I recently offered a quiz about “all things Fenzi and FDSA style training” on the FDSA Facebook business page. I tested general dog knowledge along with training tips that are rather specific to me. I’d like to talk about one of the questions and the resulting answers. Here it is:
Barking at the handler usually indicates:
b. frustration or confusion.
c. both of the above.
d. neither of the above.
The correct answer to this question is:
B. frustration or confusion.
I see a lot of dogs barking at handlers and I can honestly say I don’t think it’s ever been followed up with aggression towards the handler, nor was this a concern in my mind. When I say aggression, I mean lunging towards the handler, trying to bite, or snapping. Barking is normally a way to increase distance (get the bad guy to leave) OR to communicate with others. Which doesn’t mean I haven’t seen barking followed up by aggression toward strangers, but a stranger is not a handler.
So what does actual dog aggression and threat towards the handler usually look like? Growling. Hardening of the mouth and face. Slow stiff movements. Snarling. Posturing. If you see those things, you need to de-escalate the situation. Quickly! But barking?
When you see barking within the context of training, assume distress caused by lack of information! Your dog is talking to you and it’s time to listen, because 99% of the time the dog is expressing frustration. They don’t know how to win! They don’t know what you want!
So what should you do?
Start by having a very clear idea in YOUR head about what you need to see so that the dog can earn reinforcement. It needs to be reasonable, and the dog needs to know the answer. If the dog does not know the answer or your request is not reasonable, barking is likely to ensue if your dog is prone to this form of communication.
Personally, I love it when dogs talk to me regardless of how they might do so. Some dogs will simply sit and stare. Some dogs will bark or whine. Some dogs will spin. Some dogs will show general agitation or leaping/snapping at my face. These are all forms of communication and not aggression.
When your dog is talking to you and is telling you that they are not happy, stop your training session and figure out why.
Does this mean that a dog barking at the handler could not escalate to biting? Of course not, but it is not typical; it is not the norm. Most of the time the dog is simply asking you to relieve the frustration by making a more clear path. Honor your dog’s request or end the session altogether while you figure out what you want to do next.
If you’d like to take the quiz for yourself, go ahead! You’ll find it here:
And on another note, registration for the February term at FDSA opens on January 22nd. If you’d like to enroll, check the schedule and get ready!
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My current competition dog will bark at me between exercises, or when setting up to begin an exercise. I’ve tried to give him another behavior to perform but he will bark while doing that, too. He will “set up” but continue barking until I give him the next command. I’ve tried to wait him out, no luck. I’ve tried to reset him, no luck. Between exercises I try to have him heel as a transition but he’ll bark during that…… Any suggestions? BTW, I loved the seminar of yours I attended and your ideas helped me with this guy quite a bit!
What you need to know is why he his barking. Address that rather than focusing on the barking itself.
I think my dogs have two kinds of barking – one is as you describe frustration and confusion. On the agility course, though and at other times in play and training, my dogs bark for joy at least that’s how I interpret it – has a very different tone and sound to it than frustration barking.
That seems absolutely likely.
My Pyrenean Shepherd will bark and nip at me when I am not fast enough (in her mind) with my commands or directions. This is normally when running agility, but appeared in Obedience fast heeling and figure 8’s.
That sounds like it could be a combination of excitement AND frustration!