What do you mean by bark buster?
When I first started practicing as a dog trainer I wanted to be a bark buster. When I say ‘bark buster’ I mean someone who could fix any dog’s behavioural issues, no matter how big or small. Based on popular media, I thought that a dog’s unwanted behaviour could be fixed simply and quickly.
I thought if I couldn’t provide a quick fix for a client, then I had to keep searching for answers. Usually the answer I got from colleagues was that the approach I had was correct, but to simply persevere as behaviour change takes time. Being impatient, I researched more options (remember I wanted to be a bark buster and provide the quick fix). The other options which came up in the research were quite scary, for example: using shock collars, citronella collars, check chains, yelling at your dog and the list goes on. I didn’t use any of these punishment based techniques, however I was initially perplexed to see reports from other bark busters that these techniques worked, and they worked quickly.
The problem with punishment
Several years on, with more experience and study, I understand that punishment based techniques can work to stop unwanted behaviour. However this change in behaviour comes with a high cost by creating a dog who:
- Is anxious because they are uncertain when the next punishment will occur;
- A dog that is not comfortable around their handlers as they associate the handler with the punishment;
- A dog that does not want to offer any new behaviour for fear of being punished.
The above characteristics are not what I want for the fur members of my family.
Support instead of punishment
I have two anxious rescue dogs. Henry is our ‘extrovert’ anxious dog. He lets us know when someone walks down the street. We are aware that he does this because in his eyes he is convinced that there is something dangerous occurring. A common bark buster way of fixing this would be to ignore the reason behind his barking and simply punish him by use of a shock or citronella collar. This may stop the barking, however he will still be anxious and feel unsafe. More than likely his feelings of anxiety would increase as he may start to associate people on the street with the punishment.
This is a good caution that the associations a dog may make with punishment may not be what we intend. If we were using these techniques, Henry could become more anxious, and potentially fear aggressive to humans walking past the house as he would predict them to be associated with the punishment. Instead, we focus on trying to make Henry feeling safe in these situations. This involves many different techniques but the biggest thing we focus on is encouraging him to come to us for reassurance and a tasty treat. Over time, his barking behaviour has decreased. Most importantly, his general level of anxiety has decreased.
Why does punishment persist?
It’s important to note that most people who are using punishment based techniques are not doing so because they want to hurt their dog. Usually they are using these techniques out of desperation to fix a specific behavioural issue, and from poor advice from aspiring bark busters claiming “it doesn’t really hurt them, it’s just uncomfortable”. The learning theory is very clear, if a punishment is working by reducing the behaviour, then the punishment is aversive to the dog. There are better ways to change behaviour that are kind for your dog.
We are here to help
If you want to read more about the research underlying punishment based techniques – this article provides a good overview of the use of punishment techniques in dog training: