Dog barking at owner

Q. My dog barks anytime my husband and I speak to each other, or when I am having a conversation with someone else. He will only stop barking when I tell him to stop or look at him, but as soon as I start talking, he barks again. Help!

A. It sounds like your dog has you well-trained. He’s learned that if he barks, eventually you’ll take your attention away from the person you’re talking to and pay attention to him. It may seem odd, but scolding him or telling him to be quiet is a reward for your dog. From his perspective it makes sense: Your conversation draws attention away from him, and even negative attention is better than no attention at all. 

Every moment we spend with our dogs we are actually training them, often without even being aware of it. Your dog has inadvertently been trained to bark, because when he barks you reward him by looking at him and talking to him. The best way to change behavior that is done to get your attention, particularly disruptive behavior like barking, is to ignore it rather than reward it.

Ignore the Barking

Since your dog has a tendency to bark when you’re talking to another person, turn your interactions with other people into training sessions for your dog. Teach your pooch that barking is no longer going to be rewarded; instead, it will be ignored, and calm and quiet behavior will be rewarded. Eventually, this will make him less likely to bark and more likely to be silent while you are talking.

To teach your dog that barking will not work, ask your husband or a friend to pretend to hold a conversation with you. Your focus, though, will be on training your dog. Look away from your dog while you’re talking; turn your head so that you’re not looking directly at him but be sure you can still see him, so that you are ready to reward wanted behavior, like sitting quietly while you talk. Carry on your conversation and ignore your dog as long as he is barking.

Keep in mind that once you start ignoring the barking, it will most likely get worse before it gets better; this is called an extinction burst. When a behavior that has been rewarded suddenly loses its reward, an animal will attempt that behavior with even more gusto in order to regain the reward. In other words, once you start ignoring your dog when he barks, he may very well bark even more — or even louder — in order to catch your attention.

No matter what your dog does, though, don’t respond to his barking, or even look at him when he’s barking; otherwise you will be rewarding the behavior you are trying to eradicate, which is not going to solve the problem.

Reward Good Behavior

At the same time you are ignoring your dog’s barking, it’s also important to look for and reward polite, quiet behavior. An easy way to do this is to reward any behavior that’s not, such as sitting, lying down, or standing with his mouth closed. When you’re training, you will be looking at the person you’re talking to rather than at your dog, but you will still be able to determine when he can be rewarded. For instance, when you start your conversation, reward him if he stays quietly at your side or lies down — without barking. Toss a treat on the floor every once in a while as long as he continues to demonstrate calm behavior. Since praise and attention, such as looking at him or speaking to him, are also rewards he enjoys, every so often during your conversation you can encourage his silence by looking at him and petting or praising him.   

Ignoring the barking and rewarding the quiet behavior will make your dog more likely to settle down and relax when you’re talking to someone else. Over time, phase out the treats and reward the act of being quiet with praise or petting. After all, what he really wants is attention from you.