Almost all dogs bark, but barking that is excessive, becomes chronic, or disrupts the neighborhood can be a problem. Controlling barking takes a serious commitment on the part of a dog owner, and not all situations have a completely positive outcome. However, with some careful training, most dogs can be taught to control their barking well enough for everyone to live in harmony.
Dogs often bark simply because barking is fun. They are social creatures that communicate through barking. Some breeds are more easily stimulated to bark than others, and barking behavior ranges among individual dogs. In addition, groups of dogs generally bark more than dogs that live alone with a family.
Most barking can be categorized as one of the following types or as a combination of them:
Probably the most common kind of barking is excitement barking. When dogs get excited and their adrenaline and stress levels rise, they can bark almost incessantly. Excitement barking is accompanied by movement of the dog. The dog might run back and forth, spin in circles, or jump up and down. The barking is rapid and can be accompanied by whining. Many dogs pick up an object when excited; this behavior can muffle the sound and, if encouraged, may help alleviate the barking issue. Common triggers for excitement barking are the owner's arrival home from work, visitors at the door, car rides, feeding time, or the presence of other dogs or children (especially if they are active and the dog does not see them often). Many owners inadvertently encourage barking by talking to, playing with, or greeting the dog in an excited manner.
Typically, warning barks are those a dog makes at a door or fence. The dog sees, hears, or smells something it perceives as a threat to itself and its family and barks to warn or alert the others. This type of barking is usually short-lived if the owner responds but can become chronic if the owner ignores it.
Dogs often bark at things they are afraid of, even perceived threats, and their fear may be mild or intense. In the latter case, fear barking may escalate to growling or biting behavior, so it must be taken seriously. If a dog has become fearful, the best solution is to remove the dog from the situation as quickly as possible.
Guarding barking, often accompanied by growling, happens when a dog thinks that another dog or a person might hurt or take something from it. The dog growls and barks to warn the approaching dog or person. Like fear barking, guard barking can precede biting, so dealing with it effectively—by determining what is causing the fear and either protecting the dog from the feared object or teaching the dog that it is safe—is important.
Often, dogs that bark in frustration are dogs left alone for long periods in a backyard or a house. A lonely dog may bark to get attention and to relieve frustration. Frustration barking often follows a rhythmic and repetitive pattern, with long periods of barking interspersed by minutes of silence. It can become a deeply ingrained habit. This type of barking often occurs when owners are away or during the night while owners are sleeping.
Learned barking usually is a previously mentioned type of barking that has been reinforced by the owner either consciously or unconsciously. Essentially, the dog has learned that barking gets rewarded with attention, food, release from a crate, being allowed inside the house, or another positive outcome. With learned barking, the dog barks, stops for a moment, and then starts again. The dog pauses to find out whether it will receive the desired response.
Barking is rewarding to dogs; therefore, ignoring barking behavior usually is not the way to stop it. To control your dog's barking, you need to understand why your dog barks. A first step is keeping a diary of the barking for a week so that you can quantify the behavior. Keeping a diary allows you to gather information about how often your dog barks, how long the barking lasts, and what causes the barking. Enlist the help of the entire family to make notes about the start and stop of each barking episode, where the dog is when it barks, what the dog is barking at, and what the dog is doing while barking. Also, keep track of any efforts to stop the barking and the results of those efforts.
Once you have determined the type of barking and have kept a good record of its occurrence, you will begin to see what triggers the barking. You can then develop a plan for how to resolve the barking issues.
Many barking problems can be solved through better management of the dog. For instance, if you determine that your dog is barking because it is frustrated or fearful, you may be able to change the underlying cause of the frustration or fear with excellent results. If management alone is not enough, you can use behavior modification through training to curtail the barking. Note that barking is unlikely to stop as a result of punishment—that is, yelling at or reprimanding the dog.
Reducing barking through training takes time and patience. Generally speaking, using hand signals works better than using your voice because your vocalization may stimulate more barking. When a dog is excited or stressed and barking, it is more apt to respond to a hand signal. Standing quietly and calmly often gets the dog's attention. Using your hand to make a signal to the dog, either palm forward or index finger to your lips as if to “shush” the dog, is effective. Also, asking the dog to perform a previously learned, alternate behavior is helpful. For instance, if the dog knows “sit,” develop a signal for "sit" and then use the signal to have the dog sit instead of barking. Reward the sitting behavior after a few seconds, and then release the dog.
Be consistent with your training! A dog will revert to old habits quickly if you allow it to do so. For more specifics on how to manage or train for each type of barking behavior, go to the following links:
A bark collar is designed to stop barking through negative reinforcement. The most common type of bark collar gives a static electric shock when activated by barking. Another type sprays a citronella scent that dogs do not like. A third type emits a high-frequency sound. Research suggests that the citronella collars are the most effective.
A bark collar is set off by the vibration of the dog’s vocal cords and, therefore, must fit tightly around the neck. Dogs with thick, long coats usually need to have a patch of hair shaved off to assure good contact with the skin.
Bark collars can be effective, but most dogs quickly learn that they can bark when not wearing the collar. Some owners find that their dogs appear less joyful when wearing a bark collar, probably because the dogs associate the collar's action not only with barking but also with the running, jumping, or playing that was happening at the time of the action. Because the potential for abuse exists with any type of collar that inflicts pain or discomfort, bark collars should be used only by experienced adults and only when absolutely necessary. The use of bark collars is controversial, but they can be useful in cases in which other training and behavior modifications have failed.
Surgical debarking, also known as ventriculocordectomy and vocal cordectomy, is extremely controversial and outlawed in some countries. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA) policy on debarking is that “canine devocalization should only be performed by qualified, licensed veterinarians as a final alternative after behavioral modification efforts to correct excessive vocalization have failed.” As with any surgery, risks are possible and should not be taken lightly. The procedure does not eliminate all sound. Usually it leaves the dog with 50 percent reduction in barking volume, but there is no way to predict or control the volume of the bark post-surgery. Because the surgery is so controversial, finding a veterinarian who will perform it may be difficult. Most who do perform the surgery will want to work with you to find alternate solutions first and will perform the surgery only if convinced that all other potential solutions have been exhausted.
Barking dogs can be annoying, but improved management or training often can solve the problem. Understanding why your dog barks and then making a plan for correcting the situation is the best approach. Work with a trainer to find solutions before resorting to more drastic measures.
Elizabeth Wells, PhD, Michigan State University