ClickerSolutions Training Treasures

Retraining Manic Alert Barking

In this post, I'm responding to a person whose service dog sometimes alert barks at people walking by the car, etc, and becomes very focused on continuing the behavior. The owner tried positive punishment by spraying the dog in the mouth with Binaca. It did not stop the behavior.

One listmember then suggested a hands-on approach, where the muzzle of the dog is held gently closed while coercing eye contact and using a verbal punisher to attempt to extinguish the behavior.

I too have tried suppressing behavior in these ways, in times before I came to clicker training, had no success with them on a particular type of dog who displays focused alert or excitement barking. There are some dogs who just get so focused, that anything ADDED is only reinforcing the behavior, and can actually work to strengthen the behavior you're trying to extinguish.

I want to admit here that before I came to operant training, I helped make this behavior stronger and stronger in my feisty, bold Pap. The more punishers I added when he was stressing--and yes, even excitment can be considered a type of stress--the worse he got. I bonked. I sprayed. I citronella collared. I held the mouth shut. I tried every single suppressive technique presented to me, and still--still the behavior got stronger. I'd finally met a dog I couldn't coerce or force to change, and I was at my wits end.

For this type of dog, a positive reinforcement approach can be extremely effective. Instead of focusing on what you don't want, you shape what you DO want and strongly reinforce it.

So the first thing I did was teach an interruption cue that signaled "cease whatever you're doing and run to mom fast, because something really, really good will happen." I chose to teach the word "thank you" as my cue word.

First, I found the strongest motivators for my particular dog. I needed something really high-powered, something he would want more than he wanted to alert or excitment bark. It took Grueyere cheese and nuked garlic turkey.

I shaped the cue word so that each time he heard "thank you" he'd stop what he was doing and run to me for a really good treat, and a chance to play 20 seconds of tug or some other favored interactive game. I taught this first without the distraction, then slowly added distractors. (people walking by the house, people ringing the doorbell, etc.)

I shaped it in the house, outside the house, and on the road in many new environments. I wanted the cue to be really generalized, and I continously upped the criterion, so that we kept adding more and more heavy "triggers" to the behavior I was targeting.

I'd be proactive in looking for things I suspected would set him off. Like the other dog, Peek reacted to people getting out of cars, and about a hundred other things at the time. I'd try to catch his attention just before the trigger was tripped, and keep the attention and focus on me, while still allowing the dog to see the object triggering the barking behaivior from his peripheral vision.

I took him out a bit hungry, and kept up with really sumptuous, highly coveted treats.

Once I had the word "thank you" on cue, and generalized in new environments, I began to really add triggers more in abundance. I'd established a new response to a cue, and by repitition of set ups, was able to finally keep his focus in most settings. Things like squirrels or cats running by were still problematic, so we still had more to work on.

And, during those times, I would use a physical barrier to help me. I'd move my wheelchair INTO the dogs space, so he'd have to break his focus and give me attention. I kept moving into his space slowly, and rapidly reinforcing, and soon the trigger moment had passed and we could continue on.

At home, I did more set ups. Had people come to the door, ring the bell. Had people run by the window carring animals in their arms. Etc. With set ups, I could be more proactive and actually catch him just before he was set off.

In the car, I had a bigger problem. This was HIS territory and he was protecting it. So I had to get very proactive there, and stop out in the parking lot far away from other cars, where he could SEE things happening from a distance, but not close enough that it would trigger a reaction.

Slowly I built up response to the interruptor cue word, and moved a lane closer to the action. When we finally got in the busy part of the parking lot, I spent at least 15 minutes still inside the car each time, just reinforcing what I DID want. When he barked, I licked my lips, mmmmmmm'd and ate the chicken. The moment he quieted down, looked to me, I clicked and gave him the chicken.

Each time he looked away from the window and looked at me, I clicked and gave him the chicken.

Exiting the car, I spent at least another 15 minutes each time having him remain quiet while people passed, and reinforcing strongly just before they got to his trigger range. I kept reinforcing what I wanted, strongly.

It worked. It was a lot of work, but it worked. The behavior is far from being extinct, and the propensity for it is still there. If I let my guard down, it would start up again, most likely because I cannot extinguish it completely when it is randomly reinforced by my husband who allows it when he walks the dogs.

But, when Peek is on leash, when he's with me, he no longer exhibits the behavior. And that's enough for me. At home, when I'm there, he may begin to alert bark, but a cued "thank you" has him running to me each time, immediatly breaking the chain, something I could never have done when we started.

He was SO focused it was obsessive. He'd shake, quiver all over. Muscles straining, lips tightly pulled back, eyes bulging. It never ceases to amaze me that giving that cue word actually works to break the cycle of that obsessive behavior. It works because I taught it systematically, and diligently taught it in every possible environment, under as many different conditions as possible.

It now even works in parks, when squirrels or cats are running by. I have established the same routine in my other very highly reactive and alert Paps, and it has also worked with them. I no longer need to add punishers to get the behaviors I want, and this has been very liberating for me, since I couldn't always have a punisher handy, anyway. But I always have my voice handy to issue a cue. Not a command, not a verbal correction, but a cue, given as neutrally as possible.

Debi Davis
copyright 2000 Debi Davis


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