Barking is a form of vocal communication amongst pack members, including you. Although alerting you of visitors can be pleasing to many dog parents, excessive barking due to wanting to be let out of a fenced area or over-excitement during play and feeding can be frustrating. As barking indicates a variety of reasons, it is important to identify its cause, understand the cause, and then react to the cause to successfully resolve the excessive barking.
You should be able to tell the cause of the barking after some time by hearing it alone. For example, the bark commonly emitted by dogs in the presence of visitors are short with little intervals, consistently for quite a few seconds. An excited bark is a high pitch, short and quick repeated barks that last less than 10 seconds. Contrary to popular belief, a quick fix is highly possible. I have addressed barking in response to knocking on the door in less than 30 seconds and the results remain consistent for subsequent knocks. Confident body language and the right intention is all that is required to solve barking.
Note that under no circumstance should de-barking be an option!
1. Reinforced barking
Excessive barking can start from reinforced barking. In other words, your dog associates barking with a desirable outcome over a period of time. Some examples include barking for attention, food, toys, walks, or a request – such as opening a door. Giving in to your dog’s intended outcome only reinforces the barking.
2. Breed genetics
Some breeds are more prone to barking and howling than others. Hounds and pointers are dogs bred to vocalise when a moving animal is observed. However, being more prone to barking does not mean that changing the behaviour is impossible. It just takes experience and the right knowledge.
Some dogs especially puppies, bark when trained to leave food on the floor. This is a sign of protest to what you are enforcing, in hopes that the situation will turn favourable for him. Some dogs may also bark to be let out from a fenced area or to demand giving him food that you are holding. Giving in to their desired outcome will only result in reinforced barking as described above.
4. Socially induced
Some dogs bark upon hearing other dogs barking nearby. This is a sign of establishing territories in the wild over a distance, without physical combat. This accounts for some cases of the “random” barks that may occasionally occur and is commonly heard in neighbourhoods with dogs living nearby each other.
5. Separation anxiety
Excessive barking is often coupled with mild to severe separation anxiety. This only happens when the dog or human that your dog is familiar with is not present at home. If separation anxiety is the cause, signs such as pacing, drooling, urinating, defecating, destruction and jumping on the door can be seen.
Most dogs (except fearful dogs) bark with deep, short intervals in an attempt to ward off people or dogs approaching your door. This is a completely normal instinctual behaviour but excessive barking is a result of habit. Ideally, your dog gives soft, cough-like barks and should calm down in about 20 seconds. Territories can even be on any familiar grounds with a great amount of time spent – commonly in the house or the neighbourhood. This can be further divided into three types of barks which are aggressive bark, insecure bark or territorial bark.
7. Overly alert
A dog that is overly sensitive to noise may either have genetics from hunting dogs or an insecure character, also known as a skittish dog. A dog that has hunting breed instincts reacts with confidence to find what creates those sounds whereas a skittish dog tends to avoid the stimulus emitting those sounds. Terriers are bred to chase mice, retrievers tend to find objects which may include the use of eyes, nose and ears, pointers pick up the scent and any sound of prey, and the list goes on. Channelling that focus on something positive allows your dog to direct his intelligence to a desired activity that is fun for both dog and owner.
Whining and barking are both signs when a dog is excited and wants to quickly get to the stimulus. It can be a squirrel, another dog, a human, food or a moving ball. This is usually coupled with behavioural signs such as perked up ears, lunging on a leash and other excitement-based behaviour.
Ways to solve barking
1. Avoid reinforcing the barking
If your dog barks to achieve his desired outcome, understand where he is coming from and prevent that from happening. This instead, shifts the outcome such that it is favourable for you. For example, if your dog barks for attention, wait for him to calm down and only then provide his desired outcome, attention. This reinforcing the calm state which includes not barking, making the outcome favourable for you. Remember that giving in to your dog’s intended outcome only reinforces the barking.
2. Being confident
Confidence and leading with a certain intention is a crucial aspect in controlling your dog when faced with any behavioural issues, including barking. This is especially so for excitement-derived barking. Dogs mainly rely on body language than verbal commands or words. How you react to situations forms the basis of how your dog perceives you. Just like a teacher, leading a class of students requires you to enter knowing what you expect and following through with confidence. Regardless of the breed or individual, this is an innate character of pack leaders.
3. Solving separation anxiety
Barking and howling often result from separation anxiety, as a form of calling out to find you. In this case, addressing the root issue of separation anxiety can eliminate any barking and howling. Click here to access the article on separation anxiety.
4. Reacting to territorial-based barking
Judging from the physical behaviour displayed by your dog in addition to barking, you should be able to decide his intention – an aggressive bark, an insecure bark or a territorial bark.
If your dog barks aggressively, he may show signs of confident body language such as not backing down and stomping a small distance forward to emphasise his point. However, a training exercise you can start is by instructing the visitors to avoid direct eye contact (to minimise intimidation) and toss treats to your dog, one at a time. This does not reinforce aggressive behaviour but provides an alternative form of focus. The visitors should only enter once your dog seems focused on getting the treat. However, this does not work for severely aggressive dogs or dogs that are not food-motivated. Hence, engaging a dog behaviourist is highly encouraged to minimise any injuries during the training process.
If your dog gives an insecure bark, he will put up a tough front but back off upon the visitors’ approach. Usually, the bark is frantic, dramatic and shows great uncertainty. To address this, you will have to solve the underlying issue of insecurity around humans, guiding your dog to achieve a behaviourally balanced state of giving a territorial bark as described in the category below. Getting your dog to be familiar with new people constantly also reduces the skittishness commonly observed in many dogs. Your dog will thank you for opening his eyes to enjoy relaxed walks and outings than being cautious of every object and sound during walks.
If you have a dog that produces a territorial bark, he will hold his ground a moderate distance from the door, not moving forward or backwards. The bark sounds neutral and alert, with about 1-second interval between each bark. This is the most ideal state, indicating a behaviourally balanced dog as this is just alerting you of someone approaching. Most times, dogs in this category will stop barking fairly quickly but if you would like to stop him from barking, walk to the door to show him that you acknowledge the stimulus. Then lead by example by walking away. If he still doesn’t stop, say a loud and firm “enough” and guide him away from the door. Reward him once he calms down using treats, verbal praise, massage or other forms of affection to reinforce calm behaviour. Thus, associating the presence of strangers with good things, such as food and attention.
5. Desensitize alertness
The sound of random sounds can trigger unwanted attention in some dogs. Hence, desensitizing your dog to random sounds can help. This can be done by playing audios of known triggers during the afternoons where your dog is most likely to take a nap. In doing so, your dog will be more likely to prioritize napping over being alert. Playing audios of the triggers allow you to be prepared for a reaction, which is crucial in the initial stages of training. Reward your dog should he be calm, this reinforcing ignoring the noises and achieving a calm state. After some time, your dog should pay less attention to random sounds. This reduces socially-induced barking as well.
Training a quiet cue
Training your dog to be quiet on cue does not directly address the issue of why your dog barks. Always find out why your dog is barking. Understanding the situation is more important than masking it because understanding allows you to address the cause which prevents excessive barking in the future. Masking it only works temporarily and only when a human is present. A dog will still bark at a stimulus because the perception of that stimulus has not been understood and changed.
Avoiding the situation
Some owners look into alternatives such as blocking your dog’s ability to see people and animals. Even if his sight is blocked, your dog can rely on his powerful hearing and olfactory senses. No situation can be 100% controlled and hence, it is a wiser option to solve it than avoid it. This can be a temporary option but expect the barking to return in a day.
A piece of popular advice is to hold the muzzle in an attempt to discipline your dog when he barks. Touching, hitting, holding any body parts is never going to change the perception of how your dog views situations, and may even cause an escalation of anxiety, fear and aggression, not to mention the possible strain of the dog-owner relationship. Instead, you can use a training leash (for dogs that fixate strongly on visitors) or treats (for dogs that do not fixate strongly on visitors) to quickly redirect his focus away from the visitors. This causes your dog to calm down at a faster rate over a period of time if reinforced frequently.