Managing Excessive Barking

In my last post, I commented that I was concerned by Lackey’s barking during training and that I intended to address that in an upcoming post, but I didn’t get into specifics. In the intervening weeks, I have shot and analyzed a lot of my own training videos, as well as studying and synthesizing a number of resources on the topic from other trainers. I was able to identify four different types of barking during training (other types of barking, such as alarm barking or barking in a crate are beyond the scope of this post, but stay tuned):

  • Barking during setup
  • Barking when the criteria were not met and he did not get reinforced
  • Barking after he got reinforced
  • Barking during the behavior

If you go back and look at the videos in the post I linked to above, you can see a lot of barking after he got reinforced in the first video. You can see a lot of barking when the criteria were not met and he didn’t get reinforced in the second video in that post. The other types of barking are ones I’ve identified since, so I’ll add videos below that show them.  I decided that each of these had a different root cause and needed to be addressed separately.

Barking During Setup

I think the cause of this type of barking is pretty simple—he’s not yet ready to work. In the video below, I have already started testing some of my theories on the causes of the different types of barking, which I’ll talk about further later in the post. To reduce this type of barking, I start by warming up more thoroughly, with a toy. I pay close attention to how eager he is or is not to bring the toy back to me when I throw it or let him have it. I only start actual training when he is clearly more interested in engaging with me than playing with the toy.

The next thing I do is I make my “ready” cue a real question. If he’s not ready, he barks, and there’s no point in continuing. Sometimes he will also bark on the first step of heeling, and that is also a cue from him to me that he is not ready. I’m going to digress and talk a bit about behavior chains and the theory behind why I think this works.

In a nutshell, a behavior chain is a sequence of behaviors where each behavior is considered to be reinforcing the one before it, and the final behavior is the one that gets the actual reinforcer, whether that’s food, a toy, or a scratch under the chin. If you haven’t used them a lot, it can be hard to intuitively understand how they work, so let’s imagine a scenario where you just got hired for a new job. At the end of every day, you will be told if your work was good. If so, you will be invited back the next day. If you make it two weeks, you get paid. If not, you get nothing.

In this scenario, if you’re going to mess up, it makes sense to do it on the first day, right? That way, neither you or your employer has too much skin in the game. If you make it to one week and four days, that’s really disappointing for everyone concerned. Your boss might even be tempted to pay you anyway, even though you made your worst mistake right before payday. If the main way your boss tells you you’re doing right is by paying you, the information you’re getting won’t be accurate, and you’ll disappoint him again. I’ve left out a lot of details about how behavior chains work and are taught (you can click the link above to find out more), but this is intuitively how I think about them, and it’s why I’m very protective of the ends of my chains and I’m extremely willing to “throw away” the beginning of a chain.

So when my dog tells me in the setup or the very first behavior of a chain that it’s no good, it’s “cheaper” to discard the chain right then, rather than continue, knowing that I’m reinforcing that wrong behavior by continuing and there’s a high chance there will be another mistake later in the chain and I’ll have to abandon it anyway. This is almost the reverse of a start button behavior—a stop button behavior, maybe.

We did an entire session of setting up, abandoning on bark, setting up, abandoning on bark, etc., until we finally got consistently clean starts. Unfortunately, that session did not get recorded. So here’s this one that was recorded before it, which has barking during setup:

Barking when the criteria were not met and he did not get reinforced

Honestly, I think it’s completely fair for him to bark in this situation. He has experienced more than his fair share of unfair criteria in his life, because when he was young my goal in his training sessions was often to push him as hard as I could so he would be tired enough to sleep when I was trying to work. I don’t mind pushing him because I know he will often push through with shining colors, but if he’s having a lot of trouble it’s my responsibility to go back and figure out where the gap is.

Barking after he got reinforced

You can see this behavior in the first video in my Drop on Recall post, and at around the 2-minute mark in the video above. I believe there are three reasons this happens. One is that he’s not satisfied with the reward (he doesn’t think he got “paid” enough for the effort), another is that it’s really a barking while setting up (he doesn’t feel ready to start again), and, finally, he perceives it as a punishment that I am asking him to give up the toy.

In the above video, you can see that I am tugging longer with him, and I am letting him drag me around a lot more. What I’m looking for is for him to start letting me drag him more, or even for him to push the toy at me. But even with that, we still are getting barking after tugging when I go to put up the toy after asking for it back. I think in part this is because I used to pay him something like 90% for outing the toy. At some point, his “give” became super-reliable, and I stopped reinforcing at a high rate, almost without being aware of it. Because I didn’t do it mindfully, I don’t think I did it gradually enough. So around the 3:20 minute in the above video, when I ask him to “give,” I praise him to reassure him that I’m not asking him to give up the toy because he bit me while grabbing for the toy or something like that.

Barking During the Behavior

In the video below, other than one bark after reinforcement, the only barking we get is barking during the behavior. The first time it happens is the finish at the end of a recall. I decide to reinforce anyway with tactile reinforcement (more on that later), but concentrate on getting a clean finish without barking. We’ve been getting a lot of barking on finish lately, which may be because we’ve done a lot of finish-heavy Rally courses lately.

Ideally, I would have done several finishes in both directions before doing any recalls, or I would have rewarded the recalls with no finish, rather than risking ending the chain with a bad version of a behavior and risk the entire chain. That’s something I need to keep in mind for the future. In this video, I was trying to keep what we were working on close to what we were doing in the other videos so I could better see the effect of the things I was trying, so I might give myself a pass on the mistake.

General Thoughts

In general, I find I get way less barking if I use tactile reinforcement (petting, with or without praise). This kind of surprised me, even though I have been trying to incorporate it more and more. I feel I have to fight an implicit assumption that tactile reinforcement is less valuable to a dog than what we tend to think of as “primary reinforcers,” food and toys. Hence the decision to “only” reward with tactile feedback when he barked.

I am pretty sure that when I get it right, tactile reinforcement is pretty high value for Lackey. I don’t think it’s as general-purpose as food or toys and there is a risk of failing to reinforce if I don’t get the feedback right, but I think it would be a mistake to treat it as second-class. Yet I have a hard time doing anything else.

Another general takeaway is I think it lowers Lackey’s stress in general to give more choice and control about training. I think a lot of people might look at the second video above and see a really inattentive dog during the first 30 seconds of the video. But I saw a dog who was enjoying smelling the breeze on a lovely day, and I certainly can afford 30 seconds to let him take that in. Maybe I’ll wind up regretting that later, but I certainly don’t regret it today!

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