We received a question from a Citizen Canine reader about a dog who barks at bags and boxes. The question went like this:
I have an adorable Lhasa Apso mix who is a rescue dog, but I've had him for a few years. "Boomer" is a good dog, but whenever anyone (including us) walks into the house, he barks. If the person is holding a box or a bag, he barks a lot. It sounds like anxious barking. Is there anything we can do to get him to stop barking like this?
Sometimes, the behaviors that dogs exhibit are related to their breeds. It was interesting that you mentioned Boomer's Lhasa Apso heritage. Did you know the breed standard for this breed describes a dog who was bred as a sentinel in Buddhist monasteries to alert the monks to any intruders? Lhasas were indoor watchdogs and they can be suspicious of strangers and strange objects coming into their homes. Early socialization is important for this breed.
That said, it's never too late to work on a behavioral issue. Boomer may be a rescue, but several years later, his problems are more likely related to his history of reinforcement in his current setting.
One idea is to use systematic desensitization. This involves systematically teaching Boomer that someone entering the house is not a threat. Start with one family member who comes in the door, calls Boomer, instructs him to "sit," and gives him a treat. Only give him the treat when he is not barking. After the treat, you can pet and praise Boomer for no barking. Next, have a different family member do this.
When Boomer does not bark when family members enter, it's time to add a grocery bag or box to the program. If you put a bag or box on the floor and sit beside it, will Boomer come and take a treat or let you pet him? The idea is to teach Boomer to not bark when the bag is sitting on the floor.
When Boomer is desensitized to a box or bag sitting on the floor, pick it up, move around, and reward him for not barking.
The next step is to stand inside the door with the bag, and walk toward Boomer, praising and giving him a treat for no barking. If he should bark, back up, and revert to the previous step.
The last step is actually coming in the door with the bag or box. Boomer will soon learn that boxes, bags, and people coming to visit are okay, but it will take systematic exposure and a lot of experiences since he’s had a history of being anxious when a new person or thing enters his living room.
Teach Boomer a reliable sit-stay. Put him in a sit-stay on the far side of the room. Show him a bag, if he does not bark, put the bag down, go to Boomer and give him a treat. Repeat this process each time getting closer with the bag.
Citizen Canine trainers, do any of you have a different method you would suggest?