Of all dog behaviors, barking may be the most complex. It can be both highly desirable and highly undesirable, depending on your perception or need. Your dog’s barking can help alert you to a need or problem and can provide protection. Barking can also be of use in certain working roles like herding. But uncontrolled barking has the potential to become a major problem with far-reaching consequences for you and your dog.
As natural as barking is, it is one of the most misunderstood and mismanaged canine behaviors. Dog owners frequently assume that a barking dog is defiant or spiteful. Your dog does not bark to get a rise out of you, nor does he instinctively understand what “Quiet!” means. To address barking, we first need to understand why dogs bark.
Why Dogs Bark
Barking is a natural release for your dog’s emotions, as well as a way to communicate with other dogs, other animals and people.
Your dog may bark for a variety of reasons. He may bark to express frustration or excitement, or to ask for attention or invite another dog to come play. Barking can also be a warning that something is wrong or that a dog is preparing to aggress or bite. And some dogs bark simply because they are bored or enjoy barking.
The context and intensity of the dog’s emotion may influence the bark. Not all barks have the same meaning, and individual dogs may bark for different reasons in the same situation. I worked with two Cocker Spaniels who both barked at visitors: One barked primarily out of fear and anxiety, using her barks to warn new people to keep their distance, while the other barked in joyous excitement, begging new people to notice her and pet and play with her.
It is possible to change your dog’s barking behavior, but if you suspect that fear, anxiety or aggression is the reason for the barking, it is important that you seek professional help for your dog. Talk with your veterinarian about a referral to a reward-based trainer or veterinary behaviorist who can help with the barking.
End Unwanted Barking
If a dog is inadvertently rewarded for barking, the pattern becomes further ingrained. So if your dog barks each time the doorbell rings and you distract him with a treat, he learns that barking at the doorbell earns him a snack, and he will continue to bark when he hears the sound.
So how can you put a stop to unwanted barking? Here are a few of my favorite strategies.
Ignore the barking. In situations where your dog wants something you can control — a walk, a toy or your attention — ignoring the bark and rewarding quiet behavior may be effective. Practice throwing the ball only when your dog’s mouth is closed, for example, not when he’s barking at you. Ignoring the bark won’t work in every situation, though; if your dog’s barking is being reinforced by natural consequences (he barks at the mail carrier, who turns and walks away), then ignoring it will have no effect. If your dog is upset or frightened, the bark is only a symptom of the underlying issue, and ignoring it may make the situation worse.
Teach “quiet. ” Your dog does not intuitively understand the “quiet” cue. Punishing him as a way to stop the barking may further agitate him, and yelling at him may lead him to think that you are barking with him. Help put a stop to barking by teaching your dog to speak, and then teaching him “quiet.” Heavily rewarding the quiet behavior reinforces it and makes it easier to change his behavior when he begins to bark.
Limit barking opportunities. The most effective way to put a stop to unwanted barking is to prevent the behavior in the first place. If your dog barks at people he sees through the window, close the blinds or restrict access to rooms or areas where he can see outside. If your dog barks when he is alone outside, supervise him when he potties and reward him for doing his business without barking. If he barks at people he sees on his walk, teach him an alternative behavior, like touching your hand with his nose. Reinforce the alternative behavior with a desirable reward.
Interrupt and redirect. When your dog begins to bark, get his attention with a small noise and ask him to do something else. The interruption should be enough to just break his focus without scaring him — for example, a cluck of the tongue, a kissing sound or a quiet clap. Once you have your dog’s attention, tell him what you want him to do — sit, go to his mat, down — and reward this alternative behavior.