Training Puppy for Appropriate Barking

This was prompted by a friend who was impatiently having concerns about his 4-month-old German Shepherd Dog puppy not barking at people coming to the door, as a watchdog should. Instead he was barking during walks in the dark or at strange-looking things such as a big rock that doesn’t seem to “belong there” or at something that the owner doesn’t see or hear.

I told the man that his pup was still a baby and to remember that dogs are pack animals, following the rule of Nature to let the Pack Leader (owner) do the protection work. Puppies in a pack often will automatically “sound the alarm” but even so, they must learn to take over the leadership role of “chief watchdog” when they leave the pack and go to a new home.

The chief rule in teaching a dog something is to use what he can do (what he already knows) and apply that to what you want him to do. Dogs learn not by reason, but by association. My friend’s pup already knew how to bark. He barked at things that he could not see very clearly, or were in strange shapes, or were in places he thinks they shouldn’t be. So the owner must associate that barking action with being praised for it and with the word-command (or sound you make) to continue barking. Such as an excited, loud-whisper, hissing sound: “What’s that?!” with emphasis on the “sss” sound: “Whazzzzat?!!” Soon the dog will respond. At first, he barks at something suspicious and hears you make the alarm “sss!” sound; later, after the process of association is better established in his mind (memory), he will associate these in reverse. That is, he will hear the “sss!” and automatically alert… as you continue this, he will bark, and be especially watchful.

This may be the hardest part of training in some dogs. Remember, dogs have individual personalities, just as people do. They differ from one another in respect to genes they have inherited, and to “early-childhood education” such as they get before moving from the breeder’s home environment to a new situation.

Whether your dog has more influence from genes or from environment, the principle will apply: you go from the known to the unknown; you transfer the dog’s automatic or already-learned actions to those new actions and attitudes you desire him to exhibit.

In the case of desired watchdog response (barking), first analyze what makes the puppy bark now. Then every time he barks, use your alarm sound or word, the one you want to become a command. It may take a lot of time, especially in a pup that is not as bold as some. But eventually, he will associate what is happening with what you want him to do. In time, the association, the tie between barking and your key word/signal-command becomes so fixed in his neural connections that the timing process can be reversed. That is, while it began as the “SBCP” sequence of Situation-Barking-Command-Praise, and the time interval between these steps being shortened, the dog soon equates it with the Command-Barking-Praise time sequence. Instead of waiting to hear your “sss!” command when Situation occurs, the dog will bark right away and skip the Command phase. You can later add the word-command “Bark!” or (in German), “Gib Laut!”

Going through the steps I’ve outlined, and paying attention to shortening the time interval between the command-praise, will assure that the dog will bark reliably in all such similar situations. Immediacy is an extremely important part of establishing and reinforcing the learning process in dogs, regardless of what you are teaching them.

Self-control is everything. So, to make a watchdog out of a normal companion-dog you must set up situations in which you are pretty sure he is going to bark, and try to give him the “Alert command” (the hissing sound) before or at the same time he barks. Then encourage him with praise in the form of exuberantly patting him on the ribs and words like “Good boy!” and more hissing noise. Remember, soft stroking (such as you might use when teaching tracking) means the dog should calm down but hearty slapping means the dog should be excited and ready for more-heightened action. That includes barking and, in the case of police- or protection-dog training, possibly biting.

Some dogs are, by genetics or early training, predisposed to learning the watchdog function easily. Others may be inherently more reticent or shy. It is easier to train a dog that is genetically programmed for confidence and alpha-dog leadership roles, but almost any dog can learn to improve in these areas, as long as the trainer understands something of the canine psyche. The best results will come from a combination of an owner-trainer who follows the principles outlined above, a puppy that has “good genes” for watchdog work, and starting the puppy with early pre-training.

Equally important is early development as illustrated by the situation a friend of mine experienced. He got a puppy from a breeder whose health was deteriorating and who had too many litters at one time, and consequently did not give the optimum early puppy training or experiences to the litter. They were not given the early socialization and environmental stimulation that would have existed if the breeder had been in good health. The puppy spent a lot of time in crates and kennel runs, and to a degree lacked interactions with other puppies and dogs. When I got him for basic training at a couple months old, he was a happy, sweet-tempered, playful, lovable puppy but I quickly saw that he was no tiger shark like some I’ve had.

In such puppies that have not inherited or developed early the tendency to act like a big brave dog, it will take a little longer than in pups that have had ideal early confidence-building. I’m not talking about the truly shy, piddling-submissive, nervous animal here. I’m referring to a normal dog that has not had ideal confidence-building during a critical babyhood stage. Success in training that pup to be a watchdog and yet not bark at every shadow will require time and patience. Teach him to bark on command by associating lavish praise (exaggerate!) with his deciding to bark, and later you can teach him to wait or keep quiet.

At first, a pup might “figure” that since you are the alpha-dog, it is your job to bark at strange noises and people. But you can train him to be the barker if you practice “the 3 P’s” persistence, patience, and praise.

Fred Lanting

Fred Lanting is an internationally respected show judge, approved by many registries as an all-breed judge, has judged numerous countries’ Sieger Shows and Landesgruppen events, and has many years experience as one of only two SV breed judges in the US. He presents seminars and consults worldwide on such topics as Gait-&-Structure, HD and Other Orthopedic Disorders, and The GSD. He conducts annual non-profit sightseeing tours of Europe, centered on the Sieger Show (biggest breed show in the world) and BSP.

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