Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

When I first published this piece in 2014, I had no idea of the firestorm it would create. I thought (and still think) it was a pretty mild critique. It’s an analysis of what Bark Busters’ own written materials say about their training philosophy. They weren’t pleased, though. But it’s still here, and draws a fair amount of traffic. I’ve edited it for clarity and hope it is helpful. —Eileen Anderson, September 2019

A friend recently shared a flyer from Bark Busters, a franchise dog training business. It is called “Barking: The Facts” and can be seen at this link. 

The flyer made me interested so I set out to investigate the methods of this franchise.

The main pages on the Bark Busters website have wording that appeals to the many people who want to get their dogs to behave without hurting or scaring them. Some of the phrases are: 

  • “Positive relationship”
  • “Lasting emotional bond”
  • “Communicate effectively”
  • “Consistency and natural techniques”
  • “Reinforce and strengthen the bond”
  • “Develop pleasant, obedient nature”
  • “Happy lifelong buddy”

But is this consistent with the training methods they use? If we look harder, there are some red flags:

  • “Pack leader”
  • “Transform a problem dog…often in only a matter of hours”
  • “All without treats or the need for harsh punishment”

Hmm, the analyses on how to judge dog trainers by their own business descriptions show that we actually have quite a bit to worry about here.

  • Pack leader is an indicator that most problems will be addressed by rank reduction, usually by the use of harsh aversives. In this kind of “hammer” mindset, even normal puppy annoyances are often treated like nails.
  • Any bragging about short training times with magical transformations is also a big warning. It generally indicates suppression and punishment as well. Trainers who are educated in behavior science know there are many factors out of their control when working with a dog and her family. They don’t make guarantees of magical transformations. They know that success is affected by the dog’s history and the client’s buy-in. This kind of guarantee is almost always made by trainers who will suppress the dog’s behavior through pressure and startling techniques, if not outright painful punishment. This can have the appearance of immediate success, especially in a first visit when the trainer has novelty on his side. Methods for suppressing behavior are conceptually familiar to most of us since we live in a punishment-based culture. They can show immediate, although temporary, results.
  • Without treats? Oh-oh. Food is the main primary reinforcer we have at our disposal. If there are no food or toys in use, behavior change depends on the use of aversives. Don’t get distracted by the red herring of “praise.” Sure, some dogs like praise. Most won’t work nearly as hard for it as they will for a hot dog, though. The focus on praise masks what methods are actually changing behavior: aversive ones. (See the photo below.)
  • Finally, “no harsh punishment” leaves “moderate punishment” on the table. And of course the company is the one defining what constitutes “harsh” punishment. The dog’s opinion might be different.

So don’t be surprised at the tools this franchise teaches people to use. They aren’t tools that help create a lasting emotional bond with a happy lifelong buddy after all. Airhorns, spray bottles, penny cans, and special bags with chains in them to throw. Bark Busters also teaches a special growly way to yell at one’s dog, using the word “Bah!”. This is another red flag, the idea that a particular word or sound has some intrinsic magical power to communicate. 

Note: the round things are not disc toys

The items in the photo above were all collected by a trainer friend who was called to help families who had previously hired Bark Busters.

The disc-shaped things (throwing bags) and the spray bottle have Bark Busters’ logo on them and appear to be provided by the company. The air horns were purchased by Bark Busters’ clients on the advice of Bark Busters’ trainers, and the penny cans were created by the clients on their advice. 

The preceding was a little overview of what we can glean about their methods. But what I’m most interested in is the mixture of information and mythology about barking in the flyer.  

Bark Busters’ Flyer about Barking

The flyer starts out all right, saying that barking can be a sign the dog is stressed. But then in the first bullet point, it says that dogs who bark at “birds, dogs, people, falling leaves, or clouds” are “nuisance barkers.” How very sad for the dogs who are scared of any of those things and are barking out of fear. Especially given the tools above, whose main functions are to startle and scare.

You can be pretty sure that a company bragging about using no treats does not use desensitization/counter conditioning as a training technique. This is the established and most widely accepted treatment for fear in dogs.

There is an interesting subtext to the flyer. It is the idea that dogs can come to distinguish and alert you to true threats to your family. You just have to get rid of the “nuisance” barking first. The flyer includes the following:

As they reach maturity, most dogs will naturally protect their owners when needed and where necessary…

Why, oh why can’t they join the 21st century and learn about dog behavior?

So when the problem behaviors have been removed, you supposedly have a dog who will guard your family. It doesn’t explain how the dog, if he has been punished for barking, will magically know that in a stranger danger situation (and only then), he should bark.

The idea that all dogs can intuitively recognize a threatening human dies hard. I have no doubt there are some dogs who can perceive a real threat from a human. They are way more perceptive than we are in so many ways. And of course, some breeds have been selectively bred for protection.

But that probably isn’t true for Susie the noisy sheltie or Boomer the baying beagle. And any undersocialized dog (and there are tons of them) is going to see threats everywhere. Undersocialized dogs may be as likely to attack a toddler, a man with a beard and hat, or somebody on crutches as they are someone who is threatening actual violence. It’s scary that Bark Busters is promulgating the idea that we should leave it to dogs to decide when aggression might be acceptable.

This is quite amazing, the idea that your dog can learn to be quiet all the time except when a criminal comes to your home. All by your throwing stuff and yelling when he barks.

Another problem is the inclusion of “demand barking,” in the list of problems. Bark Busters fails to point out that demand barking is maintained by the humans who reinforce it. It’s a problem we usually create, whether we know it or not. Dogs do what works. One of the first things I successfully trained my rat terrier Cricket was to stop barking for her meals. After I learned some basics about behavior science, I stopped reinforcing the barking (which was being reinforced by her whole meal!) and started reinforcing her for being quiet. I, a novice trainer, did this in a few sessions over a week’s time. No more demand barking after four years of it. But the idea that we humans need to change our behavior doesn’t fit into the rank reduction model. The result is especially sad. As long as humans don’t become aware of the ways they reinforce barking, the dog will likely receive reinforcement and punishment alternately for the same behavior.

The Biggest Myth

But the biggest myth is the idea that the training methods Bark Busters focus on are benign ones. They are not benign. Using some basic premises about behavior science, one can state some of the likely effects of this casual use of aversives.

If you startle your dog with a throw chain, an air horn, a penny can, or by yelling, “Bah!” as Bark Busters instructs:

  • Your dog may become scared of you;
  • Or (more) scared of the thing they were barking at in the first place;
  • Or scared of the area in which this happened;
  • Or scared of some other random thing that was present when scary things started to happen.
  • Your dog may shut down in general, as you suppress behaviors without teaching alternatives.
  • Your dog may redirect aggression, i.e. bite you or another vulnerable member of your household: a child, a cat, another dog.
  • Your dog may develop a “punishment callus.” This is common. Since very few people really want to hurt or startle their dogs, people usually start out lightly when they use an aversive method. The result is that the aversive must be escalated over time to get the same result. You will eventually reach a limit, either with what you can physically do, or what you are emotionally willing to do, to scare or hurt your dog. Then what? I do have to wonder how many times those throw bags have been thrown at the dogs instead of near them,  no matter what the instructions are.

References on fallout from aversives. 

Oh, and by the way, it’s not just the dog who can get ill effects. If the actions you take successfully interrupt the barking (note that I didn’t say solve it; just interrupt it momentarily):

  • You will be reinforced for using aversives, becoming more likely to do so again;
  • You will likely increase the severity of the interruption as time passes (see above about the punishment callus). Barking is a natural dog behavior and difficult to suppress successfully.

Our best friends deserve better than this.

Note: This post is based on what Bark Busters say about themselves in their promotional materials. You can view the flyer and website yourself. It’s about the tools they promote, and includes information (based on principles of behavior science) about the general, known effects of such tools. I haven’t directly experienced training from Bark Busters and make no claim that I have. 

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Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson