What if people told you to shut up every time you tried to speak?  As you run up to a friend you haven’t seen in a while and exclaim, “I’m so happy to see …,” your friend shouts, “Quiet!” Doesn’t feel so good, huh?  Well, that’s what we do so frequently to our dogs when they bark. Barking is a natural behavior for dogs and it’s very unfair to ask them never to bark. Our job as dog-parents is to teach them when it is appropriate to “speak” and when to stay quiet, no different than guiding a child who is just discovering his voice.

We frequently are the perpetrators in teaching our dogs to bark and making it worse.  I recently watched a 4-week-old litter of nine puppies and the alpha male whimpered persistently for attention. His whimpering escalated to the cutest little puppy bark I’d ever heard. I also watched the natural human reaction as my friend picked up and coddled him, thinking that he would stop once he received attention. Not!  It made him worse – the behavior was reinforced and no doubt this puppy will grow up to be an attention-seeking barker.

My first dog would bark when she saw a car going down our sleepy street, and she went into a frenzy when our next-door neighbor turned into their driveway.  But I was a novice dog person back in 1988 and I encouraged her. I would run to the window when I saw my neighbors coming home and shout their names. My dog would come running, sounding the alarm. Very quickly, my dog would come on command when I called my neighbor’s names excitedly.  She barked out the window even though nobody was there. I thought it was funny and made it a game.  Her barking at anything out the window was fine because we lived in a quiet country setting. However, when I moved to an apartment a few years later, her barking was not so funny. We had a lot of activity around us and her barking brought complaints.

Barking is a complex problem and not easy to correct.  Sadly, for that reason and because many people don’t want to bother investing time into training their dogs, several punishment-based collars have been invented.  Shock collars, citronella collars and collars that emit a tone can be purchased.  I found a very distressing web site that claims to help people stop nuisance barking.  They sell these kinds of collars and advocate methods such as shouting “NO!!!” when the dog barks and spritzing him in the face with a water bottle and even smacking him on the nose with two fingers.  Ack!!  I not only don’t advocate any of these methods, I abhor them and the people who sell, recommend and utilize them. Talk about destroying the trust in your relationship with your dog

Dogs bark for various reasons and to address the problem, we need to break it down into situations. Not all barks are the same.  Before we can address how to stop barking, the source needs to be understood. Here are a few general categories of barking.

Excited or Alert or Fear Barking: Many dogs bark when they hear noises, see people or other animals. I don’t know of very many dogs who will not bark when they see someone out the window or hear the doorbell or knock on the door. This barking is often driven by cortisol and adrenaline which are emitted as the result of the classic “fight or flight” response. Or the dog could simply be excited to see someone, which also creates an adrenaline response.

Territorial Barking:  The dogs who are behind fences, physical or electric, can easily develop the habit of barking at anyone or anything that passes by. This type of barking is self-rewarding because the object they are barking at often is walking by the property and will eventually disappear down the street. In the dog’s mind, he is thinking, “I bark to get them to go away…and they do!” 

Attention Seeking: I covered this often-annoying habit that some dogs have of barking to get attention in a post on May 2.  See that post for solutions.

Boredom and Separation Anxiety: In my post on separation anxiety, I discussed how it is a sad fact that so many of our dogs have to be left alone for hours every day due to our busy lifestyles. They don’t get the exercise and mental stimulation required to keep them happy and bark-free.

Play Barking: Some dogs express their delight by barking. And we humans can inadvertently reinforce this habit when we laugh at them and encourage the behavior. Unless the barking annoys you too much, I would hate to squelch your dog’s happiness by trying to eliminate the barking during play.  This is a tough one to tackle!

In my next couple of training tip posts, I will discuss methods – all positive! – to help extinguish nuisance barking. Woof!

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