Barking is not really the problem in domesticated dogs. It’s stopping it when you’ve had enough that causes the headaches!
Barking is natural for dogs. It’s a signal to the rest of the world and they often enjoy doing it. They use it to communicate with other dogs and with people and we sometimes encourage them to bark when we want them to warn us of strange visitors or protect our homes for example. Some dogs will bark more than others and under different circumstances and the problem is that they will sometimes do it too much. Dogs may bark in all sorts of different situations; if they’re excited, if they’re afraid, if something or someone approaches when they’re guarding, when they’re left alone to call back their owners to be with them, to gain attention, out of habit or out of boredom.
Interestingly, wolves do not bark a lot, although they can learn a bark equivalent if kept with dogs. Their kind of barking is used as a warning to the pack and the rest of the pack will respond to this signal. On the whole it is lower ranking animals that are the most vocal. In dog terms, a dog that barks wildly is actually somewhat less likely to be aggressive and actually bite than a silent animal.
The problems arise when the barking is excessive or if the dog won’t stop barking when you instruct her to.
The first thing you need to do is to work out why your dog is barking. Different barks mean different things and some even sound different. It would not be a good idea to go about stopping the barking if, for example, she’s trying to tell you that she needs to go out for a pee or that a suspicious stranger is just walking up the garden path!
She could be barking for many reasons:–
Trying to communicate something to you
Fear, generally or of something specific
Aggression towards other dogs
Trying to control your behaviour
Lack of socialisation with other dogs
It’s even possible that you have inadvertently rewarded her for barking in the past and that she’s learned to do it more as a result.
Try to think about the situation from your dog’s point of view. If you give her attention (even negative attention) when she barks or give her affection thinking she may be upset, she is likely to think that you approve of what she’s doing and do it even more as she will assume you are rewarding her for barking. If you immediately pat her for example, she may learn that barking is the way to gain affection and attention.
Barking is also what is known as self-reinforcing. The more dogs do it, the more inclined they are to do it some more, maybe because it relieves stress, gives them an adrenalin rush or because they have learned that it results in them getting something they want.
Fearful barking is common when dogs encounter unusual things or are taken by surprise. It isn’t always easy to be sure whether or not your dog is barking through nervousness or fear or whether it’s some other cause, and you may need to ask me to help you work out the cause.
Be vigilant and stay with your dog in the situations in which she tends to bark. If possible, until you have stopped the behaviour, or at least until you have it under control, don’t leave her unattended in situations in which you know she’ll bark because it is far more likely to become a habit when she is alone.
In your home and when your dog is calm, practise basic obedience instructions with her, like Sit, Stay, Bed and Come. These instructions are the foundation of a balanced relationship between you both and will help your dog to recognise you as an authority over her and someone she should respect.
Teach your dog to focus on you and to respect your authority generally. Ask her to be calm and look at you to reinforce this. Teaching her impulse control and calmly insisting on good manners will all contribute towards making her more receptive to your training.
Make sure you give your dog plenty of exercise, both physical and mental. She’s much less likely to want to spend time barking at something trivial if she’s happy, tired and fulfilled after a good walk or after playing stimulating games at home.
If you know something is about to happen that your dog will react badly to, you can distract her immediately before it happens with an instruction to do something that is incompatible with barking, such as sniffing the ground for treats or looking at you. Alternatively, try to stop the behaviour by teaching her to do something else instead when she barks, such as sitting down or going to fetch something when the postman comes to the door. Your dog cannot bark with a mouthful of dog toy!
The methods described above can be helpful if she’s afraid, and if you are sure that the barking is caused by fear it is also valuable to demonstrate to your dog that the things she fears are not a problem. Try associating whatever it is that causes the problem with something positive.
Once you are sure that she’s no longer afraid of what she has learned to bark at, you can try exposing her to it so often that she gets bored with it and gives up, a process known as ‘flooding’.
One very effective way to stop a barking dog is to train her to be quiet on request. The difficult part is getting her to understand that instruction. If you yell at your dog to be quiet she is likely to think you are joining in, not trying to quieten her down!
You can do this by putting the behavior ‘on cue’. It may seem counterintuitive but if your dog will bark on request you have a better chance of getting her to understand when to stop.
If your dog barks generally inside or outside the house, you may think she’s barking at nothing, but the chances are she has some good reason in her own mind. Check that she isn’t barking at something you can easily remove, such as a view from the window or something odd hanging in a tree.
Revisit your basic training with your dog. Go back to the Basics of Obedience and ensure she will ‘Come’ ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’ on command. Try not to leave her alone outside and call her into the house immediately. If you are consistent with this and she has been trained well to come when called it is not unusual for dogs to learn that a bark should be followed by a dash to the door. Perfect!
If your dog barks to get your attention or does it to ask you to do something for her, the chances are she is ignoring your authority, and this should be addressed differently.
You need to reestablish this authority to teach her good manners. It may even be that she feels responsible for you and that is a very onerous place to be as a dog, especially if she is not sure how to deal with the world. If you are confident that she is trying to demand something from you, ignore her when she barks at you. This means no touch, no looking at her and no speaking to her until she quietens down. You may need to be very patient and it might take several minutes, but it does work if you are consistent because she will eventually get the message that it is not achieving what she wants. You can also try teaching her to do something else as recommended above.
Dogs who bark when they are excited can be a challenge to quieten down. Identify a time when you know your dog is likely to be excited at home, where you can control the environment, and work to help her to understand that excited barking is not acceptable. For example, if your dog barks when you produce her lead for a walk, you have a great opportunity to do this. The second your dog barks, stop what you are doing and freeze, dropping the lead on the floor. Just wait for the excitement to subside, completely ignoring your dog and wait for her to display a behaviour that you do like, such as sitting down. Then, congratulate her calmly and carry on with your plans. Be prepared to do this many times before it has an impact. She will learn that the walk does not go ahead until she is calmly sitting down.
If your dog is barking because you have left her alone, think about whether or not she barks at you to get you to do things for her generally. If this is the case, she may well believe that barking loudly is the way to bring you home again so you will need to work with her to help her to understand that you do not give her attention unless you want to, rather than her insisting. Some dogs bark when alone because they are bored and it occupies the time. In this case make sure you give your dog log-lasting, high quality chews and toys to play with whilst you are away.
Finally, if your dog really is suffering from separation issues and panics when you leave her, she may need a programme of desensitisation and counterconditioning to accept being alone for a period of time. If this is the case, get in touch with me as separation anxiety can be a challenge to deal with effectively and you may well need support.
Sometimes it can help a dog to be exposed to the pheromones that a bitch produces to calm her puppies. These can be in a spray or a diffuser and can be effective in reducing anxiety and stress in some dogs, but rarely solve barking issues alone. Finally, some dogs with severe barking problems caused by separation issues can be supported by the use of medication in collaboration with your vet and behaviourist to help them to settle enough to be able to benefit from behaviour modification programmes.
However you approach the problem, you must be very patient and always consistent. Your dog doesn’t know that what she’s doing is not what you want and it may take time to get this fact to register, whatever the cause of the barking. When she does obey you and is quiet, always reward her with lots of affection.
Follow these guidelines and you will find yourself with a dog who knows when to bark and when to be quiet, and is happy and content.