A question we got on TikTok:
“I’m trying to teach my dog to settle while I’m watching TV. I make sure he’s had enough exercise and mental stimulation but he barks at me as soon as I sit down. What does this mean? I have treats with me to reward any calm behavior. He just never stops barking, even for a minute.”
(As a side note: yes, we’re on Tiktok now. We’re very new, but we are there! So if you’d like to ask us a question, and get a video reply just like this person did, the QandA button can be found on our bio @threelostdogs)
This is a very common, very frustrating situation. After a long day at work, you just want to collapse on the couch and binge some Netflix.
But you can’t, because Sparky won’t shut the hell up.
Let’s look at why your dog might be choosing to annoy the crap out of you, some factors that might be making this problem worse, and how we can start addressing it.
Why does my dog bark much?
All behaviour serves a function. Broadly speaking, it’s either to avoid something, or acquire something.
So, what could your dog be avoiding by barking whenever you’re getting ready to settle in?
It could be boredom, or loneliness, that your dog has learned to expect when their owner disengages from them. Your dog may have learned that whenever they hear that Bridgerton opening music, they’re about to be alone for a long time.
We could also frame this as barking being used to acquire attention from you. Or it could also function as a way to acquire other resources: food, water, toys, play, access to certain areas of the house or yard, etc.
Figuring out what function drives the behaviour is the first step to addressing it. We then have to make sure that those needs are being taken care of, and that we give our dogs other ways to ask for those things.
What’s contributing to the problem?
When dogs behave in problematic ways for polite human society, we have to zoom out and look at the big picture:
What is this dog’s daily life like? Are they mentally healthy, with all of their enrichment needs met? Are our expectations of them fair?
If behaviour problems develop suddenly, or seem out of character for the dog, a vet visit is always the first thing on the cards. For behaviour that does not seem to have an underlying medical cause, the next step is to look at your dog’s mental health.
Dogs have a set of welfare requirements just like any other animal, and it’s important that we find ways to meet those welfare needs appropriately. A dog whose needs have not been met is likely to develop behavioural issues stemming from frustration and poor mental health.
Some important lifestyle aspects to look at are your dog’s daily physical and mental stimulation activities. Are they getting enough physical exercise for their size, breed and age? Just because we might be tired after an hour-long walk and a game of fetch, doesn’t mean our dogs are. And are they being provided ample opportunity to think through problems?
Physical exercise is a topic most dog owners are familiar with, but many are less familiar with their dog’s mental exercise needs and how to meet them. Training is an excellent way to incorporate mental exercise into a dog’s daily routine, coupled with feeding meals from puzzle toys.
And the kind of physical and mental exercise your dog gets is important.
Dog breeds were designed to perform specific tasks with such fluency and ease that those behaviours have become an essential part of that breed’s characteristics. Dogs need an outlet for these breed-based behaviours.
Some breeds were created for their exceptional athletic ability and speed – such as many sighthounds. Others specialise in mental stamina and impressive scenting ability – like bloodhounds. Consider your dog’s breed, and what jobs that breed specialises in, to figure out what exercise activities would work best for them.
Another often overlooked welfare aspect is the freedom for dogs to display natural behaviours.
This can be a tricky one to figure out, because as a domesticated species, dogs’ “natural” behaviours and habitats are closely intertwined with human society. But there are some that are easier to identify as natural to dogs: specific greeting behaviours, conflict avoidance behaviours, other passive social behaviours such as scenting and marking, and predatory behaviours such as hunting and scavenging.
These behaviours can often be missing from dogs’ daily lives, because they can be considered rude or annoying to us humans. But they’re important for our dogs’ mental health.
Enrichment is a fascinating topic that we’re only just beginning to explore, so for more information about how you can help your dog live their best life we highly recommend checking out this fantastic book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World.
How do we get the barking to stop?
Now for the part you’ve all been waiting for.
First, check-off all of those health and welfare boxes.
Make sure your daily routine with your dog is down, and they’re getting all the things they need to feel happy and balanced. Most owners find that simply doing this part significantly improves their dog’s problem behaviour, while some find it even eliminates it completely.
The next step is to ask if what you’re expecting of your dog is really fair.
It’s reasonable for us to want our dogs to be able to settle down so we can get some peace and quiet every now and again, of course. But is it fair to ask them to lie on their bed and stare into space for hours while we relax in front of another episode of Catfish? Probably not.
Making sure our dogs are feeling physically and mentally satiated enough to relax goes a long way, but giving them something entertaining to do while they sit on their “couch” makes it much more likely that they’ll stay comfortable and quiet while you recover from your day.
Stuff some Kongs with delicious smearables and freeze a few on the weekend, ready for those lazy weeknights. Give Sparky a nice big bone to chew on.
The final step: train Sparky to do what you want (settle in place) before you ask him to do that in the “real” situation.
This tutorial will teach you how to train a Place/lie-down-on-a-mat cue to give your dog somewhere specific to settle down, and make sure you’re rewarding calm behaviour whenever you see it. (That tutorial isn’t specifically about Place, but it uses a Place cue as a demo)
When we combine all of these things, pretty soon your now-happy and tired dog is going to learn that hearing his “Place” cue and that Game of Thrones theme song means he’s about to get to lie on his bed and work on a delicious bone for an hour.
And with any luck, the only sounds you’ll hear from Fido are chewing, and satisfied snoring.