Problem Barking

Thousands of years ago, humans began the process of domesticating the dog and shaping what 'being a dog' really means. Through careful selection and breeding, an astonishing variety of dog breeds have been created. Desirable traits have been selected for in various breeds that are of a benefit to humans. There are some traits, however, that quickly become undesirable when expressed too frequently. Barking is an example of a natural behavior that is encouraged in terms of guarding behavior, but becomes a problem when the behavior is produced in excess.

Why Do Dogs Bark?

Barking, in addition to whining, howling and growling, is a dog's natural means of communication. Barking is characterized by a series of short, sharp sounds that tend to vary little in tone or pitch. A dog's bark can signify territorial protection, exertion of dominance, or expression of some need. Typically, barking is 'a means of communication triggered by a state of excitement.' Being a natural trait, barking is not considered a behavioral problem, until it is produced in excess.

Causes of Problem Barking

Problem barking has a variety of origins. Some breeds are genetically predisposed to barking. However, excessive barking can exist in any breed of dog. It is best to prevent the behavior in puppies through appropriate training. The key to solving the problem of inappropriate barking in adult dogs is to determine what is triggering the behavior.

Many things can cause a dog to bark or howl. Barking is the perfect 'attention getting' behavior. Whether the dog is trying to get your attention out of loneliness, boredom, or frustration even negative attention (scolding/punishment) is better than no attention in the dog's eyes.

Dogs bark to alert their family to changes in the environment as well; strangers in the yard, knocks on the door, passing cars, thunder, etc. Unfamiliar noises can initiate barking at different times of the day. A dog may not bark at accustomed sounds during the day, but at night may be incited to a volley of barking, by the slightest of noises, much to the chagrin of the neighbors.

Anxiety and fear are also leading causes of excessive barking in dogs.

Solutions to Excessive Barking

Excessive barking can be a serious behavioral problem, but there are solutions.

Punishment is NEVER an option!

Yelling at your dog to 'be quiet' can actually make things worse because your dog may think you are 'barking' along with him. Physical punishment may startle the dog and cause him to bite in surprise. Other tools are available, like 'bark collars,' but these rely heavily the presence of the device. If the battery or the citronella spray runs out, the dog quickly discovers that it is free to bark again. Also, these 'no bark' devices are activated by a certain level of sound and some dogs will learn exactly how loud they can be without triggering the device. This still allows the barking to continue, if only at a lower level.

The best thing to do is prevent exposure to the stimulus that causes the barking when you cannot be there. When you are with the dog, ignore or redirect him depending on what is causing the barking.

Attention getting behaviors should be ignored unless there is a potential for injury to you or your pet. In other words, if the dog is barking at you to get your attention, don't give him ANY attention until he is quiet. When you look at him, talk to him or touch him, whether to 'scold' or 'comfort' - the dog got your attention and won. By ignoring him until he is quiet, and then giving positive attention, you will teach him that quiet and calm behavior gets your attention.

If the barking is focused at someone or something else, the first thing is to make sure your dog cannot practice the behavior when you are gone. When you are home, practice calling the dog away and redirect his attention back on you. Do this by calling the dog and rewarding him with food. Practice 'come' when the distraction is not there first. A good recall - fast response to the word 'come' - can solve a lot of behavior problems.

(See our article on creating a good recall)

Once the dog knows that 'come' means he will get a treat, start using it when he is barking. You may have to get right up next to the dog at first and show him the treat while calling 'come.' Barking is a self-rewarding behavior. It pumps the dog up and gets him excited. It can seem like he's ignoring you, when he's really just so revved up that he doesn't really even hear you. Get his attention with the food, call him 'come' and lead him away from what he was barking at.

With consistency and a lot of practice, you will be able to call your dog away from the barking and enjoy the peace and quiet. Remember to always reward your dog for coming to you.

Barking/howling caused by separation anxiety may not be as easily resolved. Sometimes we need to help relieve the dog's anxiety with medication before they can improve. Your veterinarian may need to prescribe something for anxiety.

If you need help with a noisy canine, please contact us for a consultation. We want to help keep your pet a welcome part of the family.

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Judy Seils

Judy Seils has over 20 years of experience working with dogs and cats in the most stressful of environments, the veterinary clinic. During that time, she taught dog training classes and helped clients with behavior issues. She trained and competed with two of her dogs, Dreamer and Shiloh, in flyball, and coached other teammates in training their dogs. Judy also had fun working with Dreamer and Shiloh in freestyle.

Though currently dogless, Judy is clicker training her calico cat, Ruby who is keeping her humble as they work on such behaviors as sit, beg, give me five, wearing a harness and others. Cats are definitely harder to train than dogs, but also fun to work with.

Judy loves using her knowledge to help other people train their dogs and cats.

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Last updated 5.7.2022