Window Barking – Is it on your dog’s “to do” list?
One of the most common questions I am asked about dog behavior is, “What can I do about window barking?” Some may not like my response – “DON’T LET IT HAPPEN!”.
Window barking is not a productive pastime and it’s something as I say, “is NEVER on my dog’s daily to do list”. Now, before you think that my poor dogs live a deprived life unable to watch the outside world, I must tell you most days my dogs are too busy, tired, or are being calm/relaxed to even think about barking out the window. We also spend a great deal of time outside interacting with, versus watching, the outside world. They are active participants. I work hard to manage their time with more appropriate and stimulating behaviors throughout the day that use their mind, body, and nose and those appropriate behaviors are much preferred over window barking. At best, window barking is an annoying, inappropriate pastime. At worst, it can transfer over to other areas of a dog’s life from my experience meaning some dogs will take it to the street. Let’s look at why.
There are many issues with window barking. For starters – it “works”! Think about it – a dog passes your home on their walk, your dog barks, and the other dog goes away! Or better yet, how about the scary man that comes daily carrying a bag and making noise on your front porch? That’s right – the mailman. Your dog barks, the mailman goes away. As humans we know he wasn’t staying, but your dog doesn’t. When he barks and the mailman goes away, the barking behavior is actually being reinforced. This also teaches the dog how to deal with scary things or things he’s unsure of in his world – bark and they go away! It works in their world!
From my experience, window barking also can lead to frustration, leash reactivity and even more inappropriate behaviors as the dog becomes frustrated and aroused every time they see a human or another dog and can’t get to them. That reaction can become more intense over time. Also, barking and over-arousal at the mere sight or dogs or humans can keep the dog in a constant state of arousal. This is bad from both a behavior and a health standpoint as it can add stress to your dog’s life.
When a dog runs to the window in anticipation of a threat or trigger, the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain, immediately sounds the alarm and the then activates the flight or flight response and the adrenal glands prepare the body for an encounter. That stress response releases a cocktail of hormones.This cocktail of chemicals known commonly as the fight or flight system prepares for a bear in the woods or other high-stress event. The fight or flight system can keep us alive in the face of danger. A certain amount of stress is good and helps us survive and thrive especially in the face of danger. However, at the window, there is no bear. It’s just the mailman or the neighbor however the body’s system, chemical reaction, and emotional response are the same as if it were a bear.
Not only is your dog now flooded with a cocktail of hormones, but we are also finding these hormones can be addicting. Have you ever known anyone addicted to stress? Or have you seen someone after the thrill of a roller coaster ride, sky diving or another high arousal event chock full of adrenaline as they say “LET’S DO THAT AGAIN!”. It’s the same thing for dogs! Dogs can become addicted to that arousal at the window and doing it daily keeping the dog in a constant state of arousal and full of the cocktail of stress hormones. Also once we become used to that arousal and stress rush, the brain may actually seek it out much like an addiction. This can happen with window barking, fence running and now studies are showing even playing fetch! Yes – some dogs are addicted to fetch! That’s for another blog on another day.
Many dogs practice this behavior of window barking daily or worse multiple times a day. Just like humans, the more a dog does a behavior, the stronger the pathway to the brain for that behavior, and the more a habit is formed. It’s not different than you or I playing tennis – practice improves the behavior and perfects it.
Also when the fight or flight system designed for survival is repeatedly triggered by chronic stressors or arousal daily, it can become overactive and produce an exaggerated response to things in the environment. The mind and body can respond as if everything is the bear. In other words, now your dog is overreacting to a noise outside, a dog barking or a person on a walk!
So how do you handle window barking? First, if possible don’t let it start! Keep in mind creating those pathways to the brain for behaviors and how we get better at behaviors we repeat or do frequently. Make sure this behavior is not on your dog’s “to do” list…EVER! If window barking is already a habit, how can you train your dog to give it up?
- Block the view. The first step in any behavior modification program is to set your dog up for success by managing the environment and preventing him from responding in the manner he is used to. You can put a baby gate over areas with windows and passers-by. Use a crate when you can’t be there to manage your dog’s environment. Block your dog’s view by closing the blinds or putting decorative window film on the lower part of the window that can still let in light. Attractive film can be purchased at any hardware store. It let’s the light in while reducing visual stimuli for the dog.
- Replace window barking with more enriching pastimes. Keep your dog busy through more appropriate daily activities. Dogs need exercise, mental stimulation like food toys or frozen Kongs, and hunting games. By keeping your dog busy with healthy alternatives through physical and mental wellness, he won’t have the time or desire to use his energy in inappropriate ways like window barking.
- Block sounds that might trigger barking. Soothing music like harp or classical music can calm your dog and block outside noise that might cause him to be aroused. Studies show music can have a relaxing effect on dogs and can drown outside noise at the same time that might cause a dog to bark excessively.*
- Ignore the behavior. That’s right: many dogs get a LOT of human attention for barking. Often, when the dog starts barking, their human joins in and barks along with them by yelling “NO!”. Your dog just thinks you are in on the fun and drama, and it only increases the arousal! Also, studies show that just yelling “no” at your dog can increase anxiety and aggression by 15%!** It’s adding fuel to the fire! When your dog barks, try ignoring your dog, or even leaving the room immediately. Without an audience, some dogs will stop barking on their own.
- Train your dog. Training your dog basic behaviors occupies his mind, helps him look to you for direction, and provides a healthy outlet for his energy. Also, once you’ve trained an excellent recall/come, you can use it to call your dog away from the window. Many people skip the little steps in a dog’s life like training “sit” and “come”. I call these behaviors “elementary school behaviors”. If we can’t get our dog to sit, come, and exhibit basic manners in everyday life, how will we ever be able to manage our dog’s behavior when he’s aroused and barking at the window? In other words, we have to complete elementary school learning before we can move on to high school education. Learning the basics sets the tone for learning other, more advanced behaviors. Also, all dogs should have a training foundation to help them live in our world full of human rules.
- Teach your dog the “Quiet” cue. First teach your dog to bark on cue. That’s right – teach your dog to bark! We are going to put the behavior on cue so you can control it. Give your dog the cue to “speak”. Let him bark 3 times and then pop a wonderful treat in front of him as you say “quiet”. Practice this in a quiet area with no distractions. Once your dog is doing well with this new cue, then gradually add distractions like the doorbell, a knock and/or visitor. Once the dog is doing well, I also like to add some distance and another cue between the bark and “quiet” by walking into another room and asking the dog to do a behavior like sit. This will help prevent you from teaching a behavior “chain” of “I bark, I’m quiet, I get treat”.
Take window barking off your dog’s to-do list today. You will both be calmer and happier!
Carol Sumbry, ACDBC, CPDT -KA, Associated Certified Dog Behavior Consultant/Certified Professional Dog Trainer