Excessive and persistent barking can be a tough and stressful experience for dog owners. Particularly during a pandemic lockdown, when tensions and stress levels are running higher than ever.
One of the biggest challenges of owning a dog is dealing with behavioural problems and excessive barking is right up there with things that can leave us humans feeling ‘ruff’ around the edges.
The good news is, if your dog is barking, there’s generally a simple reason why. Once you have identified the underlying cause, you can then take the most appropriate course of action to address and fix the issue. With consistency and patience you will make progress.
Doggy lifestyle site www.boneidol.co.uk has curated some ideas and methods from a variety of accredited sources on how to deal with barking, things that have worked for them, to give you some food for thought and to help you quieten things down.
Whichever your try, be sure that your whole household is on the same page and working to the same goal.
Understanding Why Dogs Bark
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing clear… and that is barking is a completely normal behaviour for dogs. They can’t speak, so barking is an essential vocal type of communication both with humans and other dogs. Don’t expect your dog to never bark - that’s as unreasonable as asking you to never talk!!!! If Fido is barking, there’s a reason why. Think of him as an animal and not an irritant.
However, if your dog is barking excessively (and by that we mean incessantly for hours on end or repeatedly in specific situations), this could indicate an underlying issue and needs addressing.
Barking can be triggered by various causes and stimuli (the barking trigger) and can mean different things depending on the situation so let’s have a sniff around at some of the reasons why dogs bark.
Territorial & Protective Barking
If a person or animal comes into what your dog considers as its territory, this may trigger barking. Very often, as the threat gets closer, the barking will get louder and the dog may appear aggressive. This might not just be your home or garden, but also proximity on a dog walk.
Alarm Or Fear
A dog may bark at any noise or object that catches their attention or takes them by surprise. It may be in the home or outside their territory, but any sound, no matter how trivial it may appear to us, can trigger a barking response.
Traffic, rustling leaves, high visibility clothing, a doorbell ringing, hats or lawn mowers are all examples of things that can cause man’s best friend to bark.
Boredom, Loneliness & Separation Anxiety
Dogs are pack animals. Often dogs who are left by themselves for long periods of time will bark because they are bored, unhappy or anxious about being left alone. Dogs with separation anxiety often bark incessantly when left alone and this is frequently accompanied by other behaviours such as pacing, destructive activities and inappropriate elimination.
Compulsive barkers bark excessively in a repetitive way. They often display repetitive movement as well, such as running round and round in circles or running back and forth along a fence.
The Greeting Or Play Bark
A lot of dogs bark when they greet people or other animals. Usually, it’s a ‘happy’ bark, which comes with much tail wagging and possibly jumping up.
Attention Seeking & Over Excitement
Sometimes dogs get into the habit of barking when they want something and because they are rewarded for doing so, a pattern forms, for example, going outside, getting a treat or playing.
Many dogs bark with excitement in anticipation of food, walks and play. These events may become ritualistic without us even knowing. Us humans may be totally unaware of our actions but our faithful friends can readily pick up on these subtle cues and then bark in excitement for what’s about to happen.
Step Back & Look At The Bigger Picture
Now you understand the reasons why your dog may be barking, the first step to understanding how you might go about stopping him is to work out the cause of the problem. What is his barking trigger? Is he barking because he is scared? Is he barking because he’s protecting his territory? Or maybe he’s barking to get your attention? Could there be more more than one reason?
It is worth considering that dogs, like people, come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. This can result in a doorbell being exciting for one dog, an anxiety trigger for another and even a fearful reaction for others. Just like us, every dog is different even. Within breeds, packs and families, experiences and personalities combine to form the individual. Try to think about the overall behaviour of your dog, their breed and history as you work to understand the nature of their bark in different situations.
Ask For Help With Persistent Problems
If your dog’s woofing has got to the point where it’s driving you barking mad, the first thing to do is to have your dog checked over by your vet. This allows you to rule out any biological causes. Especially in the case of the older dogs, excessive barking could be a sign of chronic pain or cognitive decline.
Once you have ruled that out you can move on. Bone Idol, from personal experience, recommends consulting a qualified animal behaviourist. As pet parents we are sometimes unable to see the root cause of a problem. It’s also very easy to be ‘blinded’ by the irritation of the barking. A qualified third party will be able to study the dog owner relationship from ‘the outside’, give you expert guidance, thus helping you both move forwards.
We spoke to Donna O’Keefe, Level 4 Dog Behaviourist (from Brighton & Hove, Sussex). She also advocates consulting with a canine nutritionist as feeding quality food in the correct amount can be beneficial to both your dog’s wellbeing and their behaviour. Once you have ruled out potential wellbeing issues, you can then start to modify the dog’s behaviour with your behaviourist.
https://www.caninesoul.co.uk/As a word of caution, if you do choose to get outside help, be sure only to use a dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement and not aggressive or aversive methods and tools. This kind of ‘training’ could likely make the issue worse in the long-term. Search for qualified behaviourists and don’t be afraid to ask for a reference or testimonial from their clients.
Once you’ve identified the barking trigger, simple obedience training will help retrain your dog’s brain not to associate the trigger with a need to bark. Barking is a self-rewarding exercise – the more a dog barks, the more they enjoy it and the more they will continue!
Redirecting behaviour involves using rewards-based, or positive reinforcement, to teach your dog what ‘good’ behaviour is. In order to phase out an unwanted behaviour, you need to redirect before the barking starts.
Donna O’Keefe gives the following example:
“If your dog’s trigger is to bark at random things such as birds in the back garden, redirect the behaviour of barking at birds back to you. Just BEFORE the dog barks, recall him to you, ask for a ‘sit’ and reward the sit. Make sure that you recall him just as he looks like he is going to start barking. The reason you ask the dog to sit after the recall is because you want to reward the sit behaviour and NOT the action of nearly barking at the birds which will simply reward and promote / escalate the undesirable barking behaviour.”
As a general rule, slowly expose your dog to their trigger, and reward them whenever they don’t bark. If they do bark, simply ignore them and try again.
Consistency and patience are key. According to O’Keefe, it does take a while to retrain and the behaviour will only change with the effort you put into directing the unwanted behaviour. Never reward barking. Resist any urge to react to your dog barking (such as by shouting) as this will only motivate the dog to continue.
Triggers & Other Considerations
Whilst redirecting the behaviour of barking is a great way to decrease barking, it may also be necessary to make changes to your dog’s environment to resolve the problem.
Environment & Stimulus
Because territorial or protective barking is often motivated by a perceived threat to a dog’s territory, (such as people passing the house), it can be diminished by simply restricting what the dog can see. For example, consider limiting access to windows and doors or cover them with curtains or opaque film. If the dog is barking in the garden, a solid fence or wall may be more effective than a boundary that they can see through.
A 2002 study showed that classical music can have a calming and relaxing effect on dogs. When try having a quiet and calm classic playlist on while you are at home. Not only will this help to keep you dog calm and chilled out but will also help to mask background noises that could trigger barking. Once established at home this may also help dog with separation anxiety if it was left on while you pop out. Start by leaving them in the room with the music on and build up their time alone. This will help them learn that alone time is relaxing time.
https://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/ufaw/aw/2002/00000011/00000004/art00002 Exercise & Enrichment
Quite simply, a tired dog is much more likely to be a quiet dog. If you suspect your dog might be barking when left alone, try to tire them out before you leave. Go for a walk or play stimulating games with your dog before you go out and ensure that your dog has adequate stimulation in the form of safe toys or food to keep him occupied while you are gone. To find out more about enrichment, check out the Bone Idol Guide to Enrichment, written with Donna O’Keefe.
Revisiting training you have already worked on whether it be out on walks or around the house is also great. Whilst out walking, asking your dog to sit and wait at every curb or whilst there are distractions, or reinforcing recall with treats at home, are great bursts of training that will stimulate your dog’s mind and remind them to focus on you.
For more Ideas on enrichment read the Bone Idol Guide to Enrichment. https://boneidol.co.uk/pages/enrichment-guide Social & Emotional
Since dogs are highly social animals, it may be worth investigating doggy day-care facilities in your area or the possibility of employing a dog walker or sitter who can come in and give your four-legged friend some company. In addition, consider taking up agility, obedience or other active forms of dog training to challenge your dog’s mind and body.
We also recommend considering how much stimulus different training methods offer your dog. When it comes to dogs that bark and get over-excited, avoid competitive-style training games like fly ball and instead opt for owner-focused attention-based training.
Both separation anxiety and compulsive barking are difficult problems to treat and should always be managed with the help of a qualified positive reward animal behaviourist.
Never give your dog attention for barking at you when you return home or for any other kind of greeting behaviour such as jumping up. None whatsoever. Don’t stroke them or even make eye contact with your dog until he stops barking and is sitting quietly. Wait until he has calmed himself down and then reward the calm behaviour.
On The Spot
Teaching your dog a behaviour rather than letting your dog do into a barking frenzy when you or others come into the house is to train your dog to go a spot, such as a mat or a bed, and stay there, whenever the door opens. With patience and practice, the dog will learn to sit and stay quietly in their special place when you and visitors come into the house.
If your dog’s barking is a way of gaining your attention, only give this attention when they are quiet. For example, if your dog barks at you when he wants water and you immediately go and fill up his water bowl, you have just inadvertently rewarded him and therefore taught him to bark to get what he wants. If the dog barks and the bowl is empty, go away for a few minutes and do something else and then if the dog is quiet, return to the bowl and fill it with water. In this way, they will not associate barking with being effective.
Find alternative ways for your dog to communicate with you without barking. So, for the above example, a way of doing this would be whenever you fill up the water bowl, tap it to make a noise. Encourage your dog to make the same noise (for example by pushing the bowl with his nose) to communicate with you that it’s empty.
Teaching Your Dog To ‘Speak’ – Barking On Command
Another effective way to teaching your dog to be quiet is to teach them to ‘speak’. Once they can reliably bark on command, teach them to stop barking with a different command such as ‘quiet’. Reinforce the command with a hand signal (such as putting a finger up to your lips). Practice the ‘quiet’ calm when the dog is calm and free from distraction so that in time he will learn to stop barking on command.
A Few No No’s & Things To Avoid
• Never scold your dog. For a dog, that’s still considered to be attention. The key is to ignore the undesirable barking, (and the barking trigger) until they stop.
• Shouting at your barking dog will more than likely stimulate him to bark more because they think you’re joining in. So, if you do need to speak, speak calmly and firmly but do not shout.
• There are a number of aversive techniques that promise to stop barking quickly and effectively, for example, various kinds of ‘anti bark’ collars. These devises are ineffective and may also lead to other behavioural issues such as aggression.
• Never use a muzzle or other forms of restraint to keep your dog quiet.
At the end of the day, patience is a virtue. Getting your dog to bark less won’t happen overnight, but with professional help and patience your efforts to control your dog’s barking will start to pay off.
Consistency is key with any training. For example, try to note each time your dog exhibits a barking behaviour and consider what has triggered this response and if you are able to reduce this response.
Take time to explain to friends and those who may encounter you and your dog regularly what you are working on and how they can help you. Consider a note on your front door if you have regular house callers to explain that it may take a little longer to answer.
Lastly, remember, it’s always better to prevent problems arising. The longer a dog is allowed to practice his unwanted behaviour, the more ingrained the habit will become so don’t allow a problem to go on and on. Problem behaviours such as getting your dog to bark less can be reversed but it will take time, patience, consistency and possibly professional help.