Why Does My Dog Bark?

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Whether it’s “just a breed thing” or there is some other cause, excessive barking can be stressful for the dog’s owners.

I recently had a case of a dog that barks excessively when the owner prepares to leave and while she is gone. The woman adopted the dog a few months ago and he started barking a month later. The neighbors in her condo complex are not overly pleased by this turn of events.

Barking is a normal means of communication among dogs. Humans can be the target of the communication, too, as we seem to respond very readily to it. In fact, studies have shown that the average human, when presented with the recordings of several types of dog barks (fearful/anxious, territorial, excited, begging, etc.), can accurately deduce the meaning.

Like so many other behaviors, excessive barking is generally a symptom of a larger problem, rather than an isolated problem behavior. Underlying causes can be anxiety, boredom, breed predisposition, something learned from another dog, attention seeking, etc. So, while many “solutions” have been developed, few of them work because they fail to ask and address the question, “Why is the dog barking?” A few popular no-bark “solutions” are anti-bark collars (citronella, shock, etc.), ultrasonic anti-bark devices, spray bottles, cans of pennies, and debarking surgery.

Why Dogs Bark

The reasons for barking and excessive barking are quite varied. “Acceptable” barking occurs as a warning of possible intruders or other dire situation, a brief invitation to come out and play (toward another dog or human), an expression of enjoyment during play, and a warning to approaching unfamiliar dogs that a fierce carnivore lives here. Although these barks sound different from each other (the forceful three-bark alarm when someone’s at the door vs. the high pitched excitement bark during play). But, what they have in common is that they are brief and transient, as the dog moves on to other behaviors.

The reasons dogs bark excessively are related to – but separate from – those listed above. These include:

  • Breed. I’m sorry to break it to you Beagle owners, but your dog will likely bark excessively. This is equally true of Cockers, Collies, Dachshunds, tiny terriers (Yorkie/Silky), Shelties, Dalmatians, and Miniature Schnauzers. It doesn’t mean that their barking cannot be controlled – just that it may be far more challenging.
  • Anxiety (Separation Anxiety/Noise Phobia/Confinement Anxiety). This type of barking occurs when the owners are not present; and these dogs desperately do not want to be alone. They are panicking, and use their voices to reach out to someone who might be able to help. The bark is often high-pitched, plaintive, and interspersed with whines.
  • Barrier Frustration. You’re in the house and your dog is outside (or vice versa); if this is a situation that upsets him, you may find that he barks until you are back together. This is separate and distinct from separation anxiety, in that, if you left the house completely, he’d be fine.
  • Boredom/Social Isolation. The bored or isolated dog spends a lot of time asking if there’s anyone out there, or answering similar calls from other bored dogs. The bark is usually a friendly invitation, but can be very insistent and frequent.
  • Social Facilitation. Some dogs bark excessively when they hear other dogs barking. We’ve all heard this – a dog walks into the neighborhood and all the dogs start barking, even though only one or two can actually see the “intruder” dog.
  • Territoriality. The territorial dog barks aggressively, often in a low pitch with growling, when a person or dog approaches or walks past the house. The barking is not a simple courtesy warning to the owner; rather, it continues until after the person leaves. The challenge here is that the delivery person/meter reader/passerby always DOES leave, consistently rewarding the dog for his efforts; don’t underestimate how rewarding this can be. And, however fierce these dogs sound, many of them are acting out of fear of the approaching stranger(s).
  • Response to Environmental Stimuli. Technically, territorial dog fit this category – but not all dogs responding to something/someone outside are trying to chase them away. Consider, for instance, dog that has seen a tree full of squirrels or the neighbor cat and can’t stop talking about it. These dogs are generally of a personality that finds many things exciting throughout the day.
  • Attention Seeking. These dogs bark to get the attention of their owners (usually) or other people who are consistently nearby (neighbors, for instance). This is the moral equivalent to the 5 year old child standing in front of his harried mother at the grocery store saying, “Mom, mom, mom, mom…” repeatedly. Dogs develop this kind of barking because they have been rewarded for it in the past, often by being scolded or yelled at; but, in their minds, any attention is good attention and yelling is good enough for them. This type of barking happens only in the presence of the owners or other human targets of the attention seeking.
  • Habit/Conditioned. Some dogs were raised in environments in which any amount of barking was perfectly acceptable (like a shelter) but now live in settings in which it is not (like a suburban neighborhood). Other dogs always go nuts when they hear the door bell or other specific noise stimulus.
  • Compulsive. Some dogs develop compulsive behaviors like tail chasing, light chasing, or fly biting. Others display their compulsivity through barking. These barking episodes are likely to happen whether or not the owner is home and are generally very unemotional and monotone in nature.
  • Old-Age-Related. Senior dogs suffering from cognitive dysfunction (a dementia-like condition) can bark constantly as one clinical sign of their cognitive decline. These dogs bark in a fairly monotonous way with no trigger at all. They sometimes cannot be aroused from their barking and are as likely to bark with or without the owner present.

Because barking is the primary means for dogs to communicate, you may guess that this list is not exhaustive.

How to Fix It

General Treatments

There are as many treatment plans as there are causes of excessive barking. Here are five general things that apply to all barking cases:

  • Identify the cause(s). You can treat what you haven’t diagnosed. See a specialist if you are truly stumped.
  • Don’t directly punish barking. Yelling or throwing a can full of pennies will not curb this behavior; and it may make things worse by exacerbating fear, rewarding attention-seeking, creating even more excitement, or triggering aggression.
  • Ignore attention seeking behaviors, including barking. Any attention is a reward and will encourage the behavior in the future.
  • Use a leadership program like Nothing in Life is Free or Learn-to-Earn to provide consistency and enhance your dog’s interest in listening to commands. To get the general idea, please see http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/dogs/tips/training_nothing_in_life_is_free.html or http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/the-learn-to-earn-program.
  • Make sure your dog has plenty to do, especially if you’re gone all day. Employ a doggy day care or dog walker, leave food toys filled with his breakfast, and make long walks and play time a priority.
  • Reward alternative behaviors. When your dog becomes quiet, praise him. When your dog walks away from something that usually makes him bark, praise him.

Specific Treatments

While these things should help in most situations, dogs with specific barking problems will need more:

  • Anxious dogs may need the support of a tool, like a dog-appeasing pheromone collar, diffuser, or spray; others may require medication.
  • Dogs that bark at people or animals outside the house may benefit from you blocking their access to those stimuli. You can use fences, opaque temporary window film, white noise machines, and other tools to avoid your dog being exposed to those triggers.
  • Dogs that bark mainly when the owners are home may benefit from being taught a “quiet” command. There are lots of web sites that show you how to do this. Some start with teaching a “speak” command while others don’t. Please don’t follow any protocol for teaching “quiet” that involves punishment or anything else aversive. One good choice comes from The Humane Society of the United States: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/dogs/tips/how_to_stop_barking.html
  • In some cases, if absolutely no anxiety is involved in the barking, the owners might try an automatic bark collar. The first trial should be something mildly aversive but not painful (citronella, canned air, etc.). If that does not work, the next level up is the automatic shock collar. There is always a risk with using a shock collar and this risk increases dramatically if any anxiety is involved. Anxious dogs exposed to shock may become more anxious. This can lead to more barking – or some other unwanted behavior, not to mention needless anguish for the dog.
  • If the dog is terribly anxious, medication and behavior modification is probably the best plan. This will be overseen by a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.

Many treatment plans will include more than one of these options.

Obviously, this is not meant to be a complete summary of the treatments available for dogs that bark excessively. Also, it is not meant to encourage dog owners to refrain from seeking veterinary care, diagnoses, and advice regarding these issues. But, knowing a bit more about why your dog may be barking can help you ask more informed questions during that vet visit.

 

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Stop Punishing Your Dog!

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If punishment doesn’t work, why is it so popular?

I find myself having to tell at least one dog owner every week that part of the prescribed behavior modification plan is to avoid all forms of punishment. Why? Because these owners, frustrated by their dog’s behavior problem, and not feeling they have many other resources, are turning to aversive methods in an attempt to solve the problem.

For me, punishment means: yelling, scolding, hitting/kicking, kneeing, neck/side jabs, using a shock collar, repeated corrections with a prong or choke collar, or pinning the dog to the ground (the “alpha roll” or “dominance down”). Sadly, this is by no means the full extent of the punishment the extreme owner will have applied. But this is a list of the most common punishments I hear about.

So, why do I ask that people stop punishing their dogs? For one thing, it hasn’t helped or they wouldn’t be coming to me to solve the problem. Second, humans are not particularly good at choosing or delivering punishment. Third, punishment doesn’t give the dog a clue how you would like him to behave in a similar situation. Fourth, it’s pretty dangerous, especially in those dogs presenting for aggression.

My first point is pretty self explanatory. “I see that you’ve been using a shock collar on Fluffy for two years, Mr. Smith. How’s that been working for you?”

My second point, that humans are terrible at punishing, is based on learning theory. For punishment to reduce the incidence of an unwanted behavior, it must have three characteristics: it must be suitable (the punishment should fit the crime); it must be immediate (during, or within a second or two after, the unwanted behavior); and it must be applied consistently. But we’re humans. Consistency is definitely not a hallmark of our species. As for immediacy, I regularly meet owners that punish their dogs for things that were done while they were at work. And, it’s really difficult to come up with a punishment that’s appropriate; some lovely 1950s-style choices come to mind: “rub his nose in it;” “hit him with a rolled-up newspaper;” “pinch his muzzle until he drops it.” Sigh.

My third point, that punishment doesn’t tell the dog what to do, comes primarily from seeing the effect of punishment on growling in dogs. Many of my clients whose dogs have bitten people complain that their dog gives no warning, so they feel they can’t readily prevent the bite. I always ask if there was ever a time the dog did growl. Some say no. But the majority of people say that the dog used to growl when he was younger. What did they do when he would growl? Most would yell or otherwise punish the dog. So, the dog learned that growling was not acceptable; in these cases, the punishment worked. Unfortunately, the dog still feels fearful/territorial/irritable/other and wishes that the dog/person causing this feeling would go away. But he knows not to growl. So he bites.

I like to say that behavior does not like a vacuum: if you tell your dog no about his current behavior, you leave it up to him to choose a replacement behavior; and he may pick one you don’t like – like biting. But, if you ask him to do this instead of that, you have chosen the alternative for him. Example: “Rover, sit” is better then “No!!” when a dog is jumping on people. In the case of the dog that growls, the actual solution lies in changing the dog’s feeling about the object of his aggression (helping him not feel fearful/territorial/irritable/other) and giving him a more acceptable behavior to perform. In the meantime, every owner should listen when his dog growls and separate the dog from the object of his aggression. This ensures everyone’s safety.

On my fourth point, that punishment can be dangerous: There was a very interesting study a few years ago by Ilana Reisner, Meghan Herron, and Frances Shofer of the University of Pennsylvania that questioned dog owners about “behavior modification techniques” they had tried before seeking the help of a veterinary behaviorist. The survey asked the owners to choose from a list of possible “interventions” used, to give the source of each selected intervention (owner’s own idea, a trainer, etc.), and to describe the dog’s response. The researchers found that and hitting/kicking and growling at the dog elicited aggressive responses in nearly half of the dogs on which they were attempted. And, alpha rolls/dominance downs and prolonged staring caused nearly 1/3 of the dogs to become aggressive toward the owners.

It’s likely that many of these very aversive techniques come from the misperception that the owner must assert his “dominance” to get his dog to obey. But, your dog “misbehaving” has nothing to do with either you not being forceful enough or him “challenging” you. Rather, it may be from a lack of real leadership on your part; or your dog may have fear/anxiety that must be addressed before he can comfortably obey your commands in a challenging setting.

The bottom line is: if good leadership (in the form of a program like Nothing in Life is Free or learn to Earn) is not sufficient to correct your dog’s behavior problem, find a qualified professional to help. If you turn to a trainer, be diligent in checking qualifications and philosophy (after all, it’s no better to have a trainer punish your pet). If your dog is fearful, and medications may be in his future, see your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.

A Note About Bark Collars. On one hand, bark collars appear to fit the definition of an effective punishment: the shock/spray is immediate and consistent, and some would argue that the aversive stimulus is appropriate. The question that is often overlooked is whether a dog should be punished for barking in the first place. In my professional opinion, barking is rarely controlled through punishment and should not be on a list of “punishable offenses.”

There are many, many reasons for a dog to bark: he may be issuing a warning; soliciting attention from people or other dogs; expressing his fear, pain, or boredom; engaging in a breed-specific social behavior (think Beagles); protecting his territory; etc. Punishment alone can exacerbate fear and pain and does nothing to alleviate any other cause of barking. Rather, if a dog is barking excessively, it is important to determine his motivation and correct this underlying cause. Fearful dogs must be treated for their fears. Bored dogs should go to doggy day care when their owners are at work. Beagle owners and their neighbors should get used to the sound of barking. Medical causes should be addressed.

Herron, ME, Shofer, FS, Reisner, I (2009), Survey of the use of outcomes of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. (117)47-54