Shouting Does Not Modify Behaviour

I can’t believe I’ve actually just typed that, but after last week I feel that it needs saying – and sharing!

I was on leave last week, and with the weather the way it was, any time I spent at home all the windows were wide open.  Early in the week, a neighbour was having some work done on their house; and during the first day I heard one of the workers shout at Starr.  She’d been barking at all the strange, new noises the workers were making, and while it was a little annoying, as far as she was concerned she had good reason to be anxious and try to make the scary stuff go away and/or alert me.

That’s why, when I first heard her being shouted at to “shut up”, I responded in kind and shouted back “don’t shout at my dog”.  Aside from the fact that it’s not the job of a complete stranger to attempt to change my dog’s behaviour, it certainly is not up to anyone else but me how their behaviour will be modified; not to mention that with that one action the worker showed how little he knows about dogs and behaviour modification (yes – I know – pot/kettle!)

‘Shout!!!’ by Maciek Łempicki

The next day, when a similar thing occurred, I was otherwise occupied attempting to make pizza dough (and failing horribly!), once I’d washed my hands and had moved on to other – less involved – tasks, I kept an ear out for the man coming to get tools out of his van.  That was the problem today – he was to-ing and fro-ing between his van and his work, and every time he slid open the door to his van, that set Starr on edge and she would bark until he went away again.

This time, I did better – for Starr, for the workers, and for myself.  The next time I heard someone at the van, I went and spoke to him.  It turned out that I’d missed a second worker arriving, and it was actually him I spoke to – but I asked him to pass the message on, that shouting at my dog was doing her no favours; she was barking because the strange noises outside made her nervous, and the best way for them to help me help her was to ignore her and not respond in kind to her frantic shouting.

This did the trick, and while they unsettled Starr as they continued to work, they didn’t shout at her any more.


However, I can’t help but find it sad that in general people think shouting will stop or change a behaviour.

Here’s the deal: it won’t, at least not permanently.  If you’re lucky, you might come across as so terribly, horribly, scary that whoever you’re shouting at doesn’t want to be anywhere near you, and will just do nothing whenever you’re around.  More likely, however is that (to stick with the example), the dog will think you’re joining in – either on their side, or against them.  Whatever the reason the dog is barking is now secondary to the support or opposition the dog is barking along to.

As a stranger, it’s never your job to modify a dogs behaviour – unless you’re being paid as a professional to do so, in which case you wouldn’t be a stranger.  As an owner, it’s generally up to you to find out why your dog is barking, and mitigate that in an appropriate way, unless you’ve employed a professional to help you.

In our house, we use classical conditioning: scary noise outside = yummy treat.  We also have cues: a cue to bark, and one to stop.  These have worked wonderfully for Inka, and while he still barks at some things, he’s generally pretty cool with external noises, or being quiet when he’s asked to be.  Starr, on the other hand, isn’t doing so well with these, but that’s part of the story of why I’m considering behavioural drugs for her, which is an entirely different post!

How do you deal with excessive barking in your house?



10 thoughts on “Shouting Does Not Modify Behaviour

  1. Was reading a dog training book from the 1800’s that had an interesting/humorous POV. It said you shouldn’t shout at your dog because none of the people hunting next to you want to listen to you bellowing at your dog while trying to take a shot.
    Your post oddly reminded me of that book. I think we forget that when we yell, it’s not just the dog that notices or has to cringe at the behaviour.

  2. Hmmm, a familiar problem in our house but my approach depends on what type of barking it is and what tends to trigger it. Interestingly, the type of barking seems to be correlated to my success in reducing it. Here goes:

    1. Alarm barking – there is someone at the front door. Or there might be someone at the door. This is usually resolved by keeping dogs behind a baby gate and opening the door so they can see – if no-one is there, they stop barking almost immediately. Works well. If someone is there we move to:

    2. Excitement barking – we are desperate to say hallo. Assuming it is someone who is coming to visit, we have found the most effective method of managing excitement and reducing noise is to ask the dogs to “go find a toy” – both dogs and toy box are behind the baby gate, so they are not allowed access to visitors until they have a toy in their mouths. This gives them something to do (going to bed / sit did not work), and when their mouths are full of toy, they can’t bark. We do this day in, day out when my nephew who is living me currently comes home from work, and it has been by far and away the most effective way of reducing the noise and excitement levels. Moderate to good levels of success.

    3. General -we have heard a noise (somewhere) barking – much harder to manage as particularly with the older dog, he can carry on grumbling and yipping when there is no discernible (on my part – I am sure there is on his part) reason for doing so – not all the time – it’s random. Work in progress, but we have regular TTouch sessions which do seem to help with overall levels of calm (on a good day). I have also spent some not inconsiderable time on “speak” and “shush” with only limited levels of success, although if I get a clicker out, this is considerably more effective (not always convenient to stop what I’m doing and start clicking, but useful as a means of distraction / refocus when appropriate).

    4. Alarm / excitement barking in the garden – the neighbours have come home from work and we want to say hallo and / or, there is something happening we didn’t expect – luckily our neighbours are tolerant and are happy to say hallo through the fence – once this has happened, the barking stops, and the neighbours can come and go as they please for hours without being further disturbed. Any other responses to unexpected outside noise – I rely on management / treats for recall and have recently changed layout of the garden using an old puppy pen, so I can screen off the length of the garden (to prevent fence running and barking) and the dogs are restricted to the patio if necessary so I can quickly call them in for a treat, and or bring them inside if they are being persistent. More or less successful as long as I get there fast enough, but I do not leave them outside alone without supervision, or at least me being in the kitchen with the door open. Easier to catch it before it starts and before they have had time to get over-excited!

    In general I find 1,2 and 4 much easier to manage. 3 is most definitely work in progress. Interestingly, they do not bark when left alone (neighbour check) and are generally less reactive to noise if I leave them at home with my nephew, so clearly there is something I have done in the past (answers on a postcard pls) which they have found reinforcing in relation to 3. Or perhaps they just enjoy a jolly good bark from time to time….

    • You have some great ways of dealing with barking Helen 🙂 A lot of the barking in my house is “there’s a noise”, but also with a bit of added “OMD it’s coming to get me!!”, which is tending to reduce active learning on Starr’s part (but if I “butt in”, she’s sort-of OK)

      • Maybe there’s a new post for you here (after summer break) about the effects of arousal on training and learning scenarios. It’s the classic one for me – I know that if everyone has got over-excited there is no chance of getting them to learn anything, and little of chance of getting them to listen. I tend to try and keep things generally calm (I’ve got Springers ….) and as you say, butting in / distracting before it starts or ASAP after it has started is more effective than trying to do anything other than offer treats for the slightest inclination to sshh / stop bouncing around etc etc once they’ve got going. But hey, that’s Springers for you 🙂

  3. I’d love to learn more about the cues you use to stop barking. We adopted a dog three weeks ago, and he’s very good and very not-barky. However, this week he’s barked a bit as we’re going to bed or before we wake up in the morning. It is not problem barking by any means, and it could just be a reaction to something he hears outside–which is legitimate. Our technique right now is to ignore the behaviour, as I’m concerned that reacting will encourage him to repeat it. However, I would like to be prepared to correct it, if he does become more “barky.” Thank you in advance.

    • Firstly, there’s no way to ‘correct’ behaviour – dogs don’t understand the spoken word unless you teach them exactly what each word means (like teaching “sit”, “down”, and so on), so you can use whatever cues you want – I keep threatening to one day have a dog that will sit when asked to “grapefruit” 🙂

      All that means really, is that you can use whatever cues you want, and there are two options here – one is to train a reliable release cue i.e. do behaviour X until I say “all done”, or “that’ll do”, or some other specific cue that means “you can stop doing that now if you want” (the idea being the don’t *have* to stop, but they know there are no more rewards forthcoming).

      However, I didn’t have much of a release cue until I trained Crate Games with Inka, much later than teaching him to bark and be quiet.

      Firstly, you need to teach your dog to bark on cue (it sounds crazy, but trust me!); I use progressive reinforcement and a clicker for a marker to train my dogs, so I would wait for Inka to bark, then click and give him a small, tasty treat. After a few single barks and a bit of confusion, he realised that he was being marked and rewarded for barking, so after the first reward he would bark again. Shortly after that, I added in the cue I wanted to use before I marked his response. Once I thought he’d know the cue, I said “shout” and marked and rewarded him for barking.
      Once he was responding to his cue first time, every time I simply added in the cue I wanted to use to have him stop barking when he’d stopped (whether it was luck or an accident, I’d taught him to bark once, and only once – so I knew he was going to stop), I think I maybe used “enough”, but I use his release cue now so I’ve forgotten (he probably hasn’t though!), anyway – this time I’d cue him to bark, then mark and reward him for stopping, as well as marking & rewarding “normal” barking, then I just added in the cue as above, and when I knew he was ready I began using it in real life 🙂

      • Thanks for your detailed reply, Sam (and for the follow on my blog). We already have a (pretty) reliable release cue that we use for letting him know when he’s done with a sit or a stay or when we’re entering the house. I’m not sure that entirely matches up with your description of “don’t *have* to stop” doing the behaviour. I’d never thought of using it for unwanted behaviour. I guess I’m so accustomed to the old style of dog training of saying “No” when your dog does something you don’t want him to do. This is my first dog, so I don’t have training experience, and I appreciate you sharing yours.

      • Hmm, I think I confused myself! When I’m training, I might ask for a sit-stay, and then release my dog after whatever the duration was, but in that scenario, they don’t *have* get get off their fuzzy little butt and move about – they can keep sitting for as long as they want, or until I ask them for something else.

        This is a different scenario than using the release cue for an active behaviour – being allowed through a door, out of the car, Crate Games, and stopping barking.

        Well, at least my dogs know what they’re doing! lol

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