Do The Math: Self-Rewarding Behavior Adds Up

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By: Eric Gillaspy, CPDT-KA

Dogs have barked at things going by since the beginning of things going by.  People used to think dogs barked at the mailman because of the uniform.  “It must be that uniform”, we said.  Then, we started to realize that dogs barked at everything going by, so we assumed that those were dogs that were territorial, maybe even dominant?

But maybe, just maybe, dogs bark at things going by our houses because it’s always fun and it is almost always successful. They bark, the thing goes away!  Some dogs try this behavior very quickly and have a great time doing it.  Dogs who are left outside all day are very prone to this kind of behavior. City dogs tend to practice this by barking out the window while sights and sounds pass by. How do we humans tend to react, well the average response might be yelling, “HEY, NO BARK, NO BARK”. This certainly doesn’t seem to work.

This type of barking is a nuisance behavior but, it can lead to more aggressive outlets of behavior.  Frustration is one of the two main reasons that dogs act out in an aggressive manner and when a previously successful behavior ceases to work, some dogs may get frustrated.

There are a lot of dogs like this where I walk my dog, so I thought one day that I would do the math and quantify how many times a dog near by performs this type of behavior.  One dog I observed did this about 10 times a day.  That is 70 times in a week and over 3,600 in a year! That is the definition a successful behavior if I say so myself. This is going to be difficult to improve because it is a habitulized behavior chain.


There are ways to curb this unwanted behavior but the first thing to do is to make sure that your dog is not in the environment unattended self-rewarding all day.  You don’t want him to successfully continue to practice the behavior as you are trying change.

I like to suggest to clients to try to desensitize to the audio cues as much as possible. Cues or antecedents, always precede the behavior so if you can change your dogs conditioned response to the cue you are on the right track.  Some dogs will alert to the sound of dog tags so I suggest my clients wear a small collar around their wrist with dog tags hanging from it.  Another useful tool can be a bluetooth speaker.  I like those because you can move them around.  Play those sounds that may trigger your dog to bark, at low volumes, a lot, until he isn’t reacting at all.  Then gradually turn it up.  Another useful suggestion is to manage the situation properly by covering windows with something or pulling the drapes closed.

Exercise can play a big role in the process of diminishing the likelihood of the self-rewarding behavior.  I recommend a flirt pole, a game of retrieve or a jog, especially right before the times that the dog is likely to fire off.  You want your pup to be pretty tired and mellow at those times that he barks at things going by. Decrease using dog daycare and dog parks for exercise, this will only increase your dogs orienting behavior to dogs outside. Play and bond with your dog if you want to change the behavior.

Try not to overreact when the behavior happens, stay calm and try to get your dog to re-focus on you.  The more we react, the more our dogs react.  If the doorbell rings, but no one ever reacts to it, would the dog still bark when it sounds?