Barking is a common behavioural problem for modern dog owners. More than ever before, we live close to our neighbours and we are gone from the home for many hours each day. A barking dog can cause headaches, neighbourhood disputes, and can even lead to the family dog being surrendered or rehomed.
Due to the level of disruption a barking dog can create, both at home and with neighbours, many people look to solve the problem as quickly as possible. This often results in training devices, such as bark collars, being used. These devices fail to address the reason your dog is barking, which means you might succeed in temporarily stopping the barking, but without addressing the underlying cause you won’t see lasting change. More importantly such devices can have negative effects on your dogs stress levels, and can lead to more severe behavioural problems developing.
So what can you do to reduce your dogs barking? To answer this we need to understand that barking can be a symptom of a wide variety of problems that may be affecting your dog. Let’s have a look at some of the more common reasons for excessive barking, and how you can help your dog learn to cope better in those situations.
It is very common for dogs to bark at people, vehicles, and animals that pass the house. This is usually their response to a perceived threat, and your dog is saying “go away”. Unfortunately for us, the trigger usually does go away. From your dogs perspective, they bark in a menacing way and that yellow-bellied trigger (mailman, dog walker, etc) moves away with their tail between their legs. Barking in this context works! If you don’t alter this situation your dogs barking will become worse, because thanks to their barking the household is safe from those pesky passersby.
One of the most effective steps you can take to reduce this barking is to limit visual access that your dog has to these triggers. This could mean using weed-mat to block out the view through the fence, window film to prevent your dog seeing through to the street, or perhaps leaving your dog in a different part of the house or a smaller yard where they don’t have access to a view of the street when you’re not home. It is not good exercise or enrichment for your dog to be on guard all day, watching for someone to bark at. They will appreciate the opportunity to relax away from their “duties”.
When you consider the hours spent alone at home, it is a wonder that more dogs aren’t going stir-crazy. Dogs that bark at the slightest movement around the yard (leaves, birds, etc) may be engaging in the most interesting option available.
Rather than yelling for your dog to “shut up”, give your dog something more appropriate to do. Provide them for an outlet for all that energy! A combination of physical activity (walks, play) and mental stimulation (food toys, puzzles, nose work) is your best bet. If your dog is busy, active, and mentally stimulated they will have less time and inclination to make their own (noisy) games when you are busy or away from home.
If your dog is barking at you to demand attention/play/food then you have probably inadvertently taught them that barking works. Humans are masters at ignoring something until it is creating a problem for us. If you’re sitting on the couch, engaged in a book or something on your computer, your dog is probably nearby and somewhat bored. If they bark, do you look at them? Talk? Tell them off? Compared to the dull monotony of you sitting idle on the couch, many dogs find that kind of engagement rewarding.
Instead of fussing when your dog is noisy, pay attention to the situations where he is likely to bark at you. Find ways to engage with your dog before he starts barking, and reward him for quieter behaviour. At first you might only have very brief windows of opportunity to reward your dog, but with practise the brief moments will get longer. You can also redirect your dog to a more appropriate activity. If you’re settling in for a long and boring couch session, perhaps you could give your dog a stuffed Kong or chew to keep busy with.
Of all the causes of barking this can be the most heart-breaking and challenging to deal with. Sometimes the first hint a person has that their dog is having problems when home alone is a letter in the mailbox from an unhappy neighbour. It can be overwhelming to learn that your dog might be barking for extended periods when you are not home. Barking as a symptom of separation anxiety is often prolonged in nature and starts shortly after you have left home. It may not be every time you leave either. Some dogs have learned to cope with you daily departure to work, but when you go out for dinner their world falls apart. Setting up a webcam can confirm whether your dog is barking non-stop when you leave, or if they are barking at specific times (e.g. when the mailman drives up the street).
If you suspect that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety you should contact a trainer or veterinary behaviourist promptly. There are some very effective protocols for helping your dog to cope when you are not home, but you will need help and encouragement to be successful. You can also find some great resources online, such as Malena DeMartini’s website.
Dogs can bark for a great number of reasons, but they never bark for no reason at all. Rather than jumping straight to yelling at your dog or punishing them for barking, take a moment to try to understand why they are making so much noise, and get help to find a solution that addresses the cause rather than the symptom. Quick fixes, such as bark collars, may provide you with immediate relief, but what about your dog? He will appreciate you taking the time to help him to cope more effectively with the day-to-day reality of modern life with dogs.