Helping a Fearful Dog Get Over His Habit of Barking at Strangers

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 29, 2020

Rowdy AB scaled - Helping a Fearful Dog Get Over His Habit of Barking at Strangers

For this Omaha dog training session we worked with 5 year-old Black Lab Rowdy, a dog who is terrified of new people, using some counterconditioning to stop his barking behavior.

Knowing that Rowdy had an intense fear of meeting new people, I used a positive reinforcement based greeting that worked wonderfully. Rowdy didn’t bark once which accoring to his guardian was a big difference from his normal fearfully barking behavior when meeting new people.

We started off the session by sharing a number of dog behavior tips to help with exercise (doggy stairmaster, feeding out of a snuffle matt or Omega Treat Ball, etc), how to teach a dog to stay calm when people return home, how to train a dog to get off the couch and several other dog behavior tips.

While we were talking, Rowdy osiclated between pacing, sitting or laying down and standing up to stare or bark. I could see he was an anxious dog from the jittery movements that are a tell tale sign of cortisol in the dog’s blood.

Anytime you have a fearful dog, one of the best things you can do is give it space. Laura and I avoided all the common mistakes people make with scared dogs; we gave him space, avoided direct eye contact, didn’t try to pet him and waited for him to come to us. Laura helped things along by dropping treats on the floor to encourage Rowdy to approach us and keep moving. We made sure to wait 2 seconds or more before dropping another treat as Rowdy barked. This is an important delay as anything a dog is doing when it receives attention or a reward can amplify the behavior they are trying to stop. So giving a treat within 2 seconds of a bark is a great way to promote and reward unwanted dog barking; a classic mistake.

Next we addressed the dog’s barking behavior. Rowdy barked to disagree when people arrived, moved around or stood up or at sounds he heard. Many fearful dogs develop a barking problem due to a lack of confidence and or a negative experience and I think that is the case with Rowdy. He started acting this way after staying in daycare for a week and it progressively got worse.

I made sure to go over all the common mistakes people make when their dog barks such as yelling to be quiet or punishing the dog. These all make matters worse. If they do stop the barking, they often cause other problems because they dont address the reason why the dog is barking in the first place. This is why I didnt go over the Quiet command in the session.

As a dog behaviorist, I always want to get to the root of the dog’s behavior problem instead of chasing symptoms like barking. In Rowdy’s case, he was barking to get the person or thing to go away. This is why I recommended the guardian cover the bottom of the windows facing the street so the dog doesnt think its barking made the person or animal in front of the house go away.

I like to use counterconditioning to help dogs who bark or act aggressive to things they are afriad of, dont understand or dislike. You can learn how to use counterconditioning to stop dogs from barking at things by watching the free positive dog trianing video below.

One of the great things about this trick to stop dog barking is how simple it is. Anyone can do it, even if you arent a professonal Labrador dog trainer. Many of my clients have successfully used this easy way to stop barking.

Id like for the guardian to arrange for a friend or neighbor to come by at least once a week (but more often is better) to practice this technique. Dog behavior modification is very much a numbers game. My cleints who get into a habit of doing this once or more a week get substantially better and faster results than those who do it less than once a week.

I noticed that Rowdy also barks when receieing direct eye contact so I walked the guardian through a focus exercise. This link from an old training video can help, but the guardians need to say the word right BEFORE delivering the treat. In the video, I say that the command word should be given at the same time the treat is delivered, but it needs to come before the dog gets the reward.

I also recommended the guardian practice this delayed entry exercise to stop Rowdy from jumping up on her when he is overly excited like when she comes home. Ideally she pracices this exercise 3 or more times a day as this is a serious problem due to a few health concerns. Id love to see the guardian use this approach every time she comes home for the next few months to take advantage of temperant weather so she doesnt have to wait outside in the cold when the winter arrives.

Another thing I suggested was to use a negative punishment when the dog offers unwanted behavior. A negative punishment involves immediately removing something the dog likes when it offers unwanted behavior, in this case, the human’s presence. If the guardian leaves right away, this tells the dog “that behavior causes me to leave.” When applied in conjunction with petting with a purpose and celebrating desired behaviors, the dog starts to sit or lay down to ask for attention instead of jumping up.

Since Rowdy barks at the neighbor dog when it comes into its back yard, taking the dogs for a walk together may help. You want to build up positive assocations when dealing with an anxious dog and repeated interactions or activities. This way, Rowdy sees the dog as a familiar with and a companion he shares a fun activity with.

To help the guardian remember all the positve dog behavior tips we shared in this in home Omaha dog training session, we filmed a roadmap to success video that you can check out below.

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This post was written by: David Codr