Ask any local government officer what is the most common complaint they receive in relation to dogs and most will say without hesitation that it is barking. But why has this become an issue?
Barking is a normal behaviour for dogs
The canine family contains a number of species, all with one thing in common - they are social animals. They live in family groups where they are seldom alone by choice. Barking and other forms of vocalisation serve as a form of communication between individuals and to alert the group of possible approaching threats. Many dogs also vocalise when they are frustrated, excited or anxious.
The way we own and manage dogs has changed over the years. In the past dogs were allowed to wander and roam the streets, playing with the local children and meeting up with other dogs. Mothers stayed at home, so the dog was rarely left alone or the dog accompanied its owner on their daily activities.
These days local authorities require people to contain their dogs so, unless deliberately exercised, the back yard is where they remain. In many homes, both of the adult's work (often long hours) leaving the dog alone at home for much of the day. Being less able to participate in neighbourhood activities builds frustration in the under-exercised, under-stimulated dog, and he barks!
Some dogs were bred to bark
Over the years, mankind saw the value of having a dog to protect their belongings. Breeds were developed based on individuals who were very good at alerting us to approaching danger. Our modern day dogs bark far more than their wild relatives as we made them that way! No-one minds if their dog barks and frightens off a potential home invader, but we do mind if he barks at the meter reader! Somehow we expect the dog to know the difference.
Dogs can bark for other reasons too
Dog's hearing is very acute (about 4 times better than ours). They can hear other dogs bark, cats miaow, birds screech over quite a distance. As far as the dog is concerned all of these can be arousing stimuli and a dog's response to arousal is often to bark.
Dogs may also bark due to anxiety - when they are left alone without adequate training to help them to cope. Many dogs are very fearful of storms and other loud noises and may bark or howl in their attempts to escape the feared noises; other dogs are overly attached to their owners and become very anxious when they are left alone.
Many people inadvertently teach their dog to bark for attention. The dog barks when it hears a noise it considers noteworthy and the owner rushes outside to yell at the dog (or merely yells at the dog through the window). The dog learns that he can get his owners attention if he just barks. Any smart dog, especially those who are confined in a back yard with little to do, will learn rapidly that this is one great way to get noticed!
My dog seems to be barking a lot, what can I do to reduce the barking?
First of all you need to determine the cause of the barking. Often the easiest way to do this is to keep a barking diary. This way you can ask all family members, as well as your neighbours to note down the times of the day the dog barks. By looking at when and where the dog barks it may be possible to start to understand what triggers the barking. Another option, especially if the dog only seems to bark when you are not home, is to use video surveillance to observe what the dog is doing when you are not there.
Does the dog bark at times where there is increased pedestrian traffic outside on the street? If the barking peaks at 3-4pm it might be the dog is barking at children coming home from school. One answer to this is to bring the dog inside the house at this time and keep it busy by offering it a chew toy; another option might be to take the dog to the park or for a walk.
Does the dog bark most when you have just left for work? This may indicate a dog who has separation issues and who becomes highly anxious when his owner leaves. Sometimes making departures less of an 'event' by giving the dog something to keep him busy as you sneak out quietly may help. For some dogs this may not be enough as they have a severe anxiety problem when left. These dogs require professional help from a veterinary behaviourist to truly address their problem.
Is the dog barking AT something? Is it people passing, possums at dusk, cats on the fence, or is it the neighbour's dog? Sometimes the triggers for barking can be avoided by blocking the dog's visual contact. This may mean confining the dog to only a part of the yard, building a screen, or bringing the dog in at times when animals such as possums and cats are most active.
Is the dog barking to get attention? Some dogs learn that barking is a great way to get doors opened or to get attention from their owners. Make sure you are not inadvertently rewarding barking behaviours and contributing to the problem. Remember: even yelling at the dog to be quiet constitutes attention!
Only once you understand why the dog barks can you start working to reduce the noise. Options include changing the way the dog is managed, changing the places it has access to, coving over fences or gates to reduce the visual stimuli or allowing the dog a better view of the world. Sometimes the answer is to bring the dog inside the house when it is most likely to bark, or when you are not home.
I have a new puppy, how can I work to prevent it becoming a barker?
When you first bring your puppy home it is important to think about ways to expose the puppy in a positive way to the many sights, sounds, people and places it will experience throughout its life. During their 'socialisation period' puppies are very open to new experiences and are learning what is normal in their world. If they have lots of pleasant experiences, it can set them up to become relaxed and friendly adult dogs.
Once this socialisation period finishes, puppies are more likely to be suspicious or fearful of things they have not encountered before. These things will be seen as a potential threat, and may be something that the dog then barks at.
Another thing to start with your new puppy is a routine that encourages quiet and calm behaviour. Crate training, and confinement at night will teach the dog that night time is for sleeping, not for barking at the cats and possums. Crate training is also a fantastic way to teach your puppy to accept short periods on its own. Of course the puppy will probably be so busy with a chew toy, they barely notice your departure, but this is what we want to teach the puppy - it is OK to be alone for short periods.
How can I keep the dog 'busy' when he is in the yard?
All dogs need physical as well as mental exercise. Before you leave in the morning, make sure your dog is nice and tired. Getting up a little early and taking him for a walk is one way to burn off steam but you could also play an active game such as 'Fetch' before you leave.
As your dog is going to be alone for much of the day it is up to you to provide him with suitable activities to keep him busy during the day. Many enrichment activities involve having the dog use his hunting skills to find and obtain food. This food may be hidden, scattered, or stuffed into puzzle-type toys that need to be manipulated for the food to come out. Chew items, toys and other things the dog enjoys may also help. If you dog is very active, you may even consider having someone else take him for a walk, or come to throw the ball during the day.
These type of activities need to be offered every day, and toys need to be rotated to maintain their interest. There are a lot of enrichment ideas in books and on the internet, but always consider your dog's safety first, and regularly check any items you leave in the yard for damage.
Can I teach my dog to 'Shush' on command?
It is possible to teach the dog to 'Shush' when asked. This is good for situations where you might like your dog to bark a few times, but then be quiet - such as when a stranger comes to the door. To teach your dog to be quiet on cue, you will also need to teach your dog to bark on cue.
Dogs do not understand our language, so just yelling "quiet!" may halt the barking as the dog looks at you in surprise, but true learning does not take place. It can also be difficult or impractical to teach a dog to be "quiet" on command if the barking cannot be predicted or 'turned on' or if it is too intense.
Start by teaching the dog to bark - use a stimulus that will cause the dog to bark (often a knock at the door or ringing of the door bell). As the dog barks, pair it with a cue such as 'Speak'. Once the dog is barking, you can then work on the other half of the equation - the 'Shush'. As your dog is barking ask it to 'shush' or 'quiet', then put a super smelly treat right in front of the dog's nose. Most dogs will stop barking to sniff the treat - dogs cannot inhale and bark at the same time. When the dog is quiet, you can praise him and give him the treat. You will need to repeat this over and over, but soon the dog will begin to understand what you actually mean when you ask for quiet, and you can increase the length of time the dog must remain quiet to earn the treat.
My dog is well exercised, has plenty to do, but he still barks
If you feel you are doing everything to try to stop the barking and the barking is still occurring, it may indicate a more serious underlying problem. Your first step should be to take your dog to your local veterinarian for a thorough medical examination. There are some medical problems which may contribute to barking.
If the dog gets the all clear medically, it is worth asking for a referral to a veterinary behaviourist who can spend time working out the cause of the barking, and who can fully address any underlying anxiety issues that may be contributing to the problem.
Barking dogs can be very frustrating, especially where you have done all you can to try to prevent the problem. Your neighbours will want to see that you are trying to address the issue or you may find them complaining to the local council.
What about punishment or aversives?
It is very easy to yell or reach for aversive equipment but this is the same as using a cough lolly for pneumonia - the symptom is a cough but the cause is quite different to an itchy throat!
Punishment is seldom effective in the control and correction of barking problems. Excessive levels of punishment can increase anxiety and further aggravate many forms of barking, while mild punishment merely rewards the behaviour by providing attention.
© Copyright Dr Linda Beer 2007, produced for ADVANCE™ Pet Foods
The information in this handout is designed as general information only.
For more information or advice on your particular case, please consult your veterinarian.