Demand Barking
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Demand barking is when a dog barks to get something they want - attention, a door opened, a ball thrown, food, you name it! Demand barking is one of the more common sources of vocalization frustration for dog owners, and yet one of the more challenging to deal with. This is largely because it can be pretty easily and accidentally reinforced. The barking is annoying, we want it to stop, so we give the dog what they want. Next time they want that thing, you better believe they’re going to bark again! 


This is definitely a situation in which an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To prevent demand barking, just be mindful about how your dog is vocalizing to make requests. One way you can interrupt the beginnings of demand barking is simply to ask for a few other behaviors before you get the dog what she is asking for. So say gives a little impatient bark when you pick up her ball - ask her for a hand touch, to spin, and then to lay down. THEN throw the ball. This helps break up the association between bark > ball thrown. However, be careful not to fall into another predictable pattern, otherwise the bark will become a part of a behavior chain. She may learn that she needs to bark, then do a hand touch, then spin, then lay down in order to get the ball thrown. If it’s unpredictable, then it’s easier to erase the bark portion of that chain. 


Demand barking is honestly quite similar to excitement/anticipation barking. I would speculate that in many cases, barking out of excitement often turns into demand barking - the dog begins barking in anticipation of something desirable, the desirable thing happens, and they begin to think they must bark in order for that thing to happen. So the method of eliminating it is also essentially the same - eliminate the opportunity for the barking to happen, and begin strongly reinforcing an alternative behavior. 


In the video above, I’m working with a dog named Rocky. Rocky was seven when I started working with him, so he had years of reinforcement history for barking at a shrill, ear splitting volume when playing fetch. The pattern looked like this:


  1. Toy appears
  2. Rocky begins barking 
  3. Toy is thrown
  4. Rocky chases toy and catches it, brings it back and 
  5. Immediately begins barking
  6. Toy is thrown


The toy being thrown was clearly reinforcing the barking behavior. However, this is a high strung dog with a BIG ENERGY and YEARS of being reinforced for this. If I just stopped throwing the toy and waited for silence, he would escalate the behavior and become more and more stressed out, plus I’d have to endure that high pitched bark for far too long. So instead, I began clicking and treating him as fast as I could for standing in front of me in silence. I really had to break this down for Rocky - initially I had to click/treat him rapid fire as soon as he returned, as I picked up the toy, right until I threw it. Now not only was I reinforcing his stand in silence behavior with food, but the toy being thrown was also reinforcing it. 


In this video, I am working on slowing down my rate of reinforcement, and pausing a little between clicks, but at the beginning, my rate of reinforcement was much faster. However there were occasions on which I was able to fade the food and use the toy as the sole reinforcer. In those cases, when he would occasionally slip up and bark, I would set the toy back down and walk a few paces away. He would pick it up back up and bring it to me, and this “reset” was a chance for him to try again. I only did this once he had started building a reinforcement history for silence. This was also information for me that I was asking too much of him in terms of duration, so I would speed it up the next time. If he made multiple errors, then I knew I needed to break it back down and go back to using food for a bit. 


Another thing to think about when it comes to demand barking, is if the dog’s needs are being met. If your dog is demanding attention out of boredom, it’s worthwhile to consider adding more enrichment and activities to his day. If his mental and physical exercise needs are being met, he’s more likely to be relaxed. 


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