Dogs bark – it’s part of their normal and natural communication and behaviour. Dogs can bark for appropriate reasons such as when strangers approach our house, hear a noise or herding sheep. Most people want dogs to be “watch dogs” and alert us to anything unusual. But dogs can also bark inappropriately or to excess. Genetics, past experiences and learning, and present situation all have an impact on why your dog is barking. We also need to understand why they are barking to be able to manage this normal but nuisance behaviour.
Types of canine vocal communication
Dogs use many types of vocalisations to communicate and this communication starts very early in life. Young puppies make crying sounds when they are searching for food or warmth. Louder crying sounds are heard if the puppy is hurt or frustrated. As an adult dog, they will use different classes of sounds in different situations. The sounds are:
Howling – a means of long-range communication to signify territorial boundaries, locate other family members, coordinate activities such as hunting or attract other dogs for mating. Dogs may also howl as a reaction to certain stimuli such as sirens.
Growling – occur in different activities and used to threaten, warn, defend and or aggression. Growling is also used in play, by looking at the body posture we should be able to tell the difference and understand the motivation to growl. Growls during aggression are mostly accompanied by a stare or snarl and the dog often remains stationary. Play-growls occur in combination with a happy tail, jumping and a play bow to signal willingness to play.
Grunts – the equivalent of contented sighs in people. They can also be heard when dogs are greeting each other or people.
Whines -whimpers are short or medium-range modes of communication. Dogs may whine when they greet each other, showing submissiveness, frustration, pain, to obtain attention and sometimes in defence. It can be encouraged by owners especially as a puppy as the first sound you may hear from a new puppy is the whine at night when he finds himself alone. We often are guilty of unintentionally reinforcing this whining by giving the puppy attention after the whine.
Barking – is the most common mode of communication and when used to excess, it is socially unacceptable. Some excess barking can be the result of human encouragement or certain breeds have been bred to bark as part of their watchdog or herding duties. Barking is used to alert or warn others and defend a territory, to seek attention or play, to identify oneself to another dog, a response to boredom, excitement, being startled, lonely, anxious or teased.
Why they bark
Alert/warning – tend to become more rapid as the ‘intruder’ approaches. Most owners want or encourage this bark so their to alert them to the presence of a danger or suspicious stranger. It can become frustrating when the ‘intruder’ your dog barks at are birds, people walking by or sounds from far away.
Aggression – low in pitch and may be combined with growling. This may be to real fear like a stranger in your yard or pursieved fear like a vacuum cleaner. When dogs are barking aggressively frequently then an behaviour problem may be considered.
Attention-seeking – are high pitched, directed at its target and can continue for some time. This is used by puppies to get you to focus your attention on them. They can become very insistent and hard to ignore, but ignore them we must.
Play/excitement – are short and sharp, and occur if dogs get too excited with the game or target. A break from the stimulus will help in this situation.
Self-identification – is when your dog seems to be answering other dogs he hears barking in the neighbourhood, it a way of saying, “I am over here.”
Bored barkers – can bark frequently and at a range of stimulus. These dogs need an outlet for their energy and a more stimulating environment.
Lonely/anxious – barking occurs if your dog is experiencing separation anxiety. The barking can become self-reinforcing as he becomes more stimulated and anxious. Anxious barks tend to get higher in pitch as the dog becomes more upset. This type of barking can be especially annoying to your neighbours and very upsetting for your dog experiencing fear without you present.
Startle barking – occurs in response to an unfamiliar, sudden sound or movement. Do not to encourage this bark and consider boredom a factor as bored dogs can become reactive to small noises.
There are many reasons for a dog to and most barking is normal behaviour. In some instances, barking may be the result of a compulsive behaviour or a symptom of a behaviour related disorder.
Once you have an idea of why they are barking, you can then change a few factors to reduce the need to bark. Listed below is advice for different categories:
Dogs that bark at mail delivery people or people walking by your house have their barking behaviour reinforced – They see the mail carrier then bark, then the mail carrier leaves, which rewards this behaviour. The only way to control this is to stop them having access to the street – which can be very difficult. Another option is to bring them inside during peak activity such as school kids walking past or block visual access. In some situations for ‘Alert/warning’ barkers teaching them to bark and report can help (advice at bottom of handout). Do not inadvertently reinforce barking by giving verbal or physical reassurance to a barking dog (loudly asking your dog to be quiet).
Some dogs may start with an alert/warning bark, then it may progress to a bark that is associated with fear. One of the more common examples of this is those dogs that bark at approaching strangers. If your dog is barking out of fear, then we need to either remove them from the situation or desensitise them to the perceived threat. In some cases, a highly stressed, fearful or aggressive dog may suffer from an anxiety problem and requires further attention. Please talk to the staff if you think this may be your pet.
Aggression is a result of fearful behaviour, do not encourage your puppy or dog to bark at people. You may set a bad habit in motion and he may become suspicious and even fearful of people.
Young puppies and adults learn that barking may incite attention from us, if we encourage it. If we respond to their barking by looking or talking to them, then the barking will continue as a form of communication or way to get attention, even if it’s not our intention. It is best to just ignore this type of barking, as hard as that may be.
Some dogs get very excited during play and then can bark as of a result. At that time, stop the play and settle the dog, if this doesnt work then avoid games that encourage out of control barking or take away the stimulus. At the start, the barking may be short and not frustrating, but generally play behaviour gets more excited and stimulated meaning the barking will eventually get worse.
This type of barking is can be difficult to control, especially in a household of multiple dogs. Often there is an instigator dog and all other dogs join in. This type of barking may be controlled using a similar approach to alert/warning barks, i.e., obedience and relaxation methods with a substitute behaviour offered, like playing with a toy. If they are barking in the backyard to test a response, boredom may be the cause of this.
Dogs who bark when they are bored may be similar to dogs seeking attention or those that are lonely. Dogs who are bored need something to do besides barking which means we need to give them a more stimulating environment and usually a lot more exercise. A tired dog is less likely to be bored.
Dogs who bark alone may be showing a symptom of separation anxiety. The more anxious/worried they are, the more they bark, the more anxious/worried they get, the more they bark. If your dog barks and destroys things while you are gone, this is also a sign of separation anxiety. Never punish your dog when you come home and find something chewed or torn. Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety will not get better on their own. Seek veterinary help if you pet may suffer.
Dog’s can be easily startled for a few reasons, they can be bored and more reactive to noises outside their environment; They can become more worried or anxious from changes in the home, and become more reactive and worried about noises that don’t normally startle them. Keeping them locked up at night, having a radio on to dull out outside noise, giving them more environmental enrichment will help. Teaching ‘bark and report’ can help with these barkers too.
Tips to help
+ Shouting “No” is only going to make matters worse since you are responding to the dog’s barking.
+ Be patient with your dog and yourself. Changing behaviour takes a lot of time, and you need to take it slowly, one step at a time. If you become angry at your dog, the chance to correctly modify the behaviour will be gone.
+ Reward the dog for good behaviour. Positive reinforcement is much more powerful than punishment. Physical punishment will do nothing but make your dog fearful of you and break down the bond you wish to have with her.
+ Food treats are fine to use as a reward at first as it gives your pet motivation to listen and learn. Once the behaviour is constant, it’s important to phase out food reward (but always reward intermittently).
+ Do not give attention (talk) or play into your dog’s barking, this may make them believe there really is something to be alarmed, afraid or anxious about. This reinforces the behaviour and will increase the alarm or the frequency of the bark.
+ As much as possible set up situations to use as training, these should be short, frequent sessions and generally 5-10 minutes each.
+ Try to change the behaviour or substitute barking for another behaviour eg sit and drop.
+ Teach them to bark and report – that once they have barked a few times call them to return to you to inform you of the current situation. Reward and praise is used to train them to report to you.
+ Give them lots to do, take for regular walks and provide more enrichment so they don’t fill their day with barking.
+ Do not reward barking by shouting at them to stop, this unfortunately gives attention and can increase the frequency of the behaviour – especially if they are bored.
+ Place a radio in the area the spend their most time in or sleep in to reduce their reaction to noise from far away.
+ Lock them up at night to control them wondering around finding things to bark at.
Barking that is a nuisance is not the same as barking that is pathologically excessive. The barking discussed is normal barking behaviour (except for lonely/anxious). Barking can be abnormal or “pathological” in situations like separation anxiety; obsessive-compulsive disorder in which a dog barks very excessively or at inappropriate things (a leaf falling); in dogs who become hyper-excited with the approach of people or other dogs; or dogs who become aggressive during barking episodes. These situation are not of a training problem but a mental health problem and should be treated by a veterinarian for behaviour modification and medication.
Debarking is a surgical procedure that removes the vocal cords from dogs. Debarking will NOT result in a silent dog and they will still attempt to bark and make a hoarse sound which some people find more irritating than the bark itself. Debarking will not cure the reason for barking – the fear, boredom or anxiety will still be there. Sometimes the anxiety cab be worsened because the dog feels different and doesn’t get the short release of anxious energy that hearing themselves can give. There is council restriction on debarking of dogs and veterinarians may refuse to perform the procedure without prior behaviour modification.