Features March 2005 Issue

What Different Dog Barks Mean

7 reasons your dog is barking, and some suggestions for you to stop it.

[Updated July 6, 2016]

Quiet reigns in my house – for the moment, anyway. I look at young Lucy sleeping on her bed on the floor next to my desk and appreciate the rare moment of tranquility.

Like so many herding dogs, the year-old Cardigan Welsh Corgi lying at my feet is vocal. She barks when she’s excited. She barks when she’s playing. She barks when she wants something. She barks to alert us to visitors. She barks out of frustration. She barks when she hears a dog bark on TV. Not just any bark, mind you, but a shrill, high-pitched bark that grates on your nerves.

Cross an active breed with a long, solitary day in the yard, and you will probably end up with a problem barker.

When we were in the final stages of completing her adoption from the local Humane Society, the animal care supervisor approached me with an expression of concern on her face. “That little dog you’re adopting ... she’s, um, pretty vocal,” she warned.

I shrugged. Dogs bark. What’s the big deal? I could train her to be quiet, I thought to myself confidently. Little did I know what a challenge it would be in this case.

Dogs do bark – some more than others. Like Lucy, they bark for a wide variety of reasons. Fortunately, like Lucy, most dogs can learn to control their barking – at least enough that we can live with them in relative peace and harmony. Some, however, are easier to teach than others

Why Do Dogs Bark?

While dogs are primarily body language communicators, they also use their voices to share information with other members of their social group. Compared to their wild brethren, however, our domesticated dogs use their voices far more – a tendency we have genetically encouraged. We’ve created herding breeds, including Shelties, Border Collies, Welsh Corgis, and others, who use their voices when necessary to control their flocks. We’ve bred scent hounds to give voice when they are on the trail of prey.

We’ve also created a lot of breeds whose predilection for barking is a side effect of their main purpose. For example, we created many terrier breeds for hunting small rodents. These dogs are often notoriously barky, perhaps from generations of excited pursuit of their prey. Likewise, many of the toy breeds are known to be “yappy,” serving double duty as door alarms as well as lap warmers.

For what it’s worth, we’ve also produced breeds that have a reputation for quiet. Many of the guarding breeds tend not to announce their presence, but instead carry out their duties with a quiet intensity. Chows, Akitas, and Mastiffs are more likely to escort you off the property with a low growl or a short warning bark rather than a canine chorus. And of course, Basenjis don’t bark at all; they scream when they are displeased.

7 Reasons Your Dog Barks

We’d probably all be pleased if our dogs limited their barking to those situations for which they were bred to give voice, but of course they don’t. Those who have inherited a propensity for using their voices freely in one situation are highly likely to use them freely in others as well. And so, we end up with “nuisance” and “problem” barking.

Problem barking comes in a variety of flavors, each with its own unique triggers and solutions. Your dog might bark in several different situations, requiring a multipronged behavior modification program. We’ve outlined the most common triggers and solutions below.

Whatever the cause of your dog’s barking, don’t make the mistake of yelling “Quiet!” (or worse) at your dog. This is likely to increase his excitement and arousal, adding to the chaos rather than achieving the desired effect of peace in the kingdom. Even if you do succeed in intimidating him into silence, you risk damaging your relationship with him, as he learns to be quiet through fear.

Instead, use your human brain to figure out how to manage and modify your dog’s penchant for pandemonium. Fortunately, with a commitment of time, effort, training, and management, most barking can be controlled. Start out by identifying the type of barking your dog practices most frequently and applying the appropriate solution.

1. Boredom Barking

The largest category of nuisance barking is caused by boredom. Boredom barkers are the dogs who are left out in their yards all day, and sometimes all night, with nothing to do but patrol their territory and announce the presence of anything and everything. Sometimes it seems they bark just to hear themselves bark; perhaps they do.

Boredom barking often has a monotonous tone, and can go on for hours. The greatest numbers of barking complaints received by animal agencies are generated by boredom barkers.

The Fix: Fortunately, there’s an easy fix for outdoor boredom barking. Most of these dogs, if left inside, are happily quiet in their human’s den. The complicating factor is the length of time a dog can be safely left alone in the house. Crates and exercise pens are good management solutions for dogs who haven’t yet learned good house manners, and dogwalkers can be enlisted to provide midday potty breaks if owners work long hours. (Dogwalkers need not be professionals; you can often enlist the help of a friend, family member, or a neighbor.)

Boredom barking can also be reduced by enriching your dog’s life, by increasing his physical exercise and mind-engaging activities. A good, tongue-dragging, off-leash run or fetch and some interactive games and toys such as stuffed Kongs, Iqubes, and Egg Baby Turtles, daily, can minimize the tedium of a lonely dog’s day. (See “King Kong,” WDJ October 2000, and “Toys to Keep ’em Busy,” May 2004.)

2. Play Barking

These are the dogs who can’t handle too much fun. They are the canine equivalent of cheerleaders, running around the edges of the game giving voice to their arousal while others play. Herding dogs are often members of this group. Bred to keep livestock under tight control, they often experience an inherited compulsion to control anyone or anything that moves.

The Fix: This is such a hardwired behavior that it’s difficult to modify. You do have several options:

• Accept and allow the behavior. Determine a time and place where the barking is least objectionable, and let the dog do it.

• Manage the behavior. Remove the barker from the playing field when others want to engage in rough-and-tumble or chase-me games.

• Use “negative punishment,” a gentle, nonviolent form of punishment that can be effective if applied consistently. Negative punishment is the behaviorial term for any situation in which the dog’s behavior makes a good thing go away. If your dog is playing (an activity he enjoys) and starts barking (the thing you don’t want), you remove his opportunity to play. Use a cheerful “Oops, time out!” and remove him from the game for a brief (perhaps one to five minutes) session in the penalty box (say, another room).

• Teach a positive interrupt (see sidebar below). Use it when he barks to invite him to come to you and briefly stop the barking, then release him to go play again.

• Encourage him to carry his favorite toy in his mouth during play. As we discovered with Lucy, a mouth full of highly valued toy makes it difficult to bark. If she does, at least the sound is muffled. Caution: This is not a good option to select if your barking dog also “resource guards” his toys from other dogs.

3. Demand Barking

Older dogs may develop a barking habit as they lose their hearing; they’ll benefit from being indoors.

This is less annoying to neighbors, but it can be very irritating to you. Your dog is saying, “Bow wow GIVE it to me NOW!” Demand barking may be encountered in the early stages of positive training, as your dog tries to figure out how to make treats, play, and attention happen. It often starts as a low grumble or soft “whuff,” and if not nipped in the bud can turn into a full-scale, insistent, persistent bark.

The Fix: It’s easy to derail demand barking when it first starts by ignoring the dog. When your dog barks for treats, attention, or to get you to throw his ball, simply turn your back on him until he is quiet, then say “Yes!” and return your attention to him. His goal is to get you to give him good stuff. Your goal is to teach him that barking makes good stuff go away.

At first, you’ll need to say “Yes!” after just a few seconds of quiet, but fairly quickly extend the period of quiet so he doesn’t learn a behavior chain of “Bark, be quiet for a second, get attention.” At the same time, you’ll need to reinforce quiet when he doesn’t bark first, again, to prevent the behavior chain.

It’s more challenging to extinguish demand barking when your dog has had lots of reinforcement for it. Remember, any attention you give him reinforces demand barking. Eye contact, physical contact, verbal admonishment – all of these give him what he wants: attention!

The process for modifying the behavior of a veteran demand barker is the same: remove all reinforcement. However, be prepared for an extinction burst – a period when the behavior gets worse rather than better. The behavior used to work, so the dog thinks if he just tries harder, surely it will work again. If you give in during an extinction burst, you reinforce the more intense barking behavior, and guess what happens next time? Right – your dog will offer the more intense behavior sooner, and it gets even harder to extinguish the barking. Oops!

4. Alarm Barking

This is Lassie’s “Timmy’s in the well!” bark. It means something is seriously wrong – or at least your dog thinks so. The alarm bark usually has a tone of urgency or ferocity that’s absent in most other barks. Because your dog’s judgment as to what constitutes a serious threat may differ from yours, after many false alarms you may fall into the trap of asking him to stop barking without investigating the cause. Don’t! This may be the time a fire is smoldering in the kitchen.

The Fix: Always investigate. It could just be the UPS driver leaving a package on the porch, but it might be something serious. Sometimes Timmy really is in the well! Investigate, use a positive interrupt to stop the barking, and then reinforce the quiet. I also like to thank my dogs for letting me know something important was happening.

5. Greeting Barking

Dealing with inappropriate greeting behavior could be a whole article in its own right; in fact, I discuss this in the article, "Teaching Your Dog to Greet People without Jumping," WDJ, April 2005. Here’s a brief preview:

Your dog may be giving an alarm: “Danger! Intruder at the door!” Or he may be barking in excitement: “Huzzah! Dad’s home!” or “Hooray! Company’s here!” His tone – ferocious versus excited – will tell you the difference.

The Fix: If you have guests arriving, the management/modification program is complicated by the fact that you have to answer the door! Ideally, a second person answers the door while you use the positive interrupt to halt the barking. If there is no second person available, use the interrupt, secure your dog in another room or tether him, then go greet your guests. (You may want to put a note on your door asking guests to be patient if it takes you a minute or two to come to the door!)

You can also help minimize greeting barking by remaining calm when the doorbell rings, because otherwise, your dog may get excited and bark at your excitement. In families with children, you may have to spend some time training the kids not to rush excitedly to the door, too!

Often, people unwittingly train their dogs to bark when they come home, by greeting the dog in a boisterous manner. It’s human nature to enjoy it when another being seems glad to see us! But it’s one thing to be greeted by a wagging, wiggling dog, and another to be greeted by a cacaphony of loud, maniacal barking. And with some dogs, one often leads to the other.

If your dog is barking as you approach your door, wait outside until he is quiet for at least a few seconds. Then enter the house, remaining very calm and quiet yourself. If your dog starts barking as you enter, ignore him until he is quiet, then greet him calmly. After you have been home a little while and he is calm, you can initiate a play or affection session.

6. Frustration Barking

Frustration barking can be identified by its tone of shrill insistence. When Lucy first joined our family and we used tethers to manage her cat-chasing, for a time she became a master at frustration barking. She still gives shrill voice to her frustration when we confine our dogs to the tack room while we move horses in and out of the barn, but she settles quickly, having learned that it doesn’t get her released any sooner.

The Fix: Frustration barking is a close relative of demand barking, but is more likely to occur when you are a distance from the dog, or when it is directed at something other than you. You handle it the same way. Ignore the behavior you don’t want (the barking) and reward the behavior you do want (quiet). A reward marker such as the click! of a clicker, or a verbal “Yes!” is very useful to mark the quiet, since you are often at a distance from the dog when the barking and the moment of quiet happen.

As with demand barking, the more your dog has been rewarded for frustration barking in the past, the more committed and consistent you’ll need to be to make it go away, and the more likely you’ll have to work through a significant extinction burst.

7. Anxiety Barking

Hysterical vocalization is just one of several manifestations of separation anxiety (SA), often accompanied by destructive behavior, extraordinary efforts to escape confinement, and/or inappropriate urination and defecation. Separation anxiety is a complex behavior – a full-blown panic attack (see “Learning to Be Alone, July 2001, and “Relieving Anxiety,” August 2001). To modify SA barking, howling, or screaming, you must modify the entire anxiety complex.

The Fix: While it can be modified through a program of counter-conditioning and desensitization, SA barking usually requires the intervention of a professional trainer/behavior consultant, sometimes with the assistance of behavior modification drugs. If your dog’s barking is related to anxiety, we suggest you contact a good, positive trainer/behaviorist to help you with the complex and difficult anxiety behavior.

Not All Dog Barking is Bad

A dog’s voice can be a useful thing, especially the bark that lets us know a dog needs to go outside, or is ready to come back in. Some service dogs are trained to bark to alert their owners. Dogs warn us of intruders and tell us of pending emergencies. I can think of numerous times when the Miller dogs’ barking served a valuable purpose. There was the time they let me know that our horses had escaped and were trooping down our driveway toward the road. I smile whenever I remember Dusty, our eight-pound Pomeranian, standing his ground, ferociously barking, preventing our 1,000-pound Thoroughbred mare from walking through a gate accidentally left open.

When Lucy’s shrill voice causes me to grit my teeth, I remind myself that there will be times when she, too, will use that same voice to tell me something important, and I’ll be glad she has a voice to use.

Pat Miller, CPDT, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She is also author of The Power of Positive Dog Training and Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog

Comments (0)

Be the first to comment on this post using the section below.

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In