating, so she winds up feeding them whatever’s on her plate. Katherine, I can solve your problem, but you might need some earplugs, and you’ll definitely need a boatload of patience..

What Is Demand Barking?

Alas, poor Katherine has taught her dogs that if they would like some of whatever she’s having, the thing to do is to bark at her. Trainers call this demand barking. No pointing fingers at Katherine, because people accidentally teach dogs this and other nuisance behaviors all the time.

In Katherine’s case, something like this probably happened: She was eating. One or both of her dogs happened to bark – maybe to get her attention, maybe because a noise outside got them agitated. Not knowing how else to quiet them, Katherine tossed them each a bit of whatever was on her plate. Dogs learn fast, especially when a behavior comes naturally to them anyway. Two or three reps of this training scenario, and Katherine’s Shih Tzus were demand-barking champs.

So what’s Katherine to do?

Demand Barking Ends When It Stops Working

If Katherine wants the barking to stop, she needs to make sure it no longer produces food.

This is where the earplugs come in. Here’s why: The Shih Tzus have had the barking habit for a while now. Sometimes maybe Katherine feeds them right away. Sometimes she holds out for 5 minutes. Or even 10 minutes.

Consequently, the dogs never know quite how long they have to bark before the food heads their way. They’ve learned to persist. To end her dogs’ barking habit, Katherine will have to ignore it and not give them any food, no matter how long the barking lasts.

Hold Out Through the “Extinction Burst”

Wait, it gets worse. Suppose your old car sometimes takes 5 or 6 tries to start. One morning, though, you try 6 times. Then 7. Nothing. How many times do you turn that key before you accept that your car has given up the ghost? A dozen? Two dozen? That last flurry of key turns is what scientists who study learning call an “extinction burst.”

For Katherine’s Shih Tzus, barking sometimes works right away, but often it takes a while. They keep turning the key in Katherine’s ignition, and eventually she starts. The day she doesn’t start – the day when, no matter how long they bark at her, she doesn’t give up any of her food – they will throw a barkfest louder and more intense than any she has ever heard before. If she can’t stand it one more second and caves in then, her goose is cooked. Because now her dogs have learned that that’s how long and hard they have to bark. This is not a problem for them.

The good news is that extinction bursts come right before the barking dog (or ignition-key-turning person) gives up. The bad news (there’s always more bad news) is that with a really well entrenched behavior, there may be more than one extinction burst. Each burst is weaker than the one before, but maybe we should add noise-canceling headphones to those earplugs for poor Katherine.

Scolding and Punishment Probably Won’t Work

You might be wondering why I don’t recommend Katherine reprimand her dogs or punish them. For starters, attention is a reward for most dogs, even negative attention such as scolding.

As for punishment, I’d bet my consultation fee it wouldn’t stop Katherine’s dogs from barking for more than a few moments at a time. Their barking has a long history of success. You need an awfully harsh punishment to squelch a behavior that’s been paying off well for months or years. And harsh punishments have a nasty way of creating new problems of their own, such as fear or aggression directed toward the person who does the punishing – or toward whoever happens to be nearby, including the other dog. Finally, it strikes me as just a little unfair to punish the dogs for doing what their guardian taught them to do (albeit accidentally).

Can the Dogs Get What They Want a Different Way?

To make retraining her dogs easier, Katherine can offer them something fascinating to keep them busy and quiet. Since they want what’s on her plate, she might take a portion of it and stuff it into food-dispensing toys for the dogs to play with while she eats. If the dogs can get what they want from the toys, they may choose to play with them instead of barking at her. No guarantees this will work, but if it does, she’s got an end run around her problem.

Try Rewarding Moments of Quiet

Here’s another idea to try if the dogs don’t bark continuously and if Katherine has pretty quick reflexes. She can set aside some bits of food from her plate, and ignore the barking. The second one of her dogs takes a break from barking, that dog should get a piece of food as fast as she can deliver it. I’d expect the dogs to pick up the lesson within a few meals – “Aha! Barking doesn’t work anymore. Being quiet is the new way to get service at Chez Katherine.” They’re likely to slip back into old habits frequently for a while, as we all do, of course.

Now you’re thinking: But they’ll be begging from the table! Sure they will. But if they beg by being quiet and polite, and if the food Katherine shares with them doesn’t give them indigestion or make them fat, then everybody’s happy, and where’s the harm?

Send your questions and comments to dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com, and I may use them in a future article. I'm on Twitter as Dogalini, and you can also find me on Facebook, where I post links to articles and videos and respond to your questions. Thanks for reading! 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock