If you’re a dog owner and have a “world class” barker in the house, you may already know the stress of shattered quiet or dealing with unhappy neighbors.
Dogs always bark for a reason. Studies have even shown that different barks express different emotions (though a few breeds, like the poodle and the American Staffordshire Terrier, appear limited in their vocal repertory). The more high-pitched, atonal and repetitive the bark, the more indicative it is of a dog under stress.
A recent study of 84 dogs from nine breeds, including Poodles, Weimaraners, American Staffordshire Terriers, German Shepherds, Alaskan Malamutes, Bull Terriers and Muensterlaenders, recorded as many as a dozen variations of some types of barking among the dogs. Subtle variations even corresponded to “dialects” which were used by the dogs in identical situations at different times.
Although there is no difference in the percentage of excessive barkers between males and females, males tend to bark less once neutered because they’re less territorial. There’s also a breed difference in barkers; Many Beagles, Terriers, and some herding breeds tend to bark more – not surprising, since this is one of the characteristics for which they were bred.
Virtually all canine behavioral experts agree that the key to solving the problem of excessive barking is to understand what’s causing it. To solve problem barking, you’ll need some patience and understanding, but teaching your barker a couple of very basic obedience commands will help a lot, too.
Oddly enough, teaching your dog to bark on command is a good way to teach them also how to stop. By learning when barking is desirable, they also learn what your word is for when to stop.
What doesn’t work:
– Shouting “No” louder than the dog only makes things worse since the dog perceives this as YOU barking, too. It’s not a long term solution;
– Hugging or talking soothingly to the dog when barking is a “no no” because the dog comes to believe that there IS something of which to be concerned. Coddling simply reinforces barking.
– Striking the dog doesn’t address the cause of your dog’s barking. If your dog is barking out of anxiety, hitting her only adds betrayal to the list of what worries her since she looks to you for guidance, not pain.
– Throwing items AT the dog. This is a good way to ruin a show dog and also introduces another reason for the dog to bark. Throwing can-filled pennies is a method of distraction, but it needs to be done correctly. Keep reading.
– Crating or confining the dog to a small space for hours and hours. This alone can cause barking.
The leading causes of barking?
Startled or Fear Barking
Attention-Seeking or boredom
Loneliness or Separation Anxiety
Let’s explore the cause and remedies for barking a bit more fully.
Separation or Loneliness Anxiety: This is probably the leading cause of excessive barking; It can also be the most difficult to determine since it typically occurs when a dog’s owner is gone. Unless the owner receives a complaint, they many never know they have a problem barker. Complicating the matter is trying to determine when barking IS excessive. Some neighbors have a hair trigger when it comes to barking and even a few normal “woofs” is enough to generate a complaint. Be suspicious of your dog if s/he displays behaviors that reflect a strong attachment to you, such as following you from room to room, greeting you frantically, or overreacting anxiously whenever you prepare to leave.
Anxiety barking becomes self-reinforcing as a dog becomes more stimulated and anxious. The more anxious the dog, the higher in pitch the bark. These barks are especially audible to neighbors.
Separation anxiety barking can be remedied with counter-conditioning, desensitization and teaching the dog how to relax. Commanding the dog to “lie down,” for instance, is handy because reclining dogs don’t bark as vigorously when lying down.
The best way to desensitize a dog to your leaving is to run frequent “drills.” Start out by pretending to leave the house by changing your habits. Most of us have predictable patterns of behavior before leaving the house and this contributes to the dog becoming anxious. If, for example, the last thing you do before leaving the house is to pick up car keys, DON’T pick up the car keys last, put your shoes on last instead – and then don’t leave. Go to the couch and read a book; Pick up the phone and pretend to talk. If you play music but only on weekends when you are home, turn it on during your workdays. As hard as it may be, set your alarm on weekends, get up, but stay home. Continue changes in routine until your dog pays no attention to your cues anymore. It is also very important to not give your dog a lot of attention when you leave.
Work your way up to actually leaving the dog for a very short time, say, a minute or two. Before the dog starts getting nervous and barking, come back into the house. You’re not rewarding barking, you’re rewarding relaxation and silence. Gradually extend the time you’re gone, and return before the dog gets anxious. If your dog is anxious even if you leave the room, then you will need to start by just taking several steps away from her while she remains relaxed. You cannot go too slowly during this process – but you can go too fast.
If you suspect your dog is lonely, hire a pet sitter or dog walker, or look into a “doggie day care center or play group,” increasingly attractive and practical options that’s a “win win” for all involved. You can expect to pay up to $25 a day, but it’s far cheaper than fines or constant complaints from the neighbors. To find a doggie day care center or “play group” for your dog, consult your veterinarian, local training facility or check out the phone book. High end pet shops also typically know who in the area offers pet sitting or play group options and often carrying their business cards.
Always remember that your dog is NOT punishing you, nor is he enjoying himself when he’s barking because he’s lonely or anxious. Think about how you feel when you’re truly overwrought about something and you’ll get an idea of how your dog feels. Be patient and understanding as you help your dog work through this – and keep communication open with disgruntled neighbors to show that you ARE working on the situation. Dog pounds are filled with confused and bewildered dogs who’ve been dumped there because their owners were either forced to give them up because of barking, or because they failed to work with the dog’s problem.
Barking for Attention Seeking or boredom: Dogs of any age quickly learn that humans pay attention to their barking. It doesn’t matter if we’re furious with them or that we’ve just shouted “NO!” Negative attention is still attention and reinforces barking. Hard as it may be, it’s best to ignore this type of barking which can be like a persistent yap that turns into a howl. Sometimes, the use of a remote correction is helpful in controlling this type of barking: Coins in an empty soda can be tossed away from the dog which will distract him from barking. Timing is important and at this point, give the dog a substitute for barking such as a treat, a toy or a walk. Just make sure she stops barking before you give the substitute or the dog will perceive it as a reward for barking.
If the dog is left alone a lot, has little chance to interact with you, has an environment devoid of companions or toys, or is a dog under three years old, the dog is probably barking out of boredom. Increase the dog’s “people time” by taking walks, playing fetch or Frisbee®, teaching a few commands, attending an agility class, and providing safe, interesting toys to keep the dog busy. Kong®-type toys filled with peanut butter or broken up dog biscuits… busy-box toys… Treat Dispensing Balls, these are excellent choice. Rotating the toys will make them seem new and interesting, and hiding different toys around the dog’s environment also helps.
Self-identification barkers can be difficult to control, especially in a household of multiple dogs and PARTICULARLY if the dogs are kept outside. There’s usually an instigator dog and other dogs tend to join in. This is the barking your dog does when s/he hears other dogs barking. It can be controlled by using obedience and relaxation methods, and by offering substitute behavior like playing with a toy. If the sound of other dogs barking gets your dog to start, you can teach her how to respond appropriately by visiting web sites where you can select various dog barks for your dog to hear. Just do a Google search on “dog barking audio.” When your dog hears the computer barking and he starts barking, use the opportunity to teach your dog how to respond to by saying, “Enough.” The very second your dog stops – if only to draw breath for the next bark – pop a treat in his mouth and gush, “Good boy!” Repeat. Do this daily and be sure to do it outside under “real” circumstances, as well.
Territorial Alert and Warning barks are used to warn off intruders, be they man or beast. These warning barks are low in pitch, can be combined with growls – and if you’ve even heard your dog make this sound, you know that it’s unlike any other sound your dog makes. Most of us appreciate this canine “early warning system” and think it’s appropriate to reward with a “What is it, girl?” or “What do you hear, fella?”
If and when no intruder appears, give the dog the command, “Enough” to show that you believe the alarm has passed and that it’s okay to stop vocalizing. If the dog doesn’t stop this menacing sound, however, believe the dog.
Territorial barks become problematic when leveled at joggers, delivery people or kids on bicycles and can happen during walks or from the dog’s own backyard. The dog’s barking is reinforced by the fact that these people eventually leave, and now the dog thinks HE made the intruders go away with his barking. To stop this kind of barking, you need to teach the dog to respond to a command or signal to stop.There are a couple of ways to do this:
One way is to start by making a noise to distract the dog from barking. AS SOON as the dog stops, say, “enough” and immediately reward the dog either with praise or a treat. Don’t give the reward until the barking stops or the dog will think that it is being rewarded for barking, not for stopping the barking.
Another approach is this one: When your dog begins to bark at a passerby, allow two or three barks, then say “enough” and interrupt the barking by squirting water into her mouth with a spray bottle or squirt gun. The surprise should cause her to stop barking, if only for a moment. In that moment, and while she’s quiet, say “Good Dog!” in a happy voice and pop a treat into her mouth. The squirt isn’t meant to punish her but to surprise her into quieting so you can reward her.
Play/excitement barks are often short and sharp. These barks are common if the dog gets too excited with the game whether it’s with you or another dog. When the barking is excessive, it’s best to stop the play, let the dog(s) calm down, and only allow play to resume when the barking stops. if it starts up again, repeat the process. If it STILL continues, it’s time for a substitute activity.In time the dog(s) will learn to play with their “inside” voice.
Startled or Fear barking happens when the dog is faced with an unfamiliar or sudden sound or movement – like a car pulling into the driveway, or thunder. Your dog’s posture indicates fear: ears back, tail held low…and his barks are short and crisp. This type of barking responds well to desensitivity training. In essence, you expose the dog to the sounds that consistently startle him. Start by recording the sound, like thunder, fire crackers, motorcycles,etc, or buy a recording of the sound. Play the sound to the dog very softly so that your dog will stay relaxed when hearing it. If she remains quiet, then reward her. Over days and weeks, gradually increase the volume until she is no longer startled into barking when she hears it.
Ultimately, if nothing works to solve your dog’s excessive barking behavior, you just may have a pathologic barker – a dog who barks in an obsessive-compulsive manner over inappropriate things (a leaf falling) or becomes hyper-excited and aggressive with the approach of people or other dogs. These dogs need more serious behavior modification and a team-approach is highly recommended.
The team can be family members, dog friends, or anyone who is willing to work with the dog as long as they know to use the same commands in the same way as all the other team members. The services of a behavior modification expert can be highly useful in this scenario, as can a veterinarian who might recommend medication during the early going. We view medication as a last resort, but if faced with neighbors who are threatening to take you to court, your options are few.
Speaking of options, there are other remedies for barking and we’d be remiss in not mentioning them, though we believe they don’t attack the root of problem barking: the cause. These options include bark collars and de-barking.
Bark collars work by producing a response to barking that the dog notices and presumably doesn’t like. Be aware, however, that for some hard core barkers, they would rather bark and be punished than not bark at all.
Citronella collars spray citrus scent or mist around the dog’s muzzle when the dog barks. Some collars make a sound before spraying as an additional deterrent. In theory, dogs aren’t supposed to like this smell, but we’ve heard of dogs who quite liked it. One positive aspect to a citrus collar is that it can alert you to the fact that your dog was barking while you were gone since the citrus smell still lingers in the air;
Sonic/ultrasonic/vibration collars produce an allegedly inaudible note that over times, becomes annoying enough to the dog to deter barking.
Electrical shock collars sting or shock the dog when the dog barks. We don’t like them. Not only do we prefer positive reinforcement, but we also find that shock collars don’t distinguish between normal barking and problematic barking. Ultimately, the collar punishes the dog for being a dog. We also don’t like the fact that not all collars have a failsafe mechanism that shuts off after a certain time to prevent ongoing operation. Imagine if the dog get out of the yard or is lost and is stuck in the collar until the battery dies.
Combination collars use both sound and spray together, while escalation collars use low levels of output that increase gradually until the barking stops. Escalation devices are a bit more “sporting” in that they “reward” the dog for stopping sooner and give the dog a chance to learn by inhibiting barking before a greater response is dispensed.
Debarking (which is illegal in the UK) is intended to lower the volume of a dog’s bark by surgically reducing tissue in the dog’s vocal chords. Some vets use a punch to remove tissue, others make cuts, while still others use a laser. The dog can still bark but sounds “hoarse.’ In some dogs, scar tissue can form and the dog will bark louder than when first debarked. This is a hotly debated topic in some circles, particularly in light of a move around the country by animal rights groups to outlaw debarking. Some people find the sound of a debarked dog more annoying than an actual bark, others find it to be their only option when faced with a pathological barker, neighbors threatening civil action and animal control breathing down their neck.
We don’t always get perfect dogs, but I haven’t met one yet who wasn’t worth the effort, time and patience.