At a recent public event I attended, the question asked most by companion dog owners was, “How do I get my dog to stop barking?” As professionals, of course, the first thing we want to do is ask more questions. “When does the dog bark?”, “What time of day?”, “What are they barking at?”, “What are they getting out of it?”, “What do you do when they bark?”, “What do you want them to do instead?” and so on.
We can all think of people who talk too much yet no one asks, “How can I get my friend to stop talking?” The question would not even enter our minds and nor would any of the other questions stated above. We may find our talkative friends entertaining, informative and filled with life and if we don’t like it, then we can simply walk away, “unfriend” them or decide simply to tolerate them.
Dogs, on the other hand, do not speak our language. Sometimes it can be hard to understand what they are saying, which may make their behavior become annoying. Imagine, however, how frustrating it must be to the dog not to be heard, or worse, ignored.
Fact: Barking communication has a very clear progression and purpose. It starts abruptly between two and four weeks of age, with most puppies showing a response as if they are startled by their first bark.
Initially, barking occurs in a play-soliciting context and is not associated with serious aggression until after eight weeks of age, when puppies will respond to their dam’s growl. Aggressive barks by puppies generally do not occur before 12 weeks. By the fourth month, the aggressive bark is more marked in defense of food and toward strange dogs, probably more as an announcement of presence rather than a warning.
This announcement of presence continues and can become stronger and more persistent, especially in areas where many strange dogs and people pass by. Defense of food is also natural, referred to as resource guarding by humans. These two communication pieces are quite ingrained and natural early in life and needed for survival.
Since dogs are domesticated they need to figure out how to exist in a human world that does not always welcome barking.
Coppinger, Lord & Feinstein state that barking is a universally recognized hallmark of the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris. From the casual human listener’s standpoint, barking seems readily distinguishable from other vocalizations.
But the terms “bark” and “barking” are often used in the scientific literature without a precise definition of a bark’s structure. The function of this vocalization is variously analyzed as an alarm call (Cohen & Fox, 1976; Tembrock, 1976; Lehner, 1978; Schassburger, 1987, 1993; Harrington & Asa, 2003); a territory-marking signal (Lehner, 1978; Cohen & Fox, 1976); a rally call (Schassburger, 1987; Cohen & Fox, 1976); or an indicator of motivational state (Morton, 1977; Bleicher, 1963; Tembrock, 1976). Coppinger & Feinstein (1991) argue that dog barking is a developmental artifact with no intrinsic function; Yin & McCowan (2004), and Yin (2002) & Feddersen-Petersen (2000) speculate that barks may have referential content.
There is a lot of speculation and ongoing study on the communication of dogs. Barking is a foreign language for which we have no interpreter, like trying to understand a code only known by its originator. The tone of continuous, incessant barking can be irritating for the people those dogs live with. It can be established then that excessive barking is a communication problem.
Fact: Excessive barking is one of the top five reported behavior problems, comprising between 6 – 35 percent of all complaints to canine behavior consultants. Over-barking can cause over-excitement, which can cause high level stress and other behavior issues (Campbell, 1973; 1986).
Some breeds are known for being barkers, i.e. dachshunds – but client complaints also come from owners of beagles, collies, dachshunds, Dalmatians, miniature schnauzers, Shetland sheepdogs, silky terriers and Yorkshire terriers (Campbell, 1974).
13 Reasons Barking Is Reinforced
1) Early experience.
2) Owner gives attention to barking dog, reinforcing it.
3) Dog is fearful.
4) Dog is distressed, i.e. separation anxiety.
5) Current environment can trigger excessive barking.
6) Dogs overly-excited with physical or mental stress.
7) Lack of mental stimulation or boredom.
8) Infection, hormonal or metabolic disease.
9) Too little or too much environmental stimuli.
10) Attention seeking.
11) Hyperactivity or hyperkinesis (inability to concentrate).
13) Obsessive compulsive disorder.
Unique Situations that Reinforce Barking
1) Inside a vehicle – can be serious face plastering type.
2) Places where there are a lot of dogs barking, such as flyball, dog shows, agility.
3) Barking at dogs on television.
A simple solution would be to stop reinforcing excessive barking. There is much more involved in teaching the dog what you want instead and rewarding the right behavior, while still keeping communication alive.
Understand that excessive barking can cause both physical and mental stress. It is not in the best interest of the dog, in most cases. Keeping barking manageable would be a better option.
The bottom line is dogs bark, it their communication system. Excessive barking goes beyond normal alerting, greeting or protecting resources. It is then it becomes annoying and urgent. No one is listening and it can even become the only activity the dog has in his world.
We all know the dog that has a persistent alarm bark. It is released with people he knows, family members, any and all outside noises. We all know the dog that charges and barks at strangers or strange dogs. We all know the dog that is punished for his communication and as a result it gets worse.
These behaviors can have many reasons for being reinforced including anxiety, social deficits, over-arousal, being intermittently rewarded with attention, separation distress and more. These learned habits need to be re-associated with incompatible behaviors, while retaining barking as communication.
How to Work with Problem Barkers
Develop a communication system to teach what else to do or an off cue (the ‘Three Bark Rule,’ which I use with my dogs and client dogs on home base, will be explained in detail in Part II of this article in the March 2016 issue of BARKS). Anything we do not understand can be an annoyance, but once we know what to do and how to do it, we open the bridge to communication. Meanwhile, here are five tips on managing and preventing excessive barking:
1) Provide Environmental Enrichment
Why? Enrichment takes the focus off the outer environment and places it on the inner environment while keeping the dog busy with what they love to do from foraging, to toy play, to mentally tiring activity.
What? Treat dispensing toys, intelligence or puzzle games, a variety of toys that make sounds, toys that have differing textures, chews to release mouth tension, active games such as flirt poles, balls, toys that jump, move automatically and more. The key is in providing variety and rotating what is offered daily.
2) Create a Reward System Using an Automatic System to Stop Excessive Barking
Dr. Ian Dunbar and Dr. John Watson have developed a clever system of rewarding quiet, the Auto Trainer. The unit uses tones to train dogs to be calm using positive techniques (no shock, spray or loud sounds). A collar detects dog barking and when the dog is quiet, the reward system goes into effect. The device then rewards increasingly longer periods of quiet so it becomes more rewarding not to bark than to bark excessively. It can be used at home, in the car or while traveling.
3) Put Barking on Cue, Stimulus Control
Putting a Dog’s Unwanted Behavior on Stimulus Control, a video by positive trainer Donna Hill, demonstrates this concept. Putting unwanted behavior on cue means eventually the dog will not engage in it unless he is cued to do so. It becomes a cued trick versus an annoying behavior. A clicker is a wonderful tool to use to accomplish precision in teaching. You can learn the basics in this video, Clicker Training Basics, with Pamela Johnson. Another way to put barking on cue is to teach “speak.” Here are four how-to steps using a clicker and rewards the dog loves:
- First, enthusiastically make a noise or bark yourself to engage the dog and reward any noise with a click and treat. As the dog is eating the treat add a quiet cue, such as the word “quiet” said softly, or “shhhh,” or “all done” said with a smile. Click again as he remains quiet and reward to teach the cue.
- Repeat. You should get a pretty loud bark for speak.
- Add the cue “speak” once the dog understands what you are doing through repetition. So now you will have a cue for barking – speak – and quiet.
- Repeat the pattern many times a day. It literally becomes an on and off switch.
4) Management of Over-Barking in a Car or Other Vehicle
- Crate the dog in a car and set the stage for safety and comfort with a soft mat, pad or blanket and familiar smells from home, such as an unwashed t-shirt.
- Cover the crate if needed with a blanket to keep out visual movement and keep the dog safe.
- A Calming Cap limits peripheral vision (the makers of Thundershirt also make a Thundercap).
- Park farther away so the dog has a reduced sound safety zone.
- Window covering/shade.
- Auto Trainer to reinforce quiet, looking down and away, and being rewarded for it.
- Capture quiet, not barking, using desensitization and counterconditioning techniques, such as a “look at that” (LAT) technique watching people walk by at an appropriate distance, and using a clicker to mark calm, quiet looking and rewarding the position of turning full body to look at the handler or turning the head, then increasing distance the handler is from the vehicle until the dog is quiet and knows the owner will return.
- Take along a filled treat dispenser or bone used only for alone time in vehicle – something safe a dog can chew on to release mouth tension.
5) Condition a Positive Response to Other Dogs Barking or Environmental Sounds
A dog barking means something good is going to happen. This can be initiated to the visual of a dog also, and can start with using barking sounds found on sound DVDs or sound tracks on the internet. Trainer Eileen Anderson features a useful video, Conditioning a Positive Response to Another Dog Barking and to Other Distractions, on how to condition a positive response to other dogs barking on her YouTube channel.
Separation anxiety needs a systematic behavior change program by a qualified veterinarian behaviorist, behavior consultant or trainer. Publications recommended are Home Alone by Roger Abrantes and Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs by Malena DeMartini to get started.
Identifying why barking is occurring, applying the correct technique to address the underlying reason and developing a mutual communication through listening and proper responsiveness are key to making sure barking does not become over-excessive and simply remains as manageable dog speak, the language of the dog that dogs can count on their pet guardian to understand, thereby creating confidence, improved relationships and bonding in a positive way.
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Hill, D. (Producer). (2011). Putting a Dog’s Unwanted Behavior on Stimulus Control [Video]
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Lord, K., Feinstein, M. & Coppinger, R. (2009, July). Barking and mobbing. Behavioral Processes, 81, 358-368
Peters G., & Wozencraft W. (1989). Acoustic communication by fissiped carnivores. In Gittleman, J. (Ed): Carnivore Behavior, Ecology and Evolution. Ithaca, NY; Comstock Publishing Associates
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, January 2016, pp.41-32.