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Behavioural problems: barking

Dogs bark to communicate their emotions. Different barks can mean different things and variations in bark sounds are also caused by individual characteristics. A Great Dane's bark sounds somewhat different to that of a Chihuahua even when they mean the same thing. All dogs bark at sometime but if your dog is a persistent barker you should seek some professional assistance before it becomes a nuisance to other people.

Your questions answered

Why do dogs bark?

Barking is one of a number of sounds used by dogs to communicate with people and each other. Barking allows dogs to communicate over a large distance, even when they are out of sight. Dogs bark for a variety of reasons and variations in tone, how quickly the sound is repeated and the intensity give us a clue why the dog is barking and how it is feeling.

The reasons for barking include: 

  • Attention seeking
  • Greeting
  • To invite play and during play
  • Defence
  • Threat
  • Distress
  • Contact seeking, when left alone, for example
  • Frustration
  • When excited and as a group activity

Why does my dog bark when left it is alone?

Often dogs that bark when alone are just dogs that bark a lot even when someone is with them. However, there are a few specific reasons for barking when alone. Some common examples include:

  • Separation anxiety, this occurs when a dog is over dependent upon one or more of the individuals it lives with as a way of staying in a positive emotional state. If this dog is left on its own or is separated from them when they are at home the dog may bark to regain contact or to call them back.
  • Defensive reaction to sights or sounds outside or inside the home. This typically occurs because the dog is worried or frightened of what it barks at. It is common for a dog to bark at unfamiliar people or dogs passing its home. In most cases the object of bark attention normally goes away rewarding the barking behaviour. Now this dog is more likely to bark next time the situation occurs, and with more confidence. The dog learns to be confident that barking is a way of making whatever is frightening them go away. This kind of behaviour often develops to barking at other animal when the dog is on the lead because they are unable to move away from whatever is worrying them instead.
  • Attention seeking. This can be directed towards someone the dog lives with when they are at home, towards people or dogs the dog sees or hears when it is on its own or just as a way of exploring whether it will get a responce.
  • Social behaviour, such as calling to other dogs in the district.
  • Barking in play or aggression (eg two or more dogs living together).
  • Predatory/chase behaviour towards things that move fast, particularly if the dog is frustrated in its pursuit by a fence, window or door.
  • Frustration; if the dog is left by its owner when it expected to be able to go with them.
  • Old age; changes in normal patterns of behaviour or anxiety associated with old age.

What should I do if my dog has a persistent barking problem?

Barking is only the symptom of the underlying motivation and the way to prevent or stop it is to alter the need to bark. For example, if your dog barks at unfamiliar dogs or people because it is frightened of them you must teach the dog that there is nothing to be frightened of; or if your dog barks to regain contact with you you can teach it to be more comfortable being left alone.

If the reason why your dog is barking is not obvious to you it is important to seek the help of a behaviour specialist, such as a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, because they will be able to help you understand the motivation. A behaviour specialist will also be able help you create a treatment plan to reduce the need to bark and introduce some training techniques to help you manage the behaviour.

Should I use a one of the devices on the market to stop my dog from barking?

There are a number of reasons why a dog may bark so the first step must always be to understand why your dog is barking. If the barking occurs because your dog is anxious or fearful, bad experiences (like those created by these devices) are likely to increase fear and stress. Additionally, some methods, such as electric shock collars, are not good for the dog's welfare whatever the motivation and some governments are or are considering banning or licensing their use.

What can I do to stop the barking?

Firstly, try to avoid putting your dog in the situations in which it is likely to bark. For example, if it barks at people when they pass your garden it makes sense to keep your dog indoors if there are times when the area outside your property is likely to be busy (when people are likely to be going to and from school and work). If your dog is already indoors at these times but still barks it may be helpful to cover the window or prevent it from standing on furniture so that it can't see out.

Training your dog to do something else at times when it would normally bark may help in some cases. For example, if you give your dog a signal to do a different behaviour such as to look at you or change direction if you are walking it can help. If you are at home sending your dog to its bed or to go into the house from the garden could be used. When your dog does whatever you asked you should reward it. Each time it is rewarded for not barking but doing something else instead the more likely it is that it will repeat that behaviour next time the same situation arises. It is easy to train some dogs to hold a toy in their mouth and carry it past what it would normally bark at. Once they have passed the cause of their barking they are asked to give the toy back to the handler. Through repetition the dog learns that it gets the chance to carry the toy that it likes in this situation and starts to look for the toy to be given to it when it sees the situation coming.

Many owners inadvertently reward their barking dogs by giving them attention when they bark and in some cases this becomes the reason why they bark. To help avoid this it is important only to give your dog attention and reward it on those occasions when it would normally have barked but chooses not to. For example, if it does not bark when someone passes your home or does not bark to get your attention when you use the telephone or talk to a visitor.

If your dog barks for attention you can teach it that this behaviour will be ignored. It is important to be aware that the barking will get worse before it stops. You must not give in otherwise you will accidently reward the extra effort and train your dog to bark more instead of less. It is important to give your dog another way of getting attention. At home you can do this by having some identical toys that you leave lying on the floor but never allow the dog to play with. However, every time  your dog picks up one of these toys and holds it in its mouth you give it attention. Gradually your dog will learn that barking gets no attention but holding the toy does.

Another approach includes a clue that tells the dog not to expect attention but that something nice will happen. You can achieve this by putting an object that is normally hidden to a position where your dog can see it or introducing a sound before you start a period of ignoring it. After you have put out the signal give your dog something nice to chew on or an activity toy to get food rewards from. Before you give your dog attention again take down the special object and put it and any unfinished chews or activity toys away.

What if I know I am going to be in a situation when my dog would normally bark?

When you know you are going to be in such a situation you can give your dog something else to do. Try giving your dog a large chew or an activity toy that it has to work at. If your dog is very aroused or anxious in this situation, however, it may not want to eat. If you are away from home try to distract your dog by playing a game with a toy or initiating search games for toys or small food rewards.

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