Silence is gold, dog. Teaching a dog to be quiet on request

Blog post about how to teach a dog to be quiet on command
By Laure-Anne Visele, April 2015. Full illustration credits at the end of the post.
Method inspired by Karen Pryor’s Reaching the Animal Mind. Review out soon on Canis bonus 

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am a behaviour therapist for dogs. I help dog owners in The Hague (and Delft, Westland, Wassenaar, Rijswijk, etc.) fix their dog’s behaviour problems.

Be it obedience issues or dysfunctional behaviour, I give you modern tips on how to fix it. My methods are affordable, evidence-based and dog-friendly.

I am a dog behaviourist for Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! dog training school. I graduated in Zoology and certified as a dog training instructor. I have a Postgraduate in Applied Animal Behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

I am The Hague’s dog nerd. If you want help or tips with your dog’s behaviour, and live close to The Hague, tell me about the problem here.

Quiet boy

Here comes my dirty dog trainer’s secret. I HATE the sound of a dog barking. Luckily, my own dog hardly ever makes a peep. Friends have even asked if he was mute or something. He only barks in two avoidable situations, so I don’t mind so much. I figure if I want a completely quiet dog, I should get a statue.

If you want a quiet dog, get a statue

If you want a completely quiet dog, get a statue

Situation 1: Nightmare at the dog training school

One of my intern at OhMyDog! asked if she could bring my dog to her practical dog training exam. She called me halfway through to say she’d been asked to leave early because of the dog’s incessant barking!

So I attended dog training classes with him, to see it with my own eyes. I surveyed the local schools and picked DogLogix – if you’re not going for our school (OhMyDog!), definitely give theirs a go. Sure enough, he started barking the second he wasn’t working. It was frustration/demand/over-arousal barking.

We got tons of improvement by experimenting with (sorry, it gets technical) capturing quiet, opening/closing training sessions, and, I have to admit it, a couple of extinction bursts.

Situation 2: Party pooping dog

He also barks when I try to relax and have a chat with other dog guardians at the dog beach. He stands at the water’s edge and protests at the dive-bombing Labradors for daring to have a good time. Rodge doesn’t like the water, you see, so Dog forbid anyone else should have fun.

Swimming dog

Other dogs frolicking in the water drive my dog insane. Once a party pooper…

A mild barking problem

So my barking issues were definitely not top of my list of priorities, but hey. He has been showing signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (the doggie equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease) so any new trick is therapeutic. As long as I keep him learning, we’re slowing down the decline.

I started last week and, to my surprise, a couple of two-minute sessions later, and Mr. Oldiepants could bark on request! I am verrrry proud of my old guy. Here’s how I taught him.

Puppy steps

Imagine you are teaching your dog to sit, but he doesn’t yet sit reliably when you try to help him into that position. If you said ‘sit’ before every fumbled attempt, he would take ages to learn what the word meant. He’ll be thinking that it means sitting then bouncing back up; or not-quite-sitting; or lying down; or whatever mistakes he/you made on your way to the perfect sit. It’s always best to wait until you can reliably put the dog into position before you introduce a word for it.

All this to say: please do not say the word ‘bark’ quite yet. Let’s get him to do it reliably for a couple of sessions, and then add the request. Now that I’ve rained on your parade, let’s get started.

  • Put your dog in a situation where you are 150% certain he is going to bark. Please do not make him upset or aggressive in the process (tell me about these problems if you live close to The Hague.) You could have someone ring your doorbell, for example.
  • As soon as he barks, say ‘yes!’ in a jovial voice (or click if you are a clicker trainer) then give him a treat.
  • He has to be quiet to chomp on the treat, so you can click again for him being quiet (and give him a treat again).
  • Keep alternating between clicking for quiet and clicking for barking, to make the dog more conscious of both types of behaviours.

Keep this up for a couple of minutes. Stop way before the dog gets bored or frustrated. We want him to be dying for his next training session, not dragging himself through it.

Give the dog a cue

  • When you can confidently predict he is about to bark, say ‘bark’ in a jovial way just before he does it. It goes something like this: the doorbell goes, you say ‘Bark’, he barks.
  • Click/say ‘yes!’ and give him a treat.
  • He is now quiet, so say ‘shush’ in a whisper. Put your finger in front of your lips (i.e. the universal shush gesture) after the shush for extra effect.
  • Immediately click/treat for his quiet.
  • Repeat the ‘shush -> reward’ thing a few times. You’ll have to be quick on the reward once you’ve said ‘shush’, so he doesn’t have time to start barking.
  • When you feel he’s about to bark again, give the ‘bark’ request. And reward when he barks, then immediately go back to asking for a shush. If your dog barks before you had time to ask for it, take a step to the side and start again. Just try to capture whatever comes next (say ‘bark’ before he barks, say ‘shush’ before he shushes).
His Masters Voice

Learning when to listen, and when to speak.

This is my guy at that stage. That was after two or three tiny little sessions. And this is an old dog with learning issues. So if my dog can learn it so quickly, so can yours.

Husky marathon, not greyhound sprint

To build up duration – no point in a dog who stays quiet for only a split second – start delaying your click after you said ‘shush’. Bring about the increase gradually. The sweet spot, the right duration, is somewhere between demotivatingly easy and frustratingly impossible. It is challenging but not impossible.


Teaching duration: These guys are short-burst sprinters. We want our dogs to be marathon athletes.

Alternate between the short and gradually longer durations so he doesn’t guess a pattern. You could reward for:

  • 2 (easy) seconds of quiet
  • then 10 (challenging) seconds
  • then 2 (easy) seconds
  • then 3 (easy) seconds
  • then 9 (challenging) seconds
  • then 10 (challenging) seconds
  • then 2 (easy) seconds
  • then 10 (challenging) seconds
  • then 11 (challenging) seconds
  • then 3 (easy) seconds
  • then 15 (challenging) seconds
  • then 2 (easy) seconds
  • then 2 (easy) seconds
  • then 11 (challenging) seconds
  • then 14 (challenging) seconds

You don’t have to be that precise, just play it by ear. But do switch between short and challenging in an unpredictable way, and don’t go up in large increments.

Cosmopolitan dog

Practice in different places so he can generalize what he’s learnt, and learn that it applies everywhere.

Don’t be the dog training fool I was when, after he did it well just one time, I took him home to show it off. I had really oversold the surprise trick and my friends were half-expecting him to start flying a jet engine. So I said ‘Bark’ and he… looked at me quizzically. Total silence – aside from my friend clearing her throat and eventually saying “Aherm. Nice?”.

Traveling dog

Take this show on the road: practice in lots of different places to get the behaviour solid

Oooops. I had broken one of the sacred oaths dog training oaths: thou shall not expect your dog to perform a new skill in a new location if you have never practiced there. So don’t be the moron I was, and practice in a ton of places before take it in front of an audience.

Veteran dog

Lassie doesn’t exist, my good people, and solid dog training is a question of practice, practice, practice. Carnegie Hall and all that. Once you feel you’ve practiced enough, you can try to use it in real life, to really ask him to be quiet at times when he finds that hard. So please take these on the road:

  • The “shush”: Catch him in the act of being quiet in his daily routine. Say ‘shush’, make your gesture, and clicking/treat.
  • The “bark”: Transform moments of excitement from feeling shame at your dog’s embarrassing behaviour to feeling lucky about the training moment.

Fancy dog

And voila! Your dog goes quiet when you ask him, and you didn’t need to get angry or intimidate him to get there – which, by the way, is shoddy dog training and only serves to make the dog more wound up.

You also didn’t need to train for weeks on end. But the most beautiful thing of all is that, whatever used to drive him bonkers no longer does. He is too busy playing bark/shush for treats to bother about the dive-bombing Labradors. In the lingo, we call that a dog who ‘has gone operant’. I told you it would get fancy. I love big words, me.

Cool dog

Get fancy: teach him to do it everywhere, for a long time, and to stay cool throughout

Want to get even fancier? Say ‘talk’ instead of ‘bark’. It’s sure to get a few laughs at the park, and maybe your fellow dog owners at the dog beach can forgive his previous barking antics.

Illustration credits

No changes were made to any of the illustrations.

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