Why dogs bark and what to do about it
by Lara Shannon
Barking is a very important dog communication tool. It serves to alert us of danger, get our attention, encourage play with us and other animals, convey their different emotions and, for some dogs, just something they love or have been bred to do as part of their ‘job’.
When the barking becomes excessive though, it is generally indicating something not quite right, so it’s important to not only understand the reason behind the bark, but also know the best way to deal with the underlying issue. Plus, to make sure we are not reinforcing the barking through our own actions.
Before we look into the reasons why barking can become a problem in adult dogs, it’s important to remember that for puppies many behaviours, such as barking, are directly related to survival techniques.
So, while they are still learning, (and probably barking at a lot of things they haven’t encountered before), we want to make sure that we don’t encourage what could become problem barking and instead reward ‘quiet’ moments and responses. This helps to ensure that any inappropriate barking doesn’t get rehearsed and therefore reinforced, leading it to become a problem as they grow older.
The most common reasons dogs bark, and tips to help, include:
Barking at us for a pat, food, the ball, to get let inside etc.
Address the attention seeking behaviour or poor leadership with independence training, obedience training, using alternative commands to stop the barking and reward/reinforce that behaviour instead (ie: wait until your dog gets distracted, sits and goes quiet for a moment, and that is the moment you give them what they want. The key is to make sure you are not reinforcing the bad behaviour.
This is when an owner responds to a dog barking for attention, to be let in etc. by actually giving the dog what they want when they are barking, which actually reinforces the unwanted behaviour.
For example, if a dog is barking at the back door to be let in, do not yell at them to be quiet or go out to tell them to be quiet (= giving them attention!). Wait until the moment they go quiet and reward that good behaviour (ie: allow them to come inside at that moment, go out and pat/play).
Such as when they see another dog, a person they like, anticipation of a walk or car ride etc.
Work on obedience training so you can give them an alternative command such as a ‘sit’ and only let them greet, go play, get in the car that moment they are quiet – NOT when they are barking so you are not actually rewarding the unwanted behaviour.
Fear-based aggression responses include lunging, barking, biting at other dogs, people, objects and other ‘triggers’.
Many dogs exhibit fear-based aggression towards ‘triggers’ that cause them stress and anxiety and is often due to missing out on the critical positive early socialisation in the first 12-16 weeks of their life, or they may have had a negative experience during this time or at other times in the past with particular ‘triggers’ that they now see as a threat.
It’s vital that you stop putting your dog in situations where they are confronted with these triggers (you need to keep them at a distance that they can look but not react, otherwise they are constantly ‘rehearsing’ the unwanted behaviour. You should also speak to a qualified and experienced trainer or Vet Behaviourist as early as possible to identify the severity of their underlying anxiety and develop a behaviour modification strategy. Learn more about fear-based aggression and reactivity on the Pooches at Play website HERE.
Usually occurs not long after the owner or significant other has left the home.
The barking or whining may be accompanied by other Separation Related Behaviours such as destructive chewing, digging, excessive greetings, pacing, inappropriate elimination, loss of appetite and more.
This is serious issue and generally requires a multi-faceted approach that is likely to require the help of a trainer and/or your Vet to implement an environmental enrichment plan which includes exercise, mental stimulation, independence training, human contact, potential dietary changes and possibly medication.
When a dog does not have enough exercise or mental stimulation, barking provides an outlet for their frustration. Barking from boredom tends to occur later than it does with separation anxiety.
Increasing their environmental enrichment is required to address this with a big focus on exercise, interactive toys, long lasting chews, and games to keep their brains and bodies moving while left alone.
The barking occurs in response to ‘prey’ objects or during a chase.
This is natural dog behaviour so can be difficult to address, so you may need to work on your dog’s impulse control. This might include stopping play when excessive barking begins and rewarding/allowing play when they are quiet only.
The barking occurs when people walk past the home, or fence lines, in the car or at the front door / window.
Mask the noises or sights that may stimulate the barking (ie: people walking past, outside noises, thunder etc.) by turning on a radio or the TV, pull down blinds, add a film to windows that can block vision at their eye level. Or, remove the dog from the environment ie: leave them in the backyard rather than front, put in another room or keep in a garage or inside at night if they bark at possums etc. Again the more they rehearse the behaviour it occurs.
An elderly dog, with no obvious cause that disrupts normal activity may start to bark a lot so it is important to talk to your Vet as soon as you notice any behaviour changes in your ageing dog.
About the Author
As a one of Australia’s most well-known animal welfare advocates, Lara Shannon is passionate about educating and empowering people to help improve the lives of companion animals. A certified dog trainer & behaviourist, and pet food nutritionist, Lara is the Executive Producer and Host of Channel 10's Pooches at Play, is featured in The Pet Rescuers on Channel 9 (Series 1) and Author of ‘World of Dogs’ (October 2021) and ‘Eat Play Love (Your Dog)’ (June 2020), published by Hardie Grant Books.
Lara is regularly featured in the media and can be seen on stage at many events throughout the year with her cheeky rescue ‘Dynamite Darcy’ by her side. Vindi, her most recent rescue dog, is blossoming in his role of canine co-host of Pooches at Play alongside little Darcy.
For more information visit larashannon.com
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