How can I stop my blue heeler from barking?
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Barking is a natural instinct. I won't attempt to explore the philosophical issue of whether punishing dogs by electrocution for doing so is humane, but I will tell you that I use a bark collar on my heeler (so...there's a hint as to where this article is going). And not the kind with a gentle vibration or a beep or a puff of citronella. The real deal.
I thought this perspective on barking by LaVarr Webb was interesting and probably the most correct in an ideal world. To summarize her position in my own words: dogs bark for a reason. Embrace and appreciate it, because they're probably doing it to protect you or your property.
While my personal circumstances necessitate taking action to reduce barking, perhaps in your situation a simple perspective shift is all you need.
As someone who keeps a heeler as a domestic pet and lives in the city, I get a lot of foot traffic by the house, and a heeler's instinct to protect its territory is not exclusive to working dogs on ranches. Aside from being annoying to us and any neighbor within earshot, barking can be (and has been, in our case, along with a one-off accusation that I was actually "training him to bark at black people") perceived as aggressive. In my city, there's a local ordinance that prohibits ownership of a dog whose barking or yelping causes a "serious annoyance to the neighborhood."
We started a traditional positive-reinforcement training approach by actually sitting with him every single time he went out and giving him a treat each time a person walked by, but this was not only impracticably time-consuming, but also pointless. Instead of running up and down the fence line barking, he would instead sit just out of arm's-reach and bark, presumably protecting our actual person from harm, or remaining as close as possible to the source of the treat. Which is very heartwarming, but also no less annoying to us or the neighbors.
Something that turned out to be accidently somewhat effective was introducing him to "regulars" - neighbors who walked by often. Opening the gate and taking him out, giving them treats to give to him. (Never underestimate the ability of food to endear someone to a dog.) It didn't stop him from barking, like we planned, but it DID seem to make people hate him less for barking at them. We found that if we took the time to do this, it greatly improved the response of the person to both the dog and US. We heard a lot less "SHUT THE **** UP" and/or "SHUT YOUR ****** DOG UP" and a lot more "Hey little buddy! Don't worry, it's just me!" So...I guess you could say we were rather more effective at training the people than the dog.
As for the general barking, we did decide to try a bark collar. The one we went with (the Educator brand BP-504 BarkLess) has a setting where the level of "correction" starts very low, and increases with each bark and was very well reviewed, which is why we chose it.
Does it work?
Yes, with some (what I find to be comical and insane) exceptions.
He still barks once. This is way better than barking for the entire duration of someone walking the entire block (which is what he did before). Then the collar, either gently or not-so-gently depending on how many times that day he's already barked, reminds him not to.
He still makes...other noises. Heelers are insanely smart (one of the 10 smartest, actually...) He has figured out exactly how loud he can whine, yip, grunt, moan, etc without setting off the collar...he's basically come up with a non-barking vocabulary to express himself. Again, WAY BETTER than barking loudly and incessantly, and comes across as much less aggressive. And it's kind of cute and funny. Most of the time.
He still barks when he's not wearing the collar. In case you needed more proof that HEELERS ARE SMART. The collar has trained him not to bark when he's wearing it. He knows that when he's not wearing it, he can bark without consequence. And he does.
Sometimes barking is worth it. Oh yeah, heelers are tough, too. There are some situations where I can hear that he's getting zapped, and he just DOES NOT CARE. Whatever threat he's sensing is worth the discomfort. This is very rare, and usually happens if there's some unusual pedestrian situation (scooters, roller blades, wheelchairs...as if he can tell it's human, but not moving appropriately for a human...)
All in all, totally worth it. I'd buy a new one every month if I had to. I had considered a cheaper version from Amazon, but it was important to me to get one that had the increasing level of shock (this one also has an option to use a warning beep) versus just a static zap with every bark. It's also rechargeable, but I think in the 5 or 6 months I've used it, I've charged it twice (including the initial charge).
So, I know there is controversy around shock collars and around "negative reinforcement" in general, but for us, it was worth keeping our sanity and the peace with the neighbors.