©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC
“If your dog seems to be barking at nothing…”
Barking is a completely natural behavior for dogs, but humans don’t always appreciate it. What many people don’t know is that the act of barking can be a self-rewarding behavior for dogs – thus we need to get it under control as it typically only gets worse. In your dog’s mind, however, there’s a good reason to bark so the first thing to do is figure out why she wants to bark in your back lawn. It’s always best to find the root cause, if possible (e.g., neighbor’s dog, loud construction noises, etc.), and manage that.
Does she bark at every movement she sees and sound she hears when you let her out in the back lawn and there doesn’t seem to be a single manageable cause? Here are 8 ways to address that behavior:
Keep her indoors rather than leaving her outside all day. I’m not a big fan of leaving dogs outside for extended periods for a number of reasons - chronic barking is just one of them. She won’t bark at what she does not see or hear. Play some music, television or radio, loud enough to cover outside noises. Get her crate trained if necessary. Ask a dog training professional for help if your dog needs to be crate trained.
If there are holes in your fence that she finds too irresistible, block them. If you have a chain-link or wrought-iron fence, change the fence so that your dog can’t see through it or, at the least, create a section that blocks her view and confine her in it when she is outside.
Safely tether your dog on a 10-15’ long-line while she is in the back lawn. Only tether your dog while you are present in the back lawn. Spend time with her out in the back lawn and reward her with tasty training treats when she is quiet – completely ignore her when she is barking (don’t look, don’t touch, don’t talk). Over time she should generalize this behavior to all of the back lawn and not just when she is tethered. Continue to reinforce her for not barking – even once she is off the tether.
If your dog seems to be barking at nothing, she’s likely bored - you may be leaving her in the back lawn for too long. Boredom, due to lack of exercise and mental stimulation, is probably the biggest reason for excessive barking. Think honestly about whether your dog is getting enough mental and physical exercise. There are many dog toys that are stimulating and appropriate for the back lawn – ask a dog trainer for suggestions.
A young, energetic dog craves lots of exercise and attention from you and with you. Thirty minutes to an hour of exercise (e.g., a structured walk) in the morning will go a long way toward helping your dog settle down and lessen barking.
Food puzzle toys and hollow rubber toys that can be stuffed with treats or kibble are great entertainment for dogs. They give your dog something fun to do while she is in the back lawn. It’s okay, even desirable, if she gets most of her meals this way. Ask a knowledgeable dog behavior consultant for suggestions on appropriate puzzle toys and food toys.
Does your dog bark for attention in the back lawn - or even inside the house? This is known as attention barking or demand barking. You can tell she’s doing this because she’ll be looking at you when she’s barking. Don’t give her any attention when she does this (don’t look, don’t touch, don’t talk). None at all. Even stern reprimands count as attention. She has no idea what “quiet” means if this cue hasn’t been taught to her; yelling “quiet” will only make it worse. She’ll think you’re joining in the barking game and she’ll also have been successful in commanding your attention. Reward her with your attention when she’s calm and not barking and ignore her when she demand barks to get her out of the demand barking habit.
Teach a cue (i.e., command) for being quiet. This is a good trick to have in your dog’s bag for when she’s out in the back lawn. Have some high-value training treats ready – small and soft so they can be eaten quickly by your dog. While your dog is barking, just wait for her to stop. When she does stop, wait a second, praise, and give her a treat (you can also teach this using a clicker). Gradually increase the time she must be quiet before rewarding her. If she starts barking during this training, completely ignore her (don’t look, touch or talk) and obviously don’t give her a treat. Be patient and increase the duration very slowly. Once she seems to be understanding, add a cue word such as “hush” or “quiet” when she stops barking.
It is unreasonable to expect your dog to never bark as barking is the way dogs communicate with the world, but you can teach her some control using these techniques.