My Dog Barks Relentlessly at Elmo on TV and It's Kinda Ruining My Life

Back of a black French bulldog's head watching Elmo on television.
IMDB/Getty Images

Oakley, my 10-year-old Pekingese mix rescue pup is basically perfect. She’s just the right size for my house. She loves to sleep in. And she could teach a clinic on cuddling. There’s just one problem…she barks relentlessly at the TV. There could be a cartoon dog silently in the background of a Simpsons episode, and this pup will blitz toward the screen jumping on her hind legs in attack mode.

Over the years, we’ve tried some half-assed attempts to quell the issue, but ultimately conceded to her barking. Sure, it was really, really annoying, but it wasn’t harmful. That was, until the behavior transferred from dogs to Elmo. “Just turn off Elmo then!” you might say. We wish we could turn off Elmo, but Elmo is our 2-year-old’s current obsession. Elmo is there for us when we need 20 minutes to prep dinner or respond to emails. We need Elmo. But Oakley’s barking at the furry red monster has made our virtual babysitter into an unbearable display of sonic aggression.

Whelp, as I’ve learned with a recent DIY plumbing project, sometimes it’s best to outsource. This time, I reached out to expert dog trainer Andrea Arden. Here’s what she told me.

Meet the Expert

Andrea Arden is the author of Barron’s Dog Training Bible, Dog Friendly Dog Training, Train Your Dog the Lazy Way, and The Little Book of Dog Tricks. She is a pet expert for The Today Show, Live with Kelly & Ryan, Animal Planet, and was the trainer for FX’s Emmy Award winning show, The Pet Department. Andrea has also appeared on 20/20, Dateline NBC, The View, CBS News, CNN, and PBS. She founded her dog training school in NYC in 1994 and has served on the board of directors of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Pets for Patriots, and Animal Haven Shelter.

Can My Old Dog Actually Learn a New Trick?

Arden says that old dogs can absolutely learn new tricks. Humans get to pursue continuing education, so why shouldn’t our pets? It just requires patience and persistence: “When using reward-based training, the process of teaching new behaviors is essentially a game played by dog and family that serves to improve communication and bonding, and to provide both mental and physical enrichment to a dog’s life.”

What’s Behind My Dog’s Barking at the TV in the First Place?

There could be a number of underlying causes behind this behavior, explains Arden. Maybe the sounds and/or images trigger a startle response and stress or anxiety or overstimulation. There’s also the possibility that a dog may perceive the sounds and/or images as a threat. And with high-definition televisions and upgraded sound systems, the stimuli are much more apparent.

How Do We Quell Barking at the TV?

“It would be wise for the peace and sanity of all family members to help your dog become more comfortable (and therefore less reactive) by spending a bit of time on desensitization and counterconditioning,” instructs Arden. To start, she recommends isolating the stimuli (just the sound or just the image) at first and then adding them back together:

1. Start with a Non-Triggering Show

After a few sessions, you can choose a channel that is more likely to cause a response.

2. Try to Do it During Mealtime

If you plan these practice sessions at your dog’s meal times, they’re more likely to be in the best state of mind to play the training game.

3. Turn the TV volume off

Again, focus on just one stimulus at a time.

4. Mark and Reward

A marker is a sound, like saying the word “yes” or “good” that is paired with a high-value food reward in order to give accurate feedback for behaviors we want (like simply glancing at you when the TV is on).

5. Repeat!

In most cases, a few sessions will set a good foundation for your dog to start glancing in your direction (in hopes of hearing the marker word and getting a small food reward). With practice, your dog will see the previously triggering images and respond by looking at you rather than barking.

6. Gradually Add Sound and Remove the Image

Practice the same routine with the television sound on very low volume to start and cover the screen with a towel. Mark, reward and repeat.

7. Uncover the Screen

Once your dog is consistently looking at you when a previously triggering sound is emitted from the TV, you can practice the above steps with the screen uncovered and gradually increase the volume.

How Do We Avoid Bad Behaviors in the Future?

“Professional trainers always suggest stepping in to redirect inappropriate dog behavior asap,” says Arden. Otherwise, those bad behaviors become habits. But Arden notes that it’s also important that your dog learn foundational behaviors like hand targeting, sit, down, stand, stay, and a go-to cue (where you can ask your dog to go to a spot like their bed or crate to lie down). This means you have a good line of communication with your dog and can easily redirect them towards appropriate responses and behaviors.

If only Elmo taught back-to-basics dog edition…

7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Getting My First Dog


Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...