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If you’re out for a walk and your dog or puppy starts barking at people, it’s easy to freeze and feel embarrassed. Barking is a natural behavior for dogs, but we don’t want to encourage our dogs to bark at people.
Dogs bark at people for a variety of different reasons including because the dog is excited, frustrated that they can’t greet the person, or even worried or uncomfortable about the person’s presence. Location is also important. Is your dog in your front yard barking at people walking past? Your dog may feel protective of his home, this will be particularly true for breeds that historically worked as guardian dogs. Similarly, these breeds may be inclined to bark to warn people to stay away. Regardless of why your dog is barking at people, there are games you can play to help your dog or puppy learn to ignore people.
Staying Below Threshold
Regardless of why your dog barks at people, the key to shifting the behavior is to keep your dog “below threshold” whenever possible. Meaning, you want to set your dog up for success by working with her at a distance where she sees people but is still able to turn away from the distraction and engage with you instead of barking. As she gains confidence and understanding that you want her to engage with you instead of barking you can slowly build up to being closer and closer to people.
Fun Focus Games
For each of these games, it’s important to start in a calm and quiet area like inside your home or yard. The more familiar and confident with the game your dog or puppy becomes you can start to bring it to more distracting environments. For each game, you will need many small pieces of high-value treats. As you play these games make sure your leash stays loose. We want the dogs to be making their own decision and not being pressured or corrected by the leash to get into position.
For this game, we are building value in our dog’s name so that in the future if you are outside and see a person you can say your dog’s name and have her look at you instead of starting to bark.
- In a quiet area say your dog’s name and give a treat.
- Repeat this several times.
- Because you are pairing your dog’s name with treats, she will make a positive association and as your dog gets experienced with the game, she will hear her name and immediately turn towards you for the reward.
- Slowly begin to play in slightly more distracting environments like on your front porch setback from the street. Start first when no one is out (early morning and late at night are good for this). As your dog gets more experienced with the game you can also add distance by lengthening your leash.
Similar to the name game but this time we want to reward our dog anytime they are offering us eye contact and build value for our dog in looking at us and choosing to offer that behavior.
- Have treats easily available and anytime your dog offers a look in your direction praise and treat (a clicker can help with being able to quickly “mark” looking up at you).
- After several repetitions, your dog will begin to make the connection that looking at you gets treats.
- As your dog gets more familiar you can add in a verbal cue like “watch” or “eyes” as your dog looks at you.
- Work this game in a low distraction environment and build up to more distracting areas.
Play this game off-leash in your house or fenced yard, or on a leash outside. Start first in a very low distraction area before building up to more distracting situations like trying to play the game in a park.
- Start walking without saying anything to your dog but make sure the leash stays loose.
- Anytime your dog catches up to you, praise and treat.
- Step forward again and when your dog catches up to you, praise and treat.
- As your dog gets an understanding of the game, vary your pace and add in turns.
- Keep your voice high-pitched and excited as you praise and treat. We are rewarding our dog for choosing to get close to us.
Watch & Walk!
For this game, we are going to be looking for a prolonged watch as you and your dog are walking
- Ask your dog to watch when you are walking and when they do, praise and treat.
- If your dog keeps watching, continue praising and giving small bits of treats for as long as your dog keeps her focus on you.
- When your dog looks away, don’t say anything but the treats stop.
- Take another few steps, ask for a watch again, and continue to rapidly treat as your dog holds her eyes on you. Soon your dog will make the connection that focusing on you in motion means treats and he will offer attention.
- Work this game in a low-distraction environment before moving to areas where you will see people at a distance and build up slowly moving closer to people until your dog is able to walk past people watching you and not barking.
The key to each of these focus games is your dog making the choice to turn away from or ignore the person walking down the street, the kid riding a bicycle, or your neighbor garden in his front yard. If your dog starts barking, that’s OK. Just move a little further away until you can get your dog’s attention back. These games are useful in the real world to encourage your dog not to bark at people, but also can help you and your dog develop the focus and teamwork you’ll need for sports training. I like to use these games to introduce my dogs to the concept of heeling. You can refine your dog’s heel position later but walking with attention on you is the foundation you’ll need for the heeling components of Obedience and Rally.
If your dog is uncertain or uncomfortable about people, it’s always ok to tell people who ask to pet your dog “no”, that your dog is shy, or that you are training. Remember dogs have individual personalities and in addition, some breeds of dogs are naturally more aloof. The training goal should be for every dog to learn to appropriately ignore people when out walking, but not every dog will be enthusiastic to greet strangers and that’s ok. If you are struggling to teach your dog not to bark at people it’s always OK to seek out expert support from a positive reinforcement-based dog trainer. A trainer will be able to support you in identifying and working through your dog’s underlying feelings about people that lead to the barking.