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I have 2 pugs. When they see an animal on television, they alert and bark like crazy. If I tell them to stop, they will stop barking loudly, but continue to growl. If the animal stays onscreen for a few seconds longer, they start barking again.

It seems to be worse with horses or other barking / noisy dogs. If they notice other dogs on TV, they also get excited.

How can I change this behavior?

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Have you tried counter-conditioning your dogs using a positive (reward) based approach? That is, when the dogs start their behavior use a "tasty treat" to train them to turn away from the TV and sit quietly facing you on some cue. It may take several steps to train the complete behavior. I would suggest either consulting a good modern book on dog training or getting help from someone who is familiar with using reward based training methods.

A common objection to this approach is the belief that by rewarding the dogs, you would just reinforce their unwanted behavior. This reflects a common misunderstanding of dogs and a dog's attention span by humans. The link below is to a video on Dr Sophia Yin's web site where she demonstrates that it actually does not work this way.
Training Aggression? Counter-conditioning a Dog to Blowing in Face.

As Dr Yin explains in the video, the purpose of the treats in this case is to change the dog's underlying emotional state. Instead of an image on the TV being a reason to be alarmed, it becomes a "good" thing because it means a treat may follow if they behave properly.

Using aversives such as remote "shock" training collars is one of the worst ways to train a dog. It's not so much that you won't have an effect on the dog's behavior. It is that you won't know with a good degree of confidence what a dog is learning.

People, being people, think it is "obvious" that if the dog is shocked while barking it will make a direct connection between the shock and the barking. But if you view it from the dog's perspective, the dog has no idea from where or why the pain is coming. So how can you know in what ways it may change the dog's behavior?

You would also definitely increase the dog's anxiety level and that is never a good thing since it could lead to other behavior problems in another context. If a dog stops barking but then also begins to pee or poop in the house or chew or otherwise destroy property, would you be happy with the net results?

Yes, humans have used aversives as the primary training method for (probably) millennia. But this says more about how easily and completely people can misunderstand how dogs learn that it does about what training methods are most effective.

It was not until the last decade or so that behavioral research confirmed that using a reward based approach with minimal aversives produces the quickest and most consistent training results. This is becoming the standard approach with professional dog trainers. It is unfortunately taking much longer for the general public to catch up.

Update: 06 February 2014

Here is a link to a blog entry by Dr Patricia McConnell, "Simply Wrong". It begins with some observations about a particular type of shock collar she saw an ad for, the SimpleLeash. She gives examples of other interpretations a dog can make about the "shock".

From a comment by Chad:
We correct the behavior now and have for 3 years. But the behavior remains until they are scolded they bark.

If you have not yet tried to counter-condition the behavior, then I would urge you to do so. It sounds as though all you have trained them to do is bark until you bark back at them. I think teaching them a more acceptable, alternate behavior they can engage in would be more effective.

At the shelter I volunteer at we usually use counter-conditioning with dogs who react to other dogs. It can be very effective, but can also take a lot of repetition to generalize. It depends on the dog and how consistently you can train the alternate behavior.

While it's not pertinent, I personally find it interesting that you say you "scold" them. This is so quintessentially human. We have many behaviors which are so much a part of our being that it can be very hard for us to believe they might not be the most effective way to interact with another species.

Humans talk. We love to vocalize. But there is compelling anecdotal evidence that, at least initially, it is easier for a dog to understand hand signals than verbal cues.

We also love to hug. Dogs, in general, not so much. To Hug or Not?

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  • Ohh my pugs love to hug, kiss, snuggle, and pretty much any contact at all... Pugs are nicknamed Velcro dogs because they seem to attach themselves to you and my pugs are definitely like that. – user9 Feb 6 '14 at 22:44
  • I would also like to say I am not against the idea of the shock collar, but I think I am going to try to counter condition them with positive conditioning first. In times where I have been forced to use negative reinforcement the dogs did not learn not to do something so much as to hide it from me when they do. – user9 Feb 6 '14 at 22:47
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Dogs have an instinctual reaction to alert the pack when they are aware of another dog or animal in the vicinity that they are unfamiliar with. They can be alerted by smell, sight or sound.

A dog's mind is usually wired to smell. Even a little dog can have more than 20 times as many scent receptors as a human being, and their neural pathways are highly linked to this amazing ability. Source

Pugs are a bit of a unique breed in that their nose is much shorter which makes their sense of smell much worse comparatively to other dog breeds, so they can sometimes learn to rely on their senses more than their scent. This is possibly making them oversensitive to animals they see on TV where a basset hound may not be concerned at all since they trust their nose more.

The worse thing you can do is try to hold them or give them attention when they are exhibiting the unwanted behavior. This would be a reinforcement to them that they are right to be on guard and alerted to animals on TV. You are doing the right thing by correcting them with the barking, but make sure not to tolerate the growling afterwards. This means they haven't fully submitted to you and when you let that slide you cause them to question your ability as pack leader. Do not back down until they have fully submitted or relaxed in your presence, maintain the calm assertive leadership the entire time. If you are overly emotional or angry then you will seem unstable and that will probably make them more anxious.

The lesson should be that they should learn to not be so alert with their eyes and more so with their noses, as a dog naturally would. When they have fully relaxed after the correction you can reward them with a treat but make sure they are not visually fixated on the coming treat. Try and train them to look up to you and not the treat. Let them smell the treat before giving it to them.

Another way to reinforce the importance of smell to your dogs is to ensure that they do not greet other dogs or humans with visual fixation. Ensure they are being calm and submissive with their back turned away from the oncoming visitor. When the dog or person is in smelling distance then let your dog greet and identify with the visitor by using smell rather than vision.

The above exercises will help your dog move from visual fixations and focus on using their more primal senses.

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Desensitization may be effective, get a video that will have them on alert the whole time and play it over and over again, until they get tired. Currently they are getting positive reinforcement, because the creatures on the TV always go away when they bark!

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A remote control training collar will stop the behavior almost immediately. Many people are initially against the idea of using shock punishment. In my opinion, from many years of experience, the effectiveness in stopping the bad behavior and the fact that it usually only requires a few corrections (sometimes 1 or 2) makes it a valuable tool.

A chosen, short, one-word command, such as "Quiet", should be associated with the behavior you want to train. Say the dog's name, followed by the command. If you do not get the correct response, repeat the name/command, and then give a correction by pushing the button on the remote.

In many cases, the elimination of bad behavior using this method is far more humane because it allow for a quick, successful training and a healthy relationship between you and your dog. This means the dog will stay around and not be abandoned due to bad, 'untrainable' behaviors.

Edit: First let me say I LOVE dogs, more than most people. I have had a houseful of them for my whole life (55 years) and they a major part of my life and considered my family. I assumed there would be the normal negative response to punishment training. I am certainly not against positive reinforcement training methods and I use them often. But speaking from real world experience over many years, people often have a similar response to those shown here, but then are absolutely amazed at how fast behavior can be modified using training collar PROPERLY. Dogs do immediately make a connection between a behavior and a correction. It is not the only method or always the best method. But many times when push comes to shove, it is the method that WORKS.

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  • 2
    This is removing the symptom, not the cause. Proper way to handle problems with pets is to target the cause of it. – Esa Paulasto Feb 2 '14 at 8:05
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    Esa, I disagree. A bad behavior is not necessarily a symptom of some underlying problem, it can simply be learned or conditioned. In this case 'the underlying cause' is innate response to a stimulus. You cannot cure that, you can only change the behavioral response. In the end the behavior IS the problem, so curing the behavior can lead to the dog having a successful relationship with the owner/household. The dog's instinctual behavior is not an underlying disease that needs to be cured, but some behaviors that are derived from that instinct need to be shaped to fit a household environment. – user694 Feb 2 '14 at 22:04
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    There is no doubt we postively conditioned this response. When they were puppies it was so cute to see them yap at the screen with their little barks. After a month or so when they learned to bark loudly we realized what a mistake we made. – user9 Feb 2 '14 at 22:19
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    Chad, you certainly are not the first, nor will you be the last to be guilty of that. This is part of my standard speech to new puppy owners, "Do not allow behaviors that are cute now, but will not be when the puppy grows up". We all are guilty of it, because they are so cute! – user694 Feb 2 '14 at 22:26
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    Well, when you say "a symptom of some underlying problem" you make it sound sooo serious... That was not what I meant with the word "cause". Here the cause is the owners encouraging the dog's barking at animals in TV. That is the cause, and it's nothing so serious, but I'd still not use that dicsipline collar to fix it. – Esa Paulasto Feb 2 '14 at 22:51

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