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Bella the Lab-Collie cross hates cars! At least that's what her owners infer, by the way she barks uncontrollably at a car or truck every time one drives by her house, her yard, or while on they are on a walk. The behavior is annoying, and Bella seems so out of control her owners worry she will lunge at or jump into traffic one day.
Why is Bella barking at cars? It could be that she is exhibiting territorial behavior trying to guard her property from intrusion, it could be that she is trying to protect herself and her family from the strange car creatures she perceives as a threat, she may be alerting you, her pack member, to intrusion, she may just be bored and looking for something to do, or she may actually hate cars, having a negative association with their sight, smell, or sound. Figuring out what motivates Bella’s barking may be helpful in choosing a method to train her out of the behavior.
Whether or not you ever figure out the root of your dog's car barking obsession, there are several methods you can use, or combinations of methods, to teach her not to bark at every car she sees and give you both some peace when a car goes by.
When a car drives into your driveway, having your dog bark to alert you may be a good thing, but being unable to stop your dog barking won’t be. Also, having your dog bark at every car that drives by your home or that you encounter on a walk is not necessary, and can even lead to dangerous behavior if your dog becomes car-obsessed and aggressive towards the cause of her excitement. Dogs bark instinctually to alert you to perceived dangers to you or your property, and training a dog out of an instinctual behavior may be difficult. But, there are methods you can use to direct your dog to more appropriate behavior. If your dog is barking for another reason, like boredom, negative association, or excitement, training to counter these states may be helpful to stop your dog barking at cars. Your goal will be for your dog to ignore and be calm and quiet around cars. A few alert barks to a car approaching your home may be acceptable, but barking should not be uncontrollable.
If your dog is excited or trying to alert or protect you, punishing your dog for barking at cars will be confusing and only contribute to the behavior. Avoid punishment as a means of correcting your dog. Taking time to train your dog other behaviors, such as a verbal 'quiet' cue or an alternative behavior when cars are present, will be more effective.
For training your dog not to bark at cars, you will need to provide treats to create another behavior. Having a relatively quiet, traffic-free area to practice, and having an assistant in a car drive by to create the barking stimulus provides you with control of the situation and will make training easier as you can control timing and be prepared. You can use two-way radios or cellular phones to communicate with your assistant driver.
The Positive Association Method
Set up car
In a controlled setting, have an assistant with a car drive by your yard while you wait with your dog on a leash in the yard or in a planned location on a walk. This lets you control the presentation of the stimulus.
As soon as the car starts to approach, and before your dog starts barking, provide your dog with a high value treat like chicken or hot dogs. Keep providing the treats while the car drives by. It is important not to provide treats after or if the dogs starts barking, as this reinforces barking and not the car.
Decrease stimulus if required
If your dog is not distracted by the treats and barks, have the car drive by, farther away, or start giving treats sooner, when your dog is quiet around the car.
Repeat, having your assistant with the car drive by closer and slower to increase exposure, as your dog learns to focus on the treats and not bark.
Create positive association
When your dog starts looking for treats instead of barking at the approach of the car, gradually reduce the number of treats and the value of the treats, until your dog learns that it is not necessary to bark in the presence of the car and to look for a reward. A positive association has been created.
The Teach 'Quiet' Method
Have an assistant drive a car slowly by, turn around, and drive by again continuously. Your dog will start barking.
Wait for a pause in barking, when your dog pauses even for a moment to take a breath, say "quiet" and provide a treat.
If the barking continues, you can try to blow a whistle or shake a can of marbles to create a distraction. When your dog stops to attend the distraction, say "quiet" and provide the treat. Practice until the noise maker is no longer required.
Repeat frequently until your dog learns an association between the command 'quiet', not barking, and a treat. Gradually increase the length of time your dog needs to be quiet in the presence of the car, before getting the treat.
Gradually remove the treat and replace with praise, continue to use the quiet command. If necessary, return to a previous step to reinforce quiet with distraction and treats.
The Alternative Behavior Method
Teach alternate behavior
Teach your dog a behavior, such as 'touch my hand', 'sit-stay', or 'look at me'. Once your dog is reliably performing the behavior, move on to car exposure.
Have an assistant drive by with a car with your dog outside. Or, if your dog barks from inside the house, have your dog in the house.
Ask for alternate behavior
As the car approaches, command your dog to perform the alternative behavior. If the dog stops barking and performs the other behavior, reward your dog.
Create distance until successful
If your dog continues barking, have the car approach again. This time, give the command for the alternate behavior when the car is further away. Wait until your dog is successful performing the other behavior with the car at a distance.
Gradually have the car come closer, and drive by slower, increasing the stimulus while asking for the alternative behavior until your dog learns to perform another behavior rather than barking when exposed to a car.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 11/09/2017, edited: 01/08/2021