Dogs bark. Its 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. Its
his way of saying, "I'm over here."
Bored barkers simply need an outlet for their energy and a more stimulating
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. Thats
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
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 dogs chest.
- Do not hug your dog, talk soothingly or otherwise play into your
dogs 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
- Don't be afraid to ask an expert. Animal trainers, behaviorists and
your veterinarian can give you valuable advice. Having them witness
your dogs 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 collars 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 dogs 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
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.
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By Holly Frisby, DVM