It can be such a frustrating situation! Dogs often do bark to play, but sometimes other dogs don’t understand, and very often other owners don’t like it.
Since you are looking to gain control of your dog’s behavior while she is off leash, it will be important to work up to this point slowly, and practice with fewer distractions at first. We want to teach your dog a focus cue so she will focus on you and not bark at distractions. Since other dogs seem to be the hardest distraction, let’s work up to that point slowly and carefully.
To teach a dog to focus, I most often like to use capturing. This means that, as the trainer, you will just wait for your dog to do what you are looking for, immediately mark it with a word and then reward it. In this case, we are trying to capture your dog’s focus, or eye contact.
To begin, sit at home in a small, quiet area, and wait for your dog to look at you. As soon as she does, praise her by saying a marker word, such as, “Yes,” and then feed her a tasty treat.
Once you feel your dog is reliably looking at you and giving you her focus, add a cue word, such as, “Look.” Say this before your dog looks at you, and don’t worry if it takes her a few seconds to do so. Praise her as soon as she does with your marker word — “Yes” — and then feed her a tasty treat.
Slowly add distractions, such as knocking on a counter top or holding one of your arms out to the side. Wait for your dog to stop worrying about the distraction, and then mark and reward the moment she gives you her focus. This will reinforce her focusing on you and not the distraction.
If you think of your training as having three stages, this can be helpful:
- Stage 1: Indoors with no distractions
- Stage 2: Indoors or outside with some controllable distractions
- Stage 2: Outdoors amid the distractions
Don’t rush it! Since being around other dogs seems the hardest for your dog, work up to this situation slowly to ensure success.
After working indoors and adding distractions, try practicing with your dog near other dogs, but still in a controlled setting. Sometimes it’s helpful to keep your dog on leash and practice near a pet store or dog park, at a distance that your dog notices the other dogs, but still responds to you. Work up to getting closer to the other dogs.
Always practice in short sessions, and end on a good note; leave your dog wanting to do more training, rather than working to the point where you are both frustrated!
Once your dog has learned to give you her focus while around other dogs, she is much less likely to bark uncontrollably. The key to success is to work slowly and realize that you are changing your dog’s habit – and this is hard. Think about how difficult it is for humans to change habits. Don’t worry if you have some bad days; we all do!
By teaching your dog to focus on you, she is learning an alternative, and better, behavior. She will be more relaxed and so will the other dogs, other owners and, of course, you! I am certain that if you commit to practicing and working slowly through the stages, you will be able to break your dog’s barking habit.