Fact: Dogs bark.
Fact: Barking can be good.
Fact: Barking can drive us nuts.
bark. It is part of their normal and natural
communication and behavior. Dogs can bark for appropriate and
good reasons, such as when strangers approach our house, they hear
noise, or they are herding sheep. Most of us want our dogs to be "watch
dogs" and alert us to anything unusual. But dogs can also bark
inappropriately. In two scientific surveys of dog owners, approximately
1/3 of them reported their dogs barked excessively. To control barking
in our dogs, we first need to understand why they are barking.
Types of canine vocal communication
Dogs, as well as wolves use many types of vocalizations to communicate.
This communication starts very early in life. Young puppies make a
mewing-like sound when they are searching for food or warmth. Louder
crying sounds are heard if the puppy is hurt or frustrated. As dogs
get older, they make five main classes of sounds: howls, growls, grunts,
whines, and barks. Each of these classes of sounds is used in different
Howling is used as a means of long-range communication in many different
circumstances. Howls are more often associated with wolves, but dogs
howl too. Wolves often howl to signify territorial boundaries, locate
other pack members, coordinate activities such as hunting, or attract
other wolves for mating. Dogs may howl as a reaction to certain stimuli
such as sirens.
Growling can occur in very different activities. It is used to threaten,
warn, in defense, in aggression, and to show dominance. But growling
is also used in play as well. By looking at the body posture we should
be able to tell the difference. Growls during aggression are accompanied
by a stare or snarl, and the growling dog often remains stationary.
Play-growls occur in combination with a happy tail and a play bow to
signal willingness to play. These dogs are often moving and jumping
about to entice play.
Grunts in dogs are the equivalent of contented sighs in people. They
can also be heard when dogs are greeting each other or people.
Whines or whimpers are short- or medium-range modes of communication.
Dogs may whine when they greet each other, are showing submissiveness,
are frustrated or in pain, to obtain attention, and sometimes in defense.
Dogs generally whine more than wolves, perhaps because they use the
whine more as an attention-seeking behavior, and are often rewarded
for it. Think about it. The first sound you may hear from a new puppy
is the whine at night when he finds himself alone. We often are guilty
of unintentionally reinforcing this whining by giving the puppy the
attention he wants.
Barking is another mode of communication that seems to be more common
in dogs than other canine species. Again, this may be the result of
human encouragement. Certain breeds have been bred to bark as part
of their watchdog or herding duties. Barking is used to alert or warn
others and defend a territory, to seek attention or play, to identify
oneself to another dog, and as a response to boredom, excitement, being
startled, lonely, anxious, or teased.
Why dogs bark
are the type of barks some owners encourage. They want their dog to
alert them to the presence of a danger or suspicious stranger. Warning
barks tend to become more rapid as the intruder approaches. Aggressive
barks are low in pitch and may be combined with growls. We need to
be able to distinguish warning barks from barks due to fear.
Attention-seeking barks are most often
used by puppies to get you to focus your attention on them. They can
become very insistent and hard to ignore, but ignore them we must.
Play/excitement barks are often short
and sharp. These barks are common if the dog gets too excited with
the game. Often a time-out is in order.
is what you may be hearing when your dog seems to be answering other
hears barking in the neighborhood. It is his way of saying, "I
am over here."
Bored barkers simply need an outlet
for their energy and a more stimulating environment.
Lonely/anxious barking occurs if your
dog is experiencing separation
anxiety. The barking can become self-reinforcing as he becomes
more stimulated and anxious. Anxious barks tend to get higher in pitch
as the dog becomes more upset. This type of barking can be especially
annoying to your neighbors.
Startle barking occurs in response to
an unfamiliar or sudden sound or movement. As with an alert/warning
bark, we need to be able to control this type of barking quickly.
As you can see, there are many reasons for barking and most
barking is a normal behavior. There are some instances in
which barking is considered pathological. This will be discussed
later in the article.
Characteristics of a barker
Studies have been done to try to determine which dogs are more likely
to be barkers. Although there was no difference in the percentage of
excessive barkers between males and females, there was a breed difference.
Beagles, Terriers, and some herding breeds tend to bark more. That
is not surprising, since this is one of the characteristics for which
they were bred. Excessive barking can occur in purebred dogs as well
as mixed breeds.
General principles for controlling undesirable
- If we want to control barking, we need a dog who can obey us and
relax. The dog needs to look to her owner for behavior clues. If
we can call her, have her lie down (dogs do not bark as much when
lying down) and stay, we are well on the way to solving a nuisance
barking problem. In addition, there are some common principles we
can use in modifying barking behavior.
- First, in most
cases shouting "No" is only going to make
matters worse since the dog is thinking you are barking too (and
is probably happy you joined in).
- Be consistent.
Pick a one-word command e.g., "Enough" for
the behavior you want and always use that word in the same tone of
voice. Everyone in the household must use the same command and act
- Be patient with your dog and yourself. Changing behavior takes
a lot of time, and you need to take it slowly, one step at a time.
If you become angry at your dog, the chance to correctly modify the
behavior will be gone.
- Reward the dog
for good behavior. Positive reinforcement is much more powerful
than negative reinforcement. Physical punishment will
do nothing but make your dog fearful of you and break down the bond
you wish to have with her. Food
treats are fine to use as a reward at first. Often, picking a
very special treat like small pieces of cooked chicken or hot dog
will make the reward seem even better. As time goes on, you will
not give a treat every time, sometimes just rewarding with a "Good
Dog" and a pat on the dog's chest.
- Do not hug your dog, talk soothingly, or otherwise play into your
dog's barking. Your dog may then believe there really was something
of which to be alarmed, afraid, or anxious. This reinforces her behavior
and she will likely bark even more the next time.
- Control the situation. As much as possible, set up situations to
use as training. Practice in short, frequent sessions, generally
5-10 minutes each.
- Do not be afraid to ask an expert. Animal trainers, behaviorists,
and your veterinarian can give you valuable advice. Having them witness
your dog's barking episodes may give them valuable clues on helping
you solve the barking problem.
Next, we will look at the different types of barkers and more specific
ways to modify their behavior.
Dogs that bark
at mail carriers, joggers running by the house, or cyclers on the
have their barking reinforced. They
see the mail carrier, they bark, and the mail carrier leaves. The dog
thinks, "Boy, I'm good. My barking made that person leave." In
modifying the dog's behavior, we need to overcome this reinforcement.
Sometimes, by just preventing the dog from seeing the intruding mail
carrier, we can solve the problem. Often, however, we need to do more.
First, we must make sure we are not rewarding the dog for any type
of barking. If the dog barks when she wants to eat, and we feed her,
we are rewarding vocalization. If we try to ignore the barking, but
eventually cave-in and give attention, the dog learns that short barks
will not do the trick, but excessive and extended barking will.
After the dog has
alerted us to an "intruder," we need a
way to signal the dog after one or two barks that she was a good dog
for warning us, but now we will take control. Often the command "Enough" will
accomplish that goal.
To teach "Enough," set up a situation in which your puppy
will bark, but not excessively; knock on the door, for instance. After
one or two barks, stop knocking and make a sound or distraction that
will get her to switch her attention to you. If she stops barking, immediately
say "Enough" and reward her with a treat and praise. If she
does not stop barking, put that delicious treat right in front of her
nose. When she stops barking for a second or two say "Enough," wait
a few more seconds and if she is quiet, give her the treat and praise.
Timing is critical – she must be quiet when you give her the treat or
she will think she is being rewarded for continuing to bark. Be sure
to say "Enough" when she is quiet, not when she is barking.
Later, as she associates "Enough" with being quiet, you can
use it as a command to stop barking.
Some dogs may start with an alert or warning bark, but then progress
to a bark that is associated with fear. One of the more common examples
of this is those dogs that bark at approaching strangers.
If your dog is barking out of fear of people, first he must learn to
be obedient, defer to you for his behavior cues, and relax. Then you
can start setting up situations in which people approach from far off,
and as your dog remains relaxed, give him treats. Slowly (over days and
weeks) have people approach him only to the point where he remains relaxed
and you can reward him. As people come even closer, have them throw treats
his way so he starts associating people with good things happening. While
this controlled training is going on, it is best to not put him in situations
in which you do not have control, e.g., walking down a busy street.
Do not encourage your puppy to bark at people. You may set a bad habit
in motion and he may become suspicious and even fearful of people. Chances
are, he will bark at odd situations and strangers without you telling
Young puppies, as
well as adults soon learn that barking will incite attention from us.
is that dogs will be happy with any attention
they receive, be it negative or positive. A stern "No" from
you is still attention, so the puppy got what she wanted and you reinforced
the behavior. It is best to just ignore this type of barking, as hard
as that may be.
Sometimes, the use
of a remote correction is helpful in controlling this type of barking.
an empty soda can, foghorns, or other
noisemakers can be used to startle the dog while she is barking. When
she is startled, she stops barking, and at that point, you can give her
a substitute for barking – a toy, a walk. Just make sure she stops barking
before you give the substitute or the dog will perceive it as a reward for barking.
If your dog barks excessively during play, it is best to let her calm
down and slow down the game. If she continues to bark, stop playing until
she has settled down.
This type of barking is quite instinctive and can sometimes be difficult
to control, especially in a household of multiple dogs. Often there is
an instigator dog and all other dogs join in. This type of barking may
be controlled using a similar approach to alert/warning barks, i.e.,
obedience and relaxation methods with a substitute behavior offered,
like playing with a toy.
Dogs who bark when they are bored may be similar to dogs seeking attention
or those that are lonely. Dogs who are bored need something to do besides
barking. We need to give them a more stimulating environment and usually
a lot more exercise. A tired dog is less likely to be bored. Toys such
as Kongs and Buster Cubes that can be filled with treats can get your
dog's brain, as well as his body, working.
Dogs who bark when
they are alone may be showing a symptom of their separation anxiety.
As we mentioned,
these dogs are in the midst of a
vicious circle – the more lonely they are, the more they bark, the more
upset they get, the more they bark, the barking gets them more upset
and they bark more – and the cycle continues.
We need to work with the dog on the underlying behavior of separation
anxiety. We can do this several ways. As in alert/warning barking, we
need to be able to teach the dog simple obedience and how to relax. Then
we can work on the problem of the separation anxiety.
We can start out
by leaving or acting like we are leaving for a short time - and before
starts getting nervous and barking (this may
be one second at first), we come back. This way, we are not rewarding
barking, but rewarding relaxation and silence. We gradually extend the
time we are gone and return before the dog gets anxious. If your dog
is anxious even if you leave the room, then you will need to start by
just taking several steps away from her while she remains relaxed. While
going through this behavior modification, you cannot go too slow – you
can go too fast.
We often need to
change our habits too. Often the dog starts getting nervous when we
our routine of leaving. Maybe you are like
me, and the last thing you do before you leave is put on your shoes and
pick up the keys. Vary this and put on your shoes and pick up your keys – but
do not leave. Go to the couch and read a book. If you only play the radio
on weekends when you are home, turn it on during your workdays. As hard
as it may be, set your alarm on weekends, get up, but stay home. Continue
these changes in routine until your dog does not pay attention to your
cues anymore. It is also very important to not give your dog a lot of
attention when you leave.
When you are gone,
make sure your dog is comfortable – light, warmth,
a radio playing, toys. If your dog is outside, a doghouse may help her
feel more secure. Some indoor dogs will be more content if they can watch
what is going on outside, be it traffic or chipmunks. Others may be more
anxious if they can look out and do better with the drapes closed. You
will need to decide what makes your dog less anxious. Make sure you give
your dog a lot of exercise a half hour or so before you leave. As with
boredom, tired dogs are less likely to become anxious.
If your dog happens to not only bark, but destroy things while you are
gone, a crate may be necessary. Never punish your dog when you come home
and find something chewed or torn. If you do, your dog will soon associate
your return with being punished. That is going to make her even more
anxious. If you videotape these destructive dogs, you will often see
that the destructive behavior does not begin until just before the owner's
usual time of return, when the dog becomes anxious about the owner's
impending return and punishment.
Just as you should
not punish your dog on your return, do not give her a lot of attention
- then your returning home will not be such
a big deal to her. Instead, come in the door, say "Hello" and
go about a household task. Once your dog has settled down and is quiet,
then you can spend some quality time with her.
Initially, while you are working on behavior modification it may be
helpful to get a neighbor or pet sitter to come in once or several times
during the day. This will help break up the long hours the dog has without
Finally, if the separation
anxiety is severe, medications are often needed during the behavior
modification process. Medication alone will
not solve the problem, but it can be a useful adjunct to the process.
Consult with your veterinarian to determine which medication would be
We can best curb
startled barking using the similar techniques for alert/warning barks.
Teaching "Enough" will
really help in this situation. If a certain sound consistently startles
your dog, record that sound.
Start by playing it back very softly so your dog will remain relaxed
when she hears it. If she remains quiet, then reward her. Over days and
weeks, gradually increase the volume until she is no longer startled
into barking when she hears it.
Barking that is a
simple nuisance is not the same as barking that is pathologically excessive.
the barking we have talked about thus
far is normal barking behavior except for that connected to separation
anxiety. Barking can be abnormal or "pathologic" in situations
of separation anxiety, as a result of an obsessive-compulsive disorder
in which a dog barks very excessively or at inappropriate things (a leaf
falling), or in dogs who become hyper-excited with the approach of people
or other dogs. Dogs who become aggressive during barking episodes need
to undergo behavior modification for the aggression before we attempt
to modify the barking behavior.
For dogs with pathologic barking or additional behavioral problems,
it is highly recommended to use a team-approach to the problem. The team
consists of all family members, an animal behaviorist, and a veterinarian.
Each family member must work with the dog in the same way, using the
same commands. The animal behaviorist may be able to cue in on unique
characteristics of your dog's behavior and help you set up training situations
that will be most effective. Your veterinarian may also be able to give
you insights as well as prescribe appropriate medications to enable the
dog to be more responsive to the behavior modification.
Controlling barking through corrective collars
There are numerous collars on the market that produce an electrical
stimulation, an irritating ultrasonic sound, or a smell (offensive to
the dogs, but not to us) when the dog barks. These may be used as an
adjunct to behavior modification. Collars alone will not cure the problem.
Unfortunately, these collars to do not always produce the desired effect.
For some of these hard-core barkers, the punishment for barking is not
sufficient to get them to stop. They would rather bark and be punished
than not bark at all. For dogs who bark when they are anxious, the collar's
correction may make them even more anxious.
In some situations, these corrective collars have been found to be useful.
For instance, there is a citronella collar which gives off a citrus smell
when the dog barks. This can alert you to the fact the dog was barking
while you were gone since the citrus smell still lingers in the air.
In situations where you must change the barking behavior quickly or you
may lose your dog (or apartment), a bark-control collar may be used while
you are away from the dog. When using a bark-control collar, remember
that you not only have to stop the bad behavior, you need to reward the
good. Your dog can not learn an appropriate alternative to barking if
someone is not present to teach it to him.
Another type of collar
that may be effective is a halter collar. This type of collar looks
like a horse halter; brand names include Gentle
Leader/Promise System Canine Head Collar and Halti Head collars. When
you pull on the leash portion, a portion of the collar tightens around
the dog's muzzle. By using a quick pull of the lead, saying "Enough" when
the dog is quiet, and then rewarding him, you may find the training goes
Debarking is a surgical
procedure that removes the vocal cords from dogs. There are two surgical
one through the mouth, and the
other through an incision in the neck. Debarking will NOT result in a
silent dog. A dog who has undergone the procedure will still attempt
to bark, and make a hoarse sound, which some people find more irritating
than the bark itself. Debarking will not cure the reason for barking – the
fear, boredom, or anxiety will still be there.
Preventing nuisance barking in puppies
Teaching your puppy appropriate behavior from the beginning is easier
than changing behavior that has become a bad habit. Some behavior we
may think of as cute in a puppy will not be cute in an adult dog. So,
think ahead to avoid potential problems.
The first few nights
after bringing your puppy home will be the hardest. You may want to put his crate
in your bedroom. The puppy will be more secure with you near. Security
builds trust. Trust will decrease the possibility of separation anxiety
in the future. Just remember not to give any attention to the puppy
if he is whining – that will only reward his undesirable behavior.
By starting to train your puppy in obedience and relaxation at an early
age, you can greatly reduce the probability your puppy will grow into
a problem barker. Nip problems in the bud and always look at why the
puppy is barking. Is it fear, anxiety, attention-seeking? Use the appropriate
measures to treat the underlying problem.
Remember that if
for some reason you want your dog to bark on command, or in a certain
you must also be able to teach him to stop
on command. Teach "Enough" at an early age. This was described
under "Alert/warning Barkers".
Introduce the young puppy to situations that may cause anxiety later
on. Get your puppy used to walking on the sidewalk along a busy street.
Expose your puppy to sounds like vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, and other
noises. Take things slow so your puppy does not become anxious while
being exposed to these new things. Reward the puppy when he is quiet
Puppy classes are a great place for your puppy to meet new people and
other dogs. He can learn to obey you even when there are numerous distractions.
You also have a trainer present who can help you with any potential problems.
In short, it will be a lot more fun for everybody if your puppy learns
to communicate through a wag of the tail and looking to you for guidance
rather than through excessive and relentless barking.
References and Further Reading
Benjamin, CL. Dog Problems. Howell Book House.
New York, NY; 1989;113-124.
Clark, GI; Boyer, WN. The Mentally Sound Dog. Alpine
Publications, INC. Loveland, CO; 1995;167-174.
Juarbe-Diaz, SV. Assessment and treatment of excessive
barking in the domestic dog. In Houpt, KA (ed.) The Veterinary Clinics
of North America, Small Animal Practice. W.B Saunders Co. Philadelphia,
Overall, KL. Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small
Animals. Mosby-Year Book, Inc. St. Louis, MO; 1997;261-262, 426-427,
Scidmore, BK; McConnell, PB. Puppy Primer. Dog's
Best Friend, Ltd. Black Earth, WI; 1996;61-63.
BS. Canine communication. In Houpt, KA (ed.) The Veterinary Clinics
of North America, Small Animal Practice.
W.B Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1997;27(3):445-460