[Updated December 14, 2018]
DOG BARKING: OVERVIEW
1. Before adding a new dog to your family, take into consideration your tolerance for barking, and select a type of dog whose genetic propensity for vocalizing matches your tolerance level.
2. Appreciate your dog’s voice as a useful communication tool and teach her how to control and use it appropriately.
3. Don’t reward – purposely or accidentally – any type of barking that you wouldn’t want to live with indefinitely.
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.
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
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.
Preventing a Barking Habit in Bark-Happy Breeds
DAY ONE: Owners are in the backyard enjoying the company of their nine-week-old Toy Poodle pup, flown to California from a breeder across the country at age six weeks, stricken with pneu-monia on arrival, finally recovered enough to play in the garden on a warm day.
The tiny white ball of fluff is totally engaged in discovering a brand new world. Everything that moves is cause for excitement, and with each new discovery, she lets out a cautious little “Woof!” and runs back to Owners’ laps, who chuckle, enchanted by their pup’s adorable antics.
DAY TWO: Similar scenario, except Owners are now frowning in consternation, as the cautious “Woofs” have advanced to shrill alarm barking at every sound: neighbors’ voices, the jingle of dog tags from another yard, the rustle of a squirrel dashing through a pile of leaves. Each new round of alarm barking elicits a frustrated and ineffective response: “Maggie! Stop! Maggie, SHUSH! Maggie, STOP!”
This has the classic signs of a nuisance barker in the making. Unless Maggie’s owner changes tactics, and promptly, she could be facing a lifetime of ineffective “Maggie, SHUSH!” commands, annoyed looks from neighbors, and perhaps even visits from Animal Services as nearby residents lose patience with the loss of tranquility in the neighborhood.
It’s easy to understand Maggie’s behavior. She’s a toy breed — one of several known for their ability to be generous with high-pitched vocalizations. Her breeding may have bestowed a less-than-resilient temperament, causing her to find the world more alarming than necessary. She may have been born into an environment that provided little early socialization to temper a timid personality, separated from her litter earlier than ideal, and subjected to the sometimes traumatic experience of air travel.
When she took ill in her new home, she was quarantined indoors for three more weeks of her optimum early socialization period, forestalling remedial socialization. By the time she was introduced to the world, she had missed out on important life lessons, and the wash of stimuli bombarding her in the backyard was more than she could handle.
Time for Maggie’s human to play catch-up! Maggie’s owners need to expose their tiny dog to stimuli more gradually, for shorter periods of time, and associate new sights and sounds with good stuff (yummy treats) instead of harsh verbal corrections that add to the overstimulation and goad Maggie into further barking. They could walk with Maggie into the backyard briefly, feed a few treats, and walk back inside, gradually extending the length of backyard visits as the pup gains confidence. They could teach Maggie a positive interrupt indoors, in preparation for longer visits to the backyard. Then, if Maggie does become aroused and start to bark, a cheerful “Over here!” could end the eruption quickly, before community peace is shattered.
Dogs generally do better in training when told what to do (“Come over here to me for a goodie!”), instead of what not to do (“STOP barking!”). Redirecting the behavior in this manner occupies the dog’s brain with the new behavior, rather than leaving a behavior vacuum that is filled with the next burst of barking.
Last but not least, Maggie’s owners could enroll her in a well-run positive puppy class, to give her more opportunities for socialization before the optimum time for this task ends at 16 to 18 weeks. They’d better do something, and soon. The longer a dog practices a behavior, the harder it is to change. If they ignore their puppy’s barking much longer, they — and their neighbors — will likely be living with it for the next 15 to 20 years.
An Incredibly Useful Training Tool: The Positive Interrupt
The positive interrupt is a well-programmed, highly reinforced behavior that allows you to redirect your dog’s attention back to you when she’s doing something inappropriate, like barking. Ideally, you want your dog’s response to the “Over here!” cue to be so automatic — classically conditioned — that he doesn’t stop to wonder whether what he’s doing is more rewarding or interesting than turning his attention toward you and running to you for a treat. He doesn’t think — he just does it, the way your foot automatically hits the brake of your car when you see taillights flash on front of you on the highway.
Here’s how to program a positive interrupt:
1. Install the cue in a low-distraction environment.
Use a phrase such as “Over here!” or “Quiet please!” as your interrupt cue. Say the phrase in a cheerful tone of voice when your dog is paying attention to you, then immediately feed him a morsel of very high value treat, such as a small shred of canned chicken or sardines. Repeat until you see his eyes light up and his ears perk when you say the phrase.
2. Practice with the cue in a low-distraction environment.
Wait until your dog is engaged in a low-value activity, such as wandering around
the room, sniffing something mildly inter-esting. Then say your interrupt phrase in the same cheerful tone of voice. You should see an immediate interrupt in his low-value activity, and he should dash to you for his treat. If he doesn’t, return to Step I, per-haps with an even higher-value treat.
3. Practice with the cue in a low-distraction environment with minor distractions.
Still in the low-distraction environment so you can control the distraction level, add moderate distractions — one at a time — and practice the interrupt. For example, sit in your kitchen (low-distraction environment) with a helper such as one of your friends or family members. Give your helper a bag of chips. At your cue, ask your helper to help themselves to a chip or two; this should be a fairly minor distraction. Gradually increase the intensity of the distraction. Your helper can noisily crunch the chips, or get up and walk around — and eventually hop around while crunching chips.
Gradually move up to major distractions in your low-distraction environment while practicing the positive interrupt. If you lose your dog’s automatic response at any step, return to the previous step.
4. Move your lessons to an environment with real-life distractions.
Go for a walk around the block with your dog on leash. Use the interrupt when he becomes preoccupied with a mild to moderate real-life distraction, such as an interesting bush he would like to sniff or a fast-food bag on the sidewalk he’d like to check out. If a major distraction presents itself, including a stimulus that causes him to bark, give the interrupt a try! Don’t get discouraged if it fails to work in a challenging situation; just keep practicing in less-difficult surroundings. And make sure the treat you use is irresistibly delicious.
5. Use the positive cue to interrupt barking.
When your dog automatically turns his attention to you in response to your cue when confronted with major real-life distractions, you have a valuable tool for interrupting his barking. Be sure you practice occasionally with mild distractions as well, to keep the cue “tuned up,” and remember to thank him and tell him what a wonderful dog he is when he stops barking on your request.
The Neighborhood Barker
Sometimes it’s not your dog barking, it’s your neighbor’s! This can present a challenge: your neighbor may — or may not — be interested in fixing the problem. How do you handle this?
WHAT TO DO: Your first step is to gently inform your neighbor that her dog is barking excessively, and when. This is best done during the day, not with an irate phone call when the dog wakes you up at two o’clock in the morning again. Assume she’s not aware of it, or at least not aware it’s disturbing to her neighbors.
If she seems receptive, show her this article to give her some ideas about how to modify her dog’s barking behavior. If you’re feeling generous, give her a copy of Terry Ryan’s book, The Bark Stops Here, for more in-depth information on barking.
Even if you’ve already had some negative interactions with your neighbor over her dog, it may not be too late to try again, and mend fences. Approach her with an apology for any past bad words, and let her know you’d like to help with her dog’s barking, if you can. Even short of doing actual behavior modification, offers to let her dog play with yours (if they’re compatible) or taking her dog for walks (if you can safely manage the dog) may enrich the dog’s environment and provide enough exercise to reduce or eliminate the barking.
If she’s not receptive, or if your neighbor is such a threaten-ing presence from the dark side that you’re not comfortable contacting her, you can file a complaint with the animal authorities in your community. Most will not disclose the identity of a complainant, but you should double-check with them to be sure. You may need to make follow-up complaints if their initial contact with the dog owner doesn’t effect an adequate change in behavior.
WHAT NOT TO DO: Do not attempt to work with a neighbor’s dog without the permission of the owner. Even with your best of intentions, you could be bitten, you could be sued, and you could actually intensify the bark rather than reducing it. And do not install any electronic anti-barking devices. We are hearing reports that these can be quite aversive, perhaps even painful, for the dogs at which they are directed.
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.