Barking is a natural behavior, but becomes a nuisance when carried to extremes. Here is what you can do about it.
by Douglas Kirk and Valerie Matthews, DVM
Barking is generally considered a normal behavior that most dogs display. Some breeds tend to bark more than others, and domesticated dogs seem to bark more frequently and for different reasons than wild dogs. Barking is, after all, a method by which dogs communicate with one another and with their human companions.
However, dogs that bark in excess can become annoying or downright disruptive to the general peace. Some cities have ordinances to govern the barking of dogs and assess fines or other penalties to people who own dogs that bark excessively. Barking has even been known to cause neighborhood disputes and subsequent court battles.
It is prudent, therefore, to learn how to control your dog's barking. To do so, it is important to understand the reasons that dog bark.
Why Do Dogs Bark?
We've identified seven general reasons for barking. Each generates a different kind of bark with a unique sound.
1. Barking to induce play. This bark is generally muffled, with accompanying tail wagging and the characteristic crouching with head lowered to the ground, hindquarters raised. Dogs will stop barking as the play proceeds. If you do not play with the dog, the animal will eventually give up and stop barking.
2. Barking to discipline young. This sound usually involves a snap and a sharp bark, uttered when puppies or younger dogs do something that irritates an older dog. The bark itself generally does not persist, as one or two warnings usually stop younger animals in their tracks.
3. Barking to warn of danger. This is a deep, repeated bark. The dog's tail will be motionless or lowered to the ground and the dog's forelimbs will be widely spaced on the ground. The barking will generally persist until the source of danger is removed or until the dog is able to retreat to a position of safety.
4. Barking to threaten intruders. This bark may include an angry growl. The dog may raise its hackles and the hair on its back and tail. The dog will plant all four feet squarely and assume a fighting stance. As the dog barks, the teeth and gums will be readily visible. To stop such a bark, you must either remove the intruder or remove the dog from the situation. Sometimes, stepping to the dog's side and assuring it that all is well will cause it to stop barking.
5. Curiosity barking. In general, this bark is displayed when there is some activity near a dog, but in such a place where the animal cannot have a good look. It is as if the dog is saying, "Hey, what's up?" The dog will display excitement and tend to pace erratically with a slightly wagging tail. To stop the barking, all you have to do is let the dog see what it is curious about.
6. Barking for companionship. This is an incessant, repetitive bark, accompanied by a relatively motionless tail and concentration toward the area most associated with the dog's owners. The solution to this type of bark is to spend more time with the dog and to allow the dog access to the area where humans spend their time. This bark is often displayed by dogs that are ignored, tied out by themselves or locked up alone.
7. Barking for reward. Finally, dogs can be inadvertently trained to bark and will persist with remarkable resistance. Barking can become associated with almost any activity that leads to reward. For instance, a dog that barks at garbage trucks because they intrude within its territory will learn that persistent barking leads to the disappearance of the trucks. This rewards the barking behavior, and a cycle is begun that is difficult to break. Persistent barking can then generalize to other objects-school buses, neighbors walking by, children on the way to school, the paper boy, mailman, milkman and so on. To break the cycle, it is necessary to interrupt the natural system of reward.
Solutions to Barking
The first five reasons for barking are rarely the cause of "excessive" or "annoying" barking. They are usually specific to certain situations and short-lived. The sixth and seventh reasons are those most likely to be considered problem barking, and they are not unrelated.
Barking for companionship can turn into barking for reward: The dog barks to get its owner's attention, the owner comes to the dog to tell it to be quiet, perhaps petting it or playing with it, and goes away again. The dog is quiet while the owner is there, but has learned that barking will bring the owner back. Thus the system of barking and reward is established. A solution, again, is to spend more time with your dog and have it near you rather than tied up somewhere separate from you. However, if your dog is separated from you and it begins to bark to get your attention, do not immediately go to the dog. It must learn that barking will not guarantee your presence. By spending more time with the dog at regular intervals not instigated by barking, your dog will feel more assured that it will get sufficient attention from you and will not have as much inclination to bark for companionship.
How do you teach a barking dog to distinguish between friends and strangers? The solution is to show the dog that certain individuals (garbage collectors, mailmen, milkmen) are, indeed, friends. To accomplish this, the dog has to be introduced to these people and given an opportunity to get to know them. While this is not always practical, it is nonetheless a potential solution. As you restrain your dog, stop delivery people and have a short conversation with them, letting them meet the dog for a brief period. Repeat and lengthen the process over the next few weeks. Eventually, your dog should accept these individuals and all will be well until your regular mailman is sick and another takes his place.
What do you do with a dog that barks at guests in your house? One solution is to take the dog to another room and give it something to do. Or, if the guest comes to your home often and you don't want to have to lock up the dog every time, work to gradually introduce one to the other. Have the guest get on his knees, pet the dog, offer it a treat, and more or less become part of the family. Let your dog establish the speed at which this relationship develops: Don't force it, or your dog may become alarmed by a "pushy" guest.
How do you deal with a dog that barks at the phone? This is simply a case of a dog that has been reward- ed for barking at the phone ringing. When the dog barks, someone even- tually answers the phone and it stops ringing. To stop your dog from doing this, have a friend call and let the phone ring until the dog loses interest. Continue over a period of days, and in time the dog will learn that barking at the phone ac- complishes nothing.
Finally, what do you do with the dog that barks while you are away from home? There are several possible solutions. One is to act as if you are leaving, then stand outside the door until the dog barks. When it does, return and scold it verbally. Another is to get your dog a cormpanion - but you might end up with two barkers! A third is to use a sound-activated tape recorder. When the dog barks, the sound switch turns on the tape recorder for a minute. The tape plays your voice scolding the dog. Some systems can repeat as many as 45 times while you are away.
The best way to reduce your dog's barking is to pay attention to the reasons for the bark. If you can satisfy the dog's needs, barking will automatically be reduced. By the same token, learned barking can be extremely persistent. Internal rewards can cause the cycle to go on for years. The best solution is prevention, so be aware of the possibilities and work to stop problem barking before it starts.