A client recently asked me this question:
I love my sweet Doberman mix, but he has one annoying habit: He barks his head off in the car. Is here anything I can do to stop this behavior?
Jennifer G., Seattle, Washington
Thanks for coming to me with this common concern. I know it can hurt human ears and test human patience to have constant barking in the tight space of a car (or anywhere, for that matter). Luckily, there are many force-free ways to curb your dog’s barking enthusiasm (see what I did there?).
I’ve been working with a bright, sensitive adult female dog named Gracie, and I will share her story to help your dog and those like him. Her loving owner adopted her from a shelter, so we don’t know her history, other than she was left at the shelter twice. Hmm … perhaps her habit of loudly barking in the car had something to do with that? Here’s the plan we used to help Gracie.
You can do many things to block a dog’s view while in the car. After all, the dog barks when she sees things happening outside of the vehicle — dogs generally aren’t barking at the wind.
If you have successfully crate-trained your dog so that the crate is a happy-happy joy-joy place where she has learned to lie down and relax, add a crate to the back of your car. Load the dog into the crate and give her an excellent, long-lasting chew item (such as a Kong with frozen goodie inside).
Then use a heavy blanket to cover the crate. This works for a great majority of dogs. Sometimes I’ll take a few rides with the client driving and me in the passenger’s seat. If the dog barks, I cover the crate. If the dog is quiet, I raise the blanket. One caveat: Don’t use this for any dog who panics in the crate — you are making a bad situation worse and leaving the dog feeling trapped.
If you don’t use a crate or your dog isn’t calm in one, you can add inexpensive sunshades to the windows. I found some at Walmart for $4.99 apiece. You can even kick that up a notch and fit your dog with a ThunderCap (but please properly acclimate your dog to wearing one). Think of a horsefly mask, and you get the idea.
While these maneuvers can help lessen the barking, they are tools of management versus training or behavior modification. Gracie’s owner wanted to help her learn to relax in the car so as to stop her hyper-vigilant visual scanning and alert barking. I actually prefer this route because it is most effective in terms of changing the dog’s internal emotions while on a car ride.
I began by having truly motivational meat training treats with me, and by having Gracie in the back of the car. I drove to a grocery store parking lot in a nearby small town and waited for a human or dog to walk near the car, something that usually sets Gracie off. A person walked by, and I said, “Hi, person!” as I wanted Gracie to see him. As she looked, I tossed a yumo treat to her in the backseat. She didn’t have to sit or lie down at first — she just had to remain calm enough to see the treat and eat it. If she had been too concerned to eat, I would have driven farther away and started from a place where she felt comfortable eating.
We took many outings together and gradually went to busier and busier parking lots. I knew I was making grand progress with her when she would see a person or dog and, instead of barking, look expectantly to me for a treat. I would treat her at stoplights and even while driving, although I highly recommend having a second person in the car so you don’t have to multitask.
I changed Gracie’s internal feelings about seeing someone near “her car” with this technique. The person approaching became the trigger for yumo food delivery. It’s important that the food is not given at the same time the dog sees a person, nor should you give the food before the dog sees the person. The person in the dog’s line of sight is what causes magical food to appear.
My next step was to encourage Gracie to lie down in the back of the car. Lying down is a more relaxed body position. Besides that, she can’t see out of the windows well if she is lying down. Once I had her looking up front at me instead of scanning the world outside of the car, I drove around town with her in the back. At first I didn’t ask her for a down. I wanted her to figure out that’s what now made the treats appear. The first time we began this work, it took Gracie two weeks to lie down. I literally kept track of how long it would take her.
She went from never lying down to averaging about one minute of drive time before she would lie down. When she did, I tossed a treat to her (again, this is better done with one person driving and a second person training!). Once she understood that lying down brought her great things and she offered the behavior quickly, I began asking her to lie down, especially at stoplights.
I am happy to report that Gracie rarely barks in the car these days. We’ve created an entirely new experience and meaning for her. It took work, but it was worth it. Give it a try and let me know how this plan works for you.
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About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.