Our dogs tend to bark a lot! So why in the world would we want to teach them to do it more? Suprisingly, teaching your dog to speak can actually benefit you.
By clarifying when we want our dogs to bark, and how we want them to bark, we can effectively alter their overall behavior. In addition to our benefits, adding mental stimulation to your dog’s life is crucial. The more mentally stimulated your pup is, the less likely they are to get into trouble.
In order to teach a behavior, it is important to understand how dogs learn. We will also cover what to do to shape your dog's behavior into what we are looking for. Finally, we will discuss the step-by-step process of training your dog to "speak".
Dogs learn in the same fashion as virtually any other animal. Learning occurs as a result of the consequences of our actions, and the same rules apply to dogs. When a dog does a behavior, and afterwards they receive something that they find reinforcing, they are more likely to repeat that behavior. This process is a heavily studying concept called operant conditioning. Unfortunately, learning isn’t as simple as the definition sounds! Animals can make unintended associations with many different things.
Learning and Associations: A Case Against Punishment
Based on our understanding of learning, if your dog is barking excessively it might make sense to punish them. Right? If barking (the behavior) results in a punishment, like a whack with a newspaper (the consequence), the barking should hypothetically decrease. Unfortunately, hypothetical don’t always pan out the way we imagine them - dogs have a tendency to make associations with entirely unintended stimuli!
Say, for example, your dog is barking out the window. One response may be to spray him with a water bottle every time this occurs. It's relatively likely your dog may be barking at a specific stimulus, like a person or dog walking past. If you punish them, your dog could very well associate the strange person the punishment, instead of associating the punishment with his own barking.
If this occurs not only will the dog not stop barking at people walking by, he may begin barking at an even greater rate. Your dog might even begin to show aggression towards strangers. Put yourself in his paws, imagine if every time you saw a strange person you got sprayed in the face? You would probably be pretty annoyed anytime someone walked by, right?
Positive Reinforcement & Science
Behavior is a heavily studied concept! Research has shown that the use of positive reinforcement can create long-lasting behavioral results. This is why positive reinforcement is the best method for the amateur trainer.
Positive reinforcement fosters beneficial associations. These associations occur between your dog and the behavior, your dog and you, your dog and training, and much more. Building your relationship with your dog is always an advantage! Reinforcement reduces stress, increases confidence and happiness, builds relationships, and creates positive associations; its use is an easy choice.
Using Positive Reinforcement to Control Behavior
By training a dog to speak on command, we give them a better understanding of when barking will result in reinforcement. This allows us to shape what type of barking “works” for the dog. If we only reinforce a dog for barking when asked to “speak” they are more likely to refrain from excessive barking in other situations.
It is also highly useful to you if your dog is consistently reinforced, but only for barking once. This is especially successful if we give the dog an alternative behavior to do instead of barking.
Mechanics of Training a Behavior
One of the lesser-known tools of the animal trainer’s trade is the bridge. A bridge is a signal that tells the animal “Yes! That was what I was looking for!” without all the added words and confusion. One common type of bridge is a clicker, but a word (like “ok” or “good”) can work as well.
To use a bridge properly, you should employ it at the precise moment the behavior occurs. The bridge should also be followed promptly with reinforcement. Even after the reinforcement has been phased down, the bridge should continue to be used. Also, ensure when you phase down the treats that reinforcement is still given periodically.
Inciting a Bark
It seems as though anytime we want our dogs to bark, they are utterly mute. The only simple way to teach your dog to speak on command is to entice your dog to bark. Once you successfully do this, you can pair the barking with reinforcement. Figure out a way that works for you, and be patient.
Some dogs respond well to certain toys, others will respond to your extreme excitement with a bark. Try squeaking a toy, excitedly waving it around, or simply working your dog up with your high-energy behavior.
Steps to Teaching "Speak"
Begin by ensuring you have a low distraction situation and your reinforcement readily available. Provide a variety of treats for your dog to help maintain their attention for longer periods of time.
- Start by inciting your dog to bark. If you have difficulty it may be necessary to attempt training at a time when your dog has higher energy.
- When your dog barks, click your clicker and reinforce with a treat.
- Attempt to click immediately after your dog barks once and do not click if they bark more than once.
- Repeat this until your dog is barking consistently, and then add a verbal command “speak”.
- Say, “speak” and wait for 3 – 4 seconds before inciting your dog into barking.
- When your dog barks, click and reinforce.
- Repeat until your dog consistently barks when you say, “speak”.
Always remember to be patient with your dog. The most effective way to stimulate barking is if you have high energy and excitement. In fact, if you are frustrated it will actually impact your dog’s motivation. The best way to keep your dog motivated is to keep your training session fun, exciting, and full of energy! Don’t forget that your dog is learning, and you are trying to communicate in different languages. You will have setbacks, and there will be confusion. However, if you work together you will be able to achieve your goal.