Excessive barking is one of the most frequent complaints made to animal control. When our dog’s barking has become excessive, it’s not healthy for our dog, our neighbors, or us. Figuring out the cause of your dog’s excessive barking is the first step in helping him or her to become a happier, and thus quieter, canine companion. Once you’ve discovered the root cause of your dog’s excessive barking issue, you can proceed to work on managing the environment to reduce noise right away while simultaneously helping your dog to learn new ways to express himself or herself that work better for all concerned parties. While you can’t teach a dog to never bark, there are many things you can do to encourage quieter behavior.
Why is your dog barking? Figuring out the cause is the first step to achieving a quieter pup. Because your dog can be barking for a multitude of reasons, applying the same technique to reduce barking in all situations is missing the mark. Learn to see your dog’s barking as an expression of emotion and deal with each individual situation as unique. Here are some common reasons your dog might be barking excessively.
Your dog is having an emotional response, and it’s important to be tuned into how your dog is feeling. Dogs who feel over excited by a specific situation may express this emotion by barking or whining. Perhaps it’s dinnertime, and as you go to open the dog food pantry, FeFe starts barking in excitement in anticipation of dinnertime. Dogs who are fearful may bark in an attempt to keep themselves safe from a source of fear. If the dog is concerned about another dog approaching him or her when her or she is on-leash, the dog might be coping with that situation by barking as a defense mechanism. Dogs may vocalize when they are frustrated. If your dog’s ball rolls under the couch and he can’t get it, he may vocalize in frustration. Similarly, if your dog wants to greet another dog when on-leash but is prevented from doing so, one response may be to bark in frustration. Your dog might be making noise because he is joyous and happy. Some dogs are more vocal by nature than others and might express happiness and joy by vocalizing. Perhaps in the middle of a play session, your dog belts out an “arhooooo!” because he’s having such a good time.
When your dog’s barking has gotten out of hand, first consider channeling your dog into a different activity that allows him to express his emotions in a quieter fashion that works for everyone. Playing tug, fetch, working on a good puzzle toy, go find the hidden cookies, or your dog’s other favorite game could work well in giving humans a break from the barking without dampening your dog’s cheerful spirit. Think: Can I channel my frustrated and barking dog’s energy into a game like shake the toy, lick the peanut butter Kong, or go find dad?
The next step is to identify what is triggering your dog to bark and feel this way. Did your dog notice another dog or person, hear a noise, see something exciting, or notice something move or change suddenly? After you identify the trigger, can you utilize management to change the environment and prevent your dog from being exposed to the trigger that makes him bark? Perhaps your dog is barking when he sees a passerby out the front window of your home; can you draw the shades or confine the dog to the back half of the house so he can’t see out the front window?
The way your dog feels by conditioning a new emotional response is another way to get a handle on barking. If your dog is fearful and barking at another dog while on a leash, you need to help your dog to feel safe. Since barking is a symptom of feeling fearful, conditioning your dog to feel more confident should also mean that the symptom of barking goes away. The technique is simple in that you pair the problem trigger with something your dog enjoys until the problem trigger is no longer a problem and predicts good things for your dog. If you are having trouble applying that concept to your specific situation, contact a positive-reinforcement based trainer to get some professional help in implementing counter-conditioning techniques.
Your dog could also be barking because his needs aren’t being met. Dogs might bark if they haven’t had enough exercise, if they haven’t gotten to go out of the house in a while, when they are hungry, when they need attention or social interaction, when they are bored, or when they are lonely. As the human, we must learn to see demand barking as an expression of an unmet need and work to meet the dog’s need proactively, before barking begins. Your dog is dependent on you, and thus, it is your job to ensure your dog’s physical, mental, and social needs are being met on an ongoing basis.
Your dog may have learned that barking produces desirable results. If your dog barks at you for a treat and your response is to give your dog that treat, you may have inadvertently taught your dog that barking at you produces a reward. If you are talking on the phone and your dog barks at you for attention and your response is to tell the dog “shhh,” you might have inadvertently taught your dog that barking at you when you are on the phone gets attention. In these sorts of situations, think about what you’d prefer your dog to do in that situation instead of barking. Teach your dog to do that behavior and reinforce the new behavior instead of barking. Lying calmly on a mat, sitting on a place, lowering the head to the floor are all good examples of behaviors that one might choose to reinforce that will encourage quieter behavior.
Last, remember that a dog is a dog and a dog will bark from time to time. This is normal and healthy. It’s time to be concerned when your dog’s barking has reached an unhealthy level for you, himself, or others around you. Taking some time to identify the cause of your dog’s barking problem and then applying the techniques above to the situation will have you back on track to enjoying a quieter and more peaceful relationship with your canine companion.
Sara Scott, CPDT, is a certified professional dog trainer who has been training dogs professionally since 2000. She offers private training sessions in Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda. Follow her online at www.instagram.com/dogtraining_with_sara or visit her website at www.oaklanddogtrainer.com (or www.dogtrainingwithsara.com).
Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.
Main article photo by: Photo Wald-Burger8 Creative Commons