Birds sing, cows moo, birds meow, people talk, and dogs…..bark. Barking is a normal behavior that allows dogs to communicate with the world around them. This is how dogs show fear, excitement, worry, danger, and more. Expecting a dog to stop barking altogether is unrealistic and in fact – inhumane. It would be similar to asking a person not to speak or a bird not to sing. However, we do need to make sure that barking does not become a nuisance. Deciding when the amount of barking is a nuisance and when it is normal is rather subjective. Different people will find different amounts of barking acceptable or unacceptable. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of over-barking exists and is a common behavior problem among dog owners (and their neighbors).
Over-barking is a symptom for an underlying problem and in order to deal effectively with the symptom we must realize what causes the barking in the first place. Dogs bark for several reasons among them: seeking attention, alerting for an incoming intruder, fear, threat, anxiety, and social interaction. Every reason for barking has a different behavior modification plan. Remember though, that as long as we are dealing with a puppy we are dealing with prevention and not an established behavior. This usually makes things easier.
Barking for Attention
Barking for attention can be the easiest type of barking to prevent. All we have to do is avoid paying any attention to the puppy when he wants something (treat, petting) and barks or whines to let us know that. However, you must be consistent in this process. You must completely ignore your puppy. This means no talking, no eye contact, nothing – you act like the puppy is simply not there. Depending on your puppy’s history of success with barking for attention, the barking will subside after some time. When this happens, and when your puppy is quiet, you should treat him, pet him, and play with him. By always ignoring the puppy when he is barking and by giving lots of attention when he is calm, we can teach the puppy that calmness rather than barking gets him what he wants. Remember that the puppy has no specific interest in barking over being quiet. He just wants to get something and he will see what kind of behavior gets him that.
Many dog owners make the mistake of giving up eventually during the dog’s tantrum and giving the dog what he wanted. This, actually, will only make the puppy realize that if little barking does not help, then more barking will. The later you give in to your puppy, the more he learns to be a persistent barker. Make sure that all individuals who interact with the puppy act in the same manner. We want to puppy to generalize that humans simply do not respond to barking.
It is especially important not to let the puppy out of the crate when he is barking or whining. Wait for calmness and only then open the crate’s door. There is one important exception for this rule. If your puppy has been sleeping in the crate for a few hours, and after waking up he whines, you should take him out for a potty break. There is a good chance your puppy is trying to tell you he needs to go to the bathroom, and you want to let him outside rather than risking him soiling his crate.
Fear barks are meant to increase the distance between the fear source and the dog. By barking at something the dog is afraid us he is trying to say “go away, your presence worries me and if you get any closer I might have to act aggressively”. This type of barking can be accompanies by growling and snarling, and a very distinct body language: low center of gravity, tail tucked, ears back, head low, and possible piloerection (raised hackles). The best way of treating fear barking is to get your puppy well socialized at an early age so strange people or strange sounds do not threaten him. It is not in the scope of this book to explain the methods of dealing with fear that is already rooted in the dog. I strongly recommend working with a dog trainer or dog behaviorist if your dog already displays fear related barking. The sooner you start treating the problem, the easier it will be to resolve. Do not punish your dog when he exhibits fear related body language; this will only make things worse. If you find yourself in a situation where your dog is frightened, try to resolve the situation by increasing the distance between the fear eliciting stimulus and your dog.
Alert or Territorial Barking
Dogs are territorial animals. Once they realize they have a territory they will start protecting it to some extent. Some breeds and individuals are more territorial than others but most dogs will tend to alert bark and let their pack (in our case the family) know that there is something or someone approaching the territory that requires the pack’s attention. This is why dogs bark when they hear noises outside the door, when they hear someone outside the window and when the doorbell rings (although this latter example can mean that the dog is simply excited since someone is about to come in). Most dog owners like this alert barking attribute and find it useful. However, when this barking comes after every little sound and lasts for long periods of time it becomes a nuisance (especially when you are trying to sleep at night).
There are several ways to deal with excessive alert barking. We can eliminate some of the predictive meanings of certain sounds and get the dog accustomed to these noises. Dogs learn rather quickly that a certain sound has no meaning to their existence. This is called ‘learned irrelevance’. A doorbell ring or a knock on the door are two common signals that dogs associate with an intruder following. After several times that a doorbell is followed by a stranger, the dog associates between the two events and starts barking when he hears the doorbell. We can weaken this association by ringing the doorbell or knocking on the door without having a person show up afterwards. We can do it at random times, after leaving the house on our way out, by asking friends to knock on the door and leave, etc. make sure that those ‘random’ doorbell rings are scheduled so you are able to ignore them when they occur. By doing this, the association between the specific sound (doorbell ring) and a following event will be weakened and the dog will not be as likely to bark in response to the sound.
For dog owners who want their dogs to alert bark but only once or twice we can use this following protocol. When the dog alert barks, go to the dog, say thank you (for alerting on the situation) and say “shhhhh” in a loud voice. Your dog will look at you and stop barking. Use this sudden cessation of barking to treat your dog. Repeat this many times and gradually increase the duration of quietness required before the dog gets the treat. You start by only an instant of quietness but slowly this instant becomes 2 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds, and more. Using this protocol, you can teach your dog that it is ok to alert bark once or twice but after the cue “shhhhh” he needs to be quiet.
Another way of controlling alert barking is asking for an incompatible behavior from your dog. For example, give your dog the cue ‘down’ (assuming he knows it) after the bell rings and treat for compliance. There are many other methods of dealing with alert barking, every trainer comes up with other methods and as long as these methods are based on the principles of learning theory, they can all work well. Some dogs respond to one methods better then to another so try several methods and see which one works best for you.
Some dog behaviorists say that there is no such thing as boredom in dogs (boredom is a human trait). There is only an environment lacking in stimulation. While this may be true, we will use the word boredom because it serves the purpose of describing a situation in which the dog needs to occupy himself. When dogs are bored they tend to engage in various behaviors that are usually disturbing to some extent. They can dig the backyard, they can fence fight, they can chew on furniture, and they can bark constantly.
In order to solve boredom barking we first need to realize that this is, in fact, the reason for barking. The best way to do that is by videotaping your dog when he is left alone. When you realize that boredom is the reason, you should try to enrich your dog’s environment with chew toys, bones, and other goodies so the dog has better things to do than to bark. Stuff a KONG™ toy with treats, hide treats in various locations in the yard or in the house. Exercise your dog prior to leaving, so he is tired when left alone, leave the radio on so outside noises or barks do not get his attention as much, etc. Alleviating boredom requires some imagination and a process of trial and error.
Anxiety is another common source of over barking. Barking helps relieve the stress and anxiety and hence dogs who are stressed may find themselves barking constantly. Separation anxiety is one reason for over barking but many other sights and noises can cause anxieties. The anxiety can be due to unfamiliar sounds like construction work, garbage trucks, firecrackers, thunders, etc.
It is crucial that we realize what causes the anxiety in order to solve the problem. If the source of anxiety is a specific noise or sight, then a process of desensitization and counter conditioning to that source of anxiety is the way to solve the problem (This needs to be done with the help of a dog behaviorist). In order to prevent anxieties from the first place, one needs to complete the process of socialization at an early age.
If your dog is located in a place where he can hear and see everything that happens on the outside, try to put the dog in a different place in the house where there is no visibility outside and that sounds cannot be heard as well. You can also try to leave a television or a radio on so if sounds are the cause of the problem the radio or TV can mask the stressful sounds.
Barking and Neighbors
Many times the people who suffer the most from our dog’s over barking are our neighbors. Assuming the neighbor’s noise complaints are real, it is our responsibility to resolve the problem. Owning a dog comes with responsibilities – some for the dog and some for our fellow humans that live in our society.
The best way to approach the problem is by letting the neighbors in on the problem and asking for their help. Most neighbors will be happy to help you if they know you are serious about trying to solve the problem. You should approach your neighbors directly and ask them to try and remember when the barking occurs (it would do no harm if you bring some home made cookies when you first talk about the problem with them). Tell them that the more details you have, the better the chances of you solving the problem. You want to know if the barking is due to certain sounds or events like the approach of the garbage truck, or the noise from the construction site next door. Be polite to your neighbors, share their concerns, and try to solve the problem together.