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A while back, I posted on Instagram, asking folks what topics they’d like some more info about, and this was one that came up a few times. In particular, dogs that bark when arriving at an exciting destination, like the park, or even when the car slows down!
Dealing with unwanted behaviors in a car can be really tricky, because obviously actively training while driving can be really unsafe! So it’s best to work with your partner, a family member or friend when working in the car. That way one person can concentrate on driving, and the other can work with the dog.
Before we talk about training, let’s talk about why this behavior can become and stay so strong. What is reinforcing it? When it comes to something like arriving at the park the sequence of events is something like:
- Car slows down/nears familiar destination
- Dog begins to bark
- Dog is let out of the car to enjoy a romp at the park
Of course, we know logically that going to the park was the plan all along - but since barking directly preceded this event, it is strengthening the dog’s barking behavior. In order to get rid of this behavior, we need to make sure it is no longer reinforced BUT simply waiting it out would cause both you AND your dog a lot of stress. So instead, we can reinforce an alternative behavior. Sitting or quietly, for example. This is where having a partner comes in handy!
Next time you go to the park, have plenty of high value treats ready. Then, as you approach the park, BEFORE your dog begins to bark, begin marking and reinforcing for your alternative behavior (sitting quietly). At first you may need to be fast! Be a human pez dispenser if needed! When you park the car, continue to mark and treat as your partner (the person driving) exits the car and goes around to the door to let the dog out. If you get out and stop the flow of treats, it’s likely that the dog will resume barking, and we want to make sure there’s no opportunity for that.
Each time you go to the park, follow this procedure, until you can slowly begin to slow your rate of reinforcement. Look at your dog’s body language to gauge when barking may resurge - cues of escalating excitement may be perked ears, panting, fidgeting, etc. The more you observe your dog, the more successful you’ll be at timing your treats! With practice, you’ll likely be able to fade the treats in time, and ultimately you can use the reward of exiting the car for your adventure instead of food.
If your dog has generalized this behavior to the car slowing down anywhere use the same approach without the destination. Simply go for a ride (someone else driving) and begin marking and treating whenever you anticipate slowing down. For example, when approaching stop signs. You can also help manage some of the anticipation by taking meandering drives with no destination - this is perfect during quarantine! Just drive around, practice reinforcing sitting quietly, and then return home.
For dogs that bark in anticipation and excitement NOT in the car - for example barking while walking up to a favorite playmate’s house, or barking as you prepare their meal, the same concept applies. Heavily reinforce your alternative behavior and make sure that the exciting activity doesn’t follow a burst of barking. This may look like lots of rapid fire treats as you approach that friend’s front door (and ceasing forward movement or turning around and backtracking when the barking occurs), or maybe teaching your dog to go to their mat and marking and treating her for waiting quietly on her mat while dinner is prepared.