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Barking in the Car

This column included three sections - the last being a very helpful suggestion from an experienced reader, Julie Tilsen, - the result is that the topic is all in one place now.  We are very happy to include our reader's remarks and suggestions.  I have also added a link to a site where you can obtain the Gentle Leader mentioned. We have also attempted to bring the topic up to date as the thinking of behaviorists has changed since we first wrote this article (and the internet goes on unlike newspaper articles)

Stop Barking in the Car!
I got an email today that asked how to stop their beardie from barking in the car.  I guess the 4 1/2 year old little lady like to bark at bikes, joggers, or about anybody who goes by.  Drives mom mad. 

Well folks, you know dogs are very sociable and that gal is probably just saying hello to those people, or maybe telling her mom all about what's going on.  Some hints are: 

  • Keep a bottle of water with a spray attachment in the car and spray your pup in the face while saying "quiet" in a firm voice, or have a can full of coins for a noise maker and shake it at your best friend while saying "quiet."   
  • Remember, we are trying to make you happy, but we have to know what you expect.  Just a  "N O" is not good enough, and don't yell because you hurt our feelings or worse yet our ears. Use an instructive reprimand like "QUIET." Always use the same command, and instruct your other humans to do the same.  If one person says "quiet" and another says "shut up" we will likely get confused. 
  • It is important to practice this anytime the dog barks.  The reason is that we dogs get mixed messages if it is OK sometimes and not other times.  And, make sure you do say something like "quiet" not just "no" for the same reason. 
  • If in a car, keep your mind on the road first, then worry about getting us to be quiet later.  That's one reason the voice command is probably better in the car situation.  If we are in the back seat and you turn to shoot water at us you could get into an accident. (besides, if you shoot me with water I want to play).  But don't expect immediate results, you have to train us.  Just keep working on it.

Dear Hobo: A long time ago I spent many hours putting him in the car, when he barked I stopped the car and took him out.  I have tried shacking a tin with pebbles in it, I have even tried squirting him with a water pistol, nothing seems to work.  It really irritates when I see other people with dogs quietly sitting in the front of their car. (This was written after the previous advice column on the subject didn't seem to help)

This is one of those problems where most giving advice will give you a "should have" answer. "You should have taught your dog while he was still a puppy."  "You should have told the breeder that you didn't want puppies first ride to be a long ride to your home."  "You should have started with short trips."

Well, most who write asking for advice have a dog who is already older, already experienced car sickness, or already barks in the car (or worse).  That is the problem that I will address here. 

In the past, I have passed on advice that I was given. This included the use of whistles, shaking a can full of marbles, squirting water (sometimes with vinegar) and all the while shouting "Quiet."  Many people wrote back stating that this didn't work for them. 

Sometimes the cause of barking (and getting sick) in cars is a result of fear.  This may be fear of loud noise, fear of all those moving hunks of metal, fear of bumps, and so on.  Maybe a result of a bad experience and association with the car. Why doesn't shaking a can of marbles work?  Maybe the dog is so busy barking he (or she) can't hear the can.  or maybe it just makes the fear worse (cars = loud noise?). 

So what do we do about the barking in the car?  It would be nice to use a positive method of Training. 

1) A method that that seems less drastic comes from a statement made in Barbara Woodhouse's book "Dog Training My Way."  She notes that it is difficult for a dog to bark while laying down.  Her method is to

  • use a leash to hold the dog in a down position (holding the leash under the arch of your foot).  This is not always possible in a car (maybe impossible if you and the dog are the only ones in the car).  It may be possible to set up a crate in the car, with a divider which keeps the dog in a down position.  Alternatively, have someone else drive the car while you hold the dog down.  It is important that the master (the one who normally trains the dog), be the one to hold the dog down. 
  • A variation is to use a gentle leader (more information at the end of this article). Loop the leash in a manner that when your dog (in the back seat) barks it will gently pull the head to a down position. (never jerk on a gentle leader). You may have to be inventive as to how to go about this, and also you do not want it set up so that in the event of a sudden stop the dogs head would be jerked (reuslting in injury).

2) Here is the method that has been recommended as an alternative to those previously described. You must re-train your dog.  You need to start off by taking the dog on short trips.  Try to plan a trip to an area without much traffic (you will see why). Plan this in advance. 

  • As soon as the dog starts to bark - shout "Quiet", stop the car, and take the dog out of the car and use a non aggressive reprimand. It is important that the use of "Quiet" be at the exact time of the bark - it must be associated with the bark and not the stopping of the car.
  • Do not hit your dog, or shake it by the head while staring into the eyes. That is a really negative form of discipline and will cause other problems. Behaviorists now tell us that looking directly into the eyes is agressive as is any grabbing about the head.
  • Just verbally correct the dog (try it).  Most trainers and breeders don't want to tell you that they recommend discipline.  But I have found many use a wadded up newspaper, maybe just throwing it on the ground.
  • Next, back into the car, drive slowly around the block and past the same area where the dog barked.  If the dog begins to bark or whimper, repeat the procedure.  If not, praise the dog with a "good boy" or your normal words of praise. 
  • The first trip should be a short one.  You may just go a mile and come back. Maybe there will be no barking and you will be able to praise  your dog. Each day, extend the length of the trip.  Use the same procedure. 

If you know other methods, let me know and I will add them here. We are interested in non-reprimand (positive) methods.

Reader's comment:

Julie wrote:
I was looking at the piece about barking in the car (I have one quiet rider and one who has, shall we say, had a lot to learn).  Stuff like water bottles and cans of coins are pretty common and I suppose they work for some dogs.  From a classical conditioning perspective that is informed also by the study of dog behavior/"pack rules" it can be challenged in that the unwanted behavior is receiving attention.

What I am most concerned about is this:  If a dog barks (or does anything, for that matter, you have about a one second window of time following that bevavior to reinforce or correct it.  that is, dogs will associate what they JUST did with what JUST follows.  If a dog barks and you pull over, take it out and "discipline it" (whatever that may mean, as your column suggests, the discipline will be associated by the dog with whatever it just did - which may in fact be coming to you or with you as you call him or take him out of the car.  Needless to say, we never want our dogs to associate a reprimand with coming to us.

Some dogs may begin to chain their behaviors.  If in fact they would like the car to stop (quite possible for, as your column correctly indicated, barking, chasing cars is a phobia/anxiety response, a dog may learn to bark in order to get you to stop.  (Now who's been trained?)

As for a more positive method, here is what has worked with our big girl who is partial to busses and large trucks:

Option 1:  If your dog is crate trained and your vehicle allows room, keep dog in crate where she cannot see vehicles - out of sight out of mind.  You have prevented the unwanted behavior which is always the most desirable intervention.

OPtion 2: Fit dog with gentle leader harness and attach light weight, 10 foot cord.  When dog barks, pull up on cord.  Release when quiet.  this does 2 things: 1) provides a REMOTE correction that is, dog does not associate correction as coming from you (do not look at dog or give eye contact when doing this). 2) rewards quiet (the wanted behavior) with release.

You can "supplement" this by being sure to give no attention to barking (including yelling, "no", squirt bottles, etc.) and giving attention/reward (treat) only when quiet.

OK - that was a lot.  I was just concerned about what I read.  Lots of beardies are a bit high-strung in the car, I know this personally and from conversations with other beardie folks.  They're lucky they're so damn cute!!

Hobo's Note: The Gentle leader can be obtained from Barden Graphics.   Also note, we did provide information or suggestions about using the crate, shakers, etc..  And, we have been told that the method of stopping the car and correcting has been used successfully when all else fails - but we do prefer positive methods as suggested by Julie.  Read on for previous suggestions.