There are several reasons for a dog to bark, for most it is merely a method of communication and a natural part of canine behaviour. Most dogs will instinctively bark when strangers approach their territory; this type of barking is generally acceptable and often encouraged by their owners. However, there are many times when barking is inappropriate and disruptive, and to stop this, the underlying motivation had to be discovered.
Many inappropriate forms of barking are due to dogs suffering from either physical or mental discomfort. Barking can be due to a medical cause, either pain or cognitive decline (senility). If your dog is older than 7 years and shows other signs of decline, such as altered sleep patterns, sudden bouts of aggression, lapses in house training or signs of decreasing awareness, old age might be a reason for barking, especially if it seems random and not directed at anything specific. Physical pain can also cause a dog to bark or vocalise in other ways.
The five freedoms of animal welfare are very relevant when thinking of inappropriate barking. Fear, anxiety, lack of exercise or mental stimulation are all reasons for dogs to bark. If you lock up your dog in a cage all day with inadequate facilities, no stimulation and social contact, it is likely to lead to excessive barking. Younger dogs will often bark when playing, which is generally harmless. However, one should be careful not to praise puppies while they are barking, as this might encourage them to bark every time they want your attention.
In order to discover the cause for barking it is useful to keep a logbook of when and why your dog is barking. Note down what your dog is barking at, for how long and what your own response to the barking is. Remember that a dog can smell and hear noises better than you can, so sometimes the trigger might not be obvious. Note also the dog’s body language (aggressive, anxious, playful etc.). Consider medical and physical issues. A complete physical examination by a veterinarian might be warranted as is ensuring that the dog’s living conditions are acceptable and comfortable.
If you are able to identify the reason for barking, you have a better chance of eliminating the behaviour by other methods. If possible, consider eliminating the cause for the barking, for example if he barks at something he sees through a window, consider curtains or blinds. If he barks at outside noises, use white noise, a radio or something similar to reduce the triggering noise. If the stimuli cannot be avoided, considering giving your dog a treat when it occurs, so your dog makes a positive association between the noise and gets distracted. Another method is desensitisation. If you dog barks at the sound of a doorbell, record the sound and replay it repeatedly at a lower volume. Immediately when your dog doesn’t bark, reward him with a treat or praise. If he does bark, offer him a chew toy or something similar that makes barking at the same time impossible. Always reward quiet behaviour, either with praise, play or a treat. If your dog barks when he is alone out of loneliness or boredom, consider doggy daycare, leaving the TV or radio on, or other enrichment toys.
Yelling or physical punishment should never be used for barking. If your dog is anxious, yelling might result in aggression and if your dog is simply barking out of playfulness he will simply bark more if he gets attention. The most effective way is to consistently interrupt the barking with other diversions or distractions and ensuring your dog’s basic needs are met, including adequate exercise and social interactions. If your dog keeps barking despite all your efforts and procedures, consult with your veterinarian or a professional dog trainer.
Article by: Dr. Laura Wessman