Let's Tell It Like It Is: Why Demand Barking Really Isn't

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Demand Barking”, and if you happen to have a dog, or have been within twenty meters of a dog, you’ve probably heard the real thing, too. Demand barking occurs when dogs have learned that barking serves to get them what they want. It’s not the same as the other types of barking that dogs use to communicate: alarm, fear, play, and so on.

Trainer Jackie Johnston knows what I’m talking about.

This type of barking is truly a product of (generally mistaken) human intervention. It starts out this way: our dogs bark, for whatever reason or motivation, and we, without thinking, reinforce it. And by reinforce, I mean that we provide attention, we provide a chew toy, we provide door-opening services…anything that the dog happens to want in that moment in time. The dog, like all creatures great and small, notices reinforcement. They notice that their behaviour got them what they wanted. In the future, when they want patting, door opening services, and so on, they’ll be more likely to try barking again, for this reason. And when they bark, well, we notice. Barking is annoying to us humans, so we pay attention to it lickety-split. The dog gets another dose of reinforcement, and the learning process continues unabashed. Although the barking is the important part to us, the patting or door-opening is the important bit to the dog: it’s the very reason they bark.

If you have a demand-barking dog and this is sounding all too familiar, try to set aside your feelings about how very truly personal it feels. It feels like they’re trying to bark up a migraine on purpose, but…they’re not, I promise. Demand barking is simply an example of dogs learning and working. To wit: when we train a dog to sit, we use the exact same teaching system. The dog sits, either by happenstance or through us luring, and then we reinforce. We repeat the operation, always providing reinforcement after the sit. The dog, like all creatures great and small, notices the reinforcement. In the future, the dog is more likely to sit to get that treat. The treat is the important bit to the dog: it’s the very reason they sit.

Random aside: Have you ever asked your dog to sit and then when they do sit, called it demand sitting?

Humans learn to perform various tasks for essentially the same reasons as dogs, which won’t surprise you at all. We go to work for the reinforcement of a paycheque, for example. We walk to the fridge for the reinforcement of cheesecake. We’re more complex than dogs (except maybe Timber, he’s a very complex dude), but the same principles apply. We work in order to get the stuff we want in the world.

Random aside: Have you ever referred to what you do at the office as demand working?

Request barking

Since demand barking is a beastie we create by reinforcing it, it doesn’t seem appropriate to call it “demand barking”, does it? “Demand” seems to imply that the dog doesn’t have a right to ask for the patting, door-opening, or whatnot. But we’ve just trained them that barking is how we want them to ask. Some trainers use the much less value-laden term “request barking” for this reason, and I do appreciate this term. But I have to admit, it also misses the mark a bit, doesn’t it? When you go to the office and work your tail off, are you request working? No, you’re just working. You’re putting in an honest day in order to earn an honest dollar. And when dogs sit in order to get a treat, or bark in order to get a door opened, they’re putting in an honest day to earn their very honest dog dollar.

So what can we call demand barking? I hang my head in shame here, because I’m pretty sure I’ll probably continue to refer to it as demand barking. It’s just easy, and it’s not that bad of a term (is it? I don’t need much convincing, here…the language we use to talk about our dogs matters). But among my dog training friends, I like to use the phrase “operant barking”. Operant behaviour is simply behaviour that animals learn to do, then choose to do, based on what consequences it produces: sit is an operant behaviour that usually results in treats, affection, and so on. A dog learns to push on the dog door, and this operant behaviour results in access to the outside. And so on. The word operant is used because the dog is operating on their environment to get the things they need to survive and thrive.

So the next time your dog barks in order to earn some reinforcement, nod your head sagely and say “ah ha! That’s operant barking, I’ll have you know!” in a very scholastic tone. Then call in a dog trainer, because that’s the most piercing thing ever in the history of migraine-inducing sounds, and dog trainers are supremely good at reducing that particular operant behaviour. We trained our dogs to do it, after all. We can certainly train them to do something else, instead.

Update: five minutes after I went live with this blog, I thought of the term “On Demand Barking”. This shifts the meaning to be “getting what I paid for” instead of “my dog is demanding”. I may use this phrase from now on with my clients!

Kristi Benson1 Comment