By Christine D. Calder DVM DACVB
Did you know that barking is normal behavior in dogs? It is in their DNA. Based on their ancestral jobs, there are even some breeds of dogs more likely to bark than others like herding dogs, those used to sound the alarm (bird overhead) and for protection.
Why do Dogs Bark?
Dogs bark for many reasons. Some bark as a warning while others bark when startled or afraid. Many learn that barking is an easy way to get food or to encourage humans and other animals to engage in play.
Why is it hard to stop barking?
Barking is very easy to reinforce and very difficult to stop. For instance, if your dog barks and lunges at the front window each time a package is delivered, it soon learns barking is a very effective strategy to make the stranger, delivery person, go away. The same is true when your dog barks at people, joggers, and other dogs that walk past the house and yard. Sometimes humans will even join in the barking when they yell or make a fuss. For many dogs, this human “barking” confirms that there is something to worry about resulting in an increase in intensity and frequency rather than a decrease.
How do we stop barking?
Step 1: Find out why your dog is barking. Is it afraid? Is there something we need to know about? Are we accidentally reinforcing the barking? Does your dog have separation anxiety? Confinement anxiety? Or maybe a noise phobia? We need to know the “why” before we can hope to change this behavior.
Step 2: Stop barking back. Ignore the behavior or better yet- get up to see if you can determine what your dog is barking at, say “Thank You” and then redirect your dog to another enjoyable activity.
Step 3: Cover your windows. If your dog can see people, dogs, and other animals passing by the house, barking will persist. Close the blinds, shut the curtains, or use window film to block its outside view. Better yet, find a way to keep your dog out of a particular room, so your dog doesn’t spend most of the day watching out the window and barking.
Step 4: Give your dog something else to do. Food dispensing and puzzle toys are a great way to reduce barking and keep your dog occupied. Pre-stuffing and freezing them will help make sure you always have one available in a flash. Fun games like fetch, squeaky toys, tug, scent work, or a flirt pole can be other methods to get your dog to focus and encourage its interest in another activity.
Step 5: Teach behaviors such as “going to a mat” or “place.” You can use this when people come to the door or as a place to relax when needed. A bed, piece of furniture, or any non-slip mat can be used for this exercise. There are even remote treat dispensers to help you successfully teach this behavior if needed.
Step 6: Make sure your dog’s basic needs are being met. Does it have enough exercise? What about mental enrichment and time spent doing fun things with you? or other dogs? If your dog is bored or frustrated, it is more likely to bark. It may be time to clip on the leash and go for a walk.
Step 7: Play some classical music. Is there a time of the day when your dog is more likely to bark or is it sensitive to certain noises? Playing classical music, audiobooks or sometimes jazz can help your dog quickly relax while blocking out the scary noises and during high bark times during the day.
What not to do?
Ultrasonic devices, spray bottles, citronella bark collars, and bark “correction” or shock collars are never recommended. These devices do not address the “why” of barking and can even make the barking worse.
Sometimes these devices are successful at reducing barking, at least temporarily, but they rarely work long term to curb the behavior. A side effect of these devices includes an increase in fear and anxiety. Many dogs quickly learn how to bark around the shock of the collar or to successfully avoid a squirt of water, but they never learn to associate this punishment with the barking itself. It is the devices (or even you) they learn to fear which is why they often look sad, slink, or run away when the collar or squirt bottle comes out.
Do you need help?
If your dog is barking and you need help, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Sometimes underlying medical conditions, like pain, contribute to the barking behavior. If you think that your pet is fearful or anxious, let your veterinarian know because there are medications and behavior modification techniques that help reduce or even stop barking behavior long term.
Christine D. Calder, DVM, DACVB
Calder Veterinary Behavior Services