Dogs bark. It’s part of their normal and natural communication and behavior. Dogs can bark for appropriate and good reasons, such as when strangers approach our house, they hear an odd noise, or they're herding sheep. Most of us want our dogs to be "watch dogs" and alert us to anything unusual. But dogs can also bark inappropriately. In two scientific surveys of dog owners, approximately 1/3 of them reported their dogs barked excessively. To control barking in our dogs, we first need to understand why they are barking.

Types of canine vocal communication
Dogs as well as wolves use many types of vocalizations to communicate. This communication starts very early in life. Young puppies make a mewing-like sound when they are searching for food or warmth. Louder crying sounds are heard if the puppy is hurt or frustrated. As dogs get older, they make five main classes of sounds: howls, growls, grunts, whines and barks. Each of these classes of sounds is used in different situations.

Howling is used as a means of long-range communication in many different circumstances. Howls are more often associated with wolves, but dogs howl too. Wolves often howl to signify territorial boundaries, locate other pack members, coordinate activities such as hunting, or attract other wolves for mating. Dogs may howl as a reaction to certain stimuli such as sirens.

Growling can occur in very different activities. It is used to threaten, warn, in defense, in aggression, and to show dominance. But growling is also used in play as well. By looking at the body posture we should be able to tell the difference. Growls during aggression are accompanied by a stare or snarl, and the growling dog often remains stationary. Play-growls occur in combination with a happy tail and a play bow to signal willingness to play. These dogs are often moving and jumping about to entice play.

Grunts in dogs are the equivalent of contented sighs in people. They can also be heard when dogs are greeting each other or people.

Whines or whimpers are short- or medium range modes of communication. Dogs may whine when they greet each other, are showing submissiveness, are frustrated or in pain, to obtain attention, and sometimes in defense. Dogs generally whine more than wolves, perhaps because they use the whine more as an attention-seeking behavior, and are often rewarded for it. Think about it. 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 the attention he wants.

Barking is another mode of communication that seems to be more common in dogs than other canine species. Again, this may be the result of human encouragement. 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, and as a response to boredom, excitement, being startled, lonely, anxious or teased.

Why dogs bark
Alert/warning barks are the type of barks we often encourage. We want our dog to alert us to the presence of a danger or stranger. Warning barks tend to become more rapid as the intruder approaches. Aggressive barks are low in pitch and may be combined with growls. We need to be able to distinguish warning barks from barks due to fear.

Attention-seeking barks are most often 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 barks are often short and sharp. These barks are common if the dog gets too excited with the game. Often a time-out is in order.

Self-identification barking is what you may be hearing when your dog seems to be answering other dogs he hears barking in the neighborhood. It’s his way of saying, "I'm over here."

Bored barkers simply 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 she 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 neighbors.

Startle barking occurs in response to an unfamiliar or sudden sound or movement. As with an alert/warning bark, we need to be able to control this type of barking quickly.As you can see, there are many reasons for barking and most barking is a normal behavior. There are some instances in which barking is considered pathological. This will be discussed later in the article.

Characteristics of a barker
Studies have been done to try to determine which dogs are more likely to be barkers. Although there was no difference in the in the percentage of excessive barkers between males and females, there was a breed difference. Beagles, terriers, and some herding breeds tend to bark more. That’s not surprising since this is one of the characteristics for which they were bred. Excessive barking can occur in purebred dogs as well as mixed breeds.

General principles for controlling undesirable barking

  • If we want to control barking, we need a dog who can obey us and relax. The dog needs to look to her owner for behavior clues. If we can call her, have her lie down (dogs don't bark as much when lying down) and stay, we're well on the way to solving a nuisance barking problem. In addition, there are some common principles we can use in modifying barking behavior.
  • First, in most cases shouting "No" is only going to make matters worse since the dog is thinking you're barking too (and is probably happy you joined in).
  • Be consistent. Pick a one-word command e.g., "Enough" for the behavior you want and always use that word in the same tone of voice. Every one in the household must use the same command and act identically.
  • Be patient with your dog and yourself. Changing behavior 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 behavior will be gone.
  • Reward the dog for good behavior. Positive reinforcement is much more powerful than negative reinforcement. 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. Often picking a very special treat like small pieces of cooked chicken or hot dog will make the reward seem even better. As time goes on, you will not give a treat every time, sometimes just rewarding with a "Good Dog" and a pat on the dog’s chest.
  • Do not hug your dog, talk soothingly or otherwise play into your dog’s barking. Your dog may then believe there really was something of which to be alarmed, afraid, or anxious. This reinforces his behavior and he'll likely bark even more the next time.
  • Control the situation. As much as possible, set up situations to use as training. Practice in short, frequent sessions, generally 5-10 minutes each.
  • Don't be afraid to ask an expert. Animal trainers, behaviorists and your veterinarian can give you valuable advice. Having them witness your dog’s barking episodes may give them valuable clues on helping you solve the barking problem.

Controlling barking through corrective collars
There are numerous collars on the market that produce an electrical stimulation, an irritating ultrasonic sound, or a smell (offensive to the dogs, but not to us) when the dog barks. These may be used as an adjunct to behavior modification. Collars alone will not cure the problem. Unfortunately these collars to do not always produce the desired effect. For some of these hard-core barkers, the punishment for barking is not sufficient to get them to stop. They'd rather bark and be punished than not bark at all. For dogs who bark when they are anxious, the collar’s correction may make them even more anxious.

In some situations, these corrective collars have been found to be useful. For instance, there is a citronella collar which gives off a citrus smell when the dog barks. This can alert you to the fact the dog was barking while you were gone since the citrus smell lingers in the air. In situations where you must change the barking behavior quickly or you may lose your dog (or apartment) a bark-control collar may be used while you are away from the dog. When using a bark-control collar, remember that you not only have to stop the bad behavior, you need to reward the good. Your dog can not learn an appropriate alternative to barking if someone is not present to teach it to him.

Another type of collar that may be effective is a halter collar. This type of collar looks more like a horse halter; brand names include Gentle Leader/Promise System Canine Head Collar and Halti Head collars. When you pull on the leash portion, a portion of the collar tightens around the dog’s muzzle. By using a quick pull of the lead, saying "Enough" when the dog is quite, and then rewarding him, you may find the training goes faster.

De-barking
Debarking is a surgical procedure that removes the vocal cords from dogs. There are two surgical approaches, one through the mouth, and the other through an incision in the neck. Debarking will NOT result in a silent dog. A dog who has undergone the procedure 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.

Preventing nuisance barking in puppies
Teaching your puppy appropriate behavior from the beginning is easier than changing behavior that has become a bad habit. Some behavior we may think of as cute is a puppy will not be cute in an adult dog. So, think ahead to avoid potential problems.

The first few nights after bringing your puppy home will be the hardest. You may want to put his crate in your bedroom. The puppy will be more secure with you near. Security builds trust. Trust will decrease the possibility of separation anxiety in the future. Just remember not to give any attention to the puppy if he is whining that will only reward his undesirable behavior.

By starting to train your puppy in obedience and relaxation at an early age, you can greatly reduce the probability your puppy will grow into a problem barker. Nip problems in the bud and always look at why the puppy is barking. Is it fear, anxiety, attention-seeking? Use the appropriate measures to treat the underlying problem.

Remember that if for some reason you want your dog to bark on command, or in a certain situation, you must also be able to teach it to stop on command. Teach "Enough" at an early age. Introduce the young puppy to situations that may cause anxiety later on. Get your puppy used to walking on the sidewalk along a busy street. Expose your puppy to sounds like vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, and other noises. Take things slow so your puppy does not become anxious while being exposed to these new things. Reward the puppy when he is quiet and relaxed.

Puppy classes are a great place for your puppy to meet new people and other dogs. He can learn to obey you even when there are numerous distractions. You also have a trainer present who can help you with any potential problems.

In short, it will be a lot more fun for everybody if your puppy learns to communicate through a wag of the tail and looking to you for guidance rather than through excessive and relentless barking.

References
Benjamin, CL; Dog Problems. Howell Book House, New York NY; 1989;113-124.

Clark, GI; Boyer WN. The Mentally Sound Dog. Alpine Publications, INC., Loveland CO; 1995;167-174.

Juarbe-Diaz, SV. Assessment and treatment of excessive barking in the domestic dog. In Houpt, KA (ed): The Veterinary Clinics of North America, Small Animal Practice. W.B Saunders Co., Philadelphia PA;1997;27(3):515-532.

Overall, KL. Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. Mosby-Year Book, Inc., St. Louis, MO; 1997;261-262,426-427, 434-435, 457-458.

Scidmore BK; McConnell, PB. Puppy Primer. Dog’s Best Friend, Ltd., Black Earth WI; 1996;61-63.

Simpson BS. Canine communication. In Houpt, KA (ed): The Veterinary Clinics of North America, Small Animal Practice. W.B Saunders Co., Philadelphia PA; 1997; 27(3):445-460.

By Holly Frisby, DVM

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