Barking, and other forms of vocalisation, are natural behaviours for our dogs. It is one of four methods dogs use to communicate with each other. The others are Scent, Body Language and Touch. But, is it really the problem we think it is?
We used to love it!
Not only is vocalising normal for dogs, it is actually one of the reasons our ancestors fell in love with them. In fact, they particularly liked dogs that barked as they warned them of potential intruders, animal or human. At that time we often selected breeding pairs with this in mind. It is little wonder then that some of our pet dogs love the sound of their own voice. The problem is that our life styles have changed dramatically over the years and we no longer need our dogs to behave this way. They do however, retain the instinct we bred into them all those years ago, and sometimes this can cause conflict.
Vocalising can take several forms but most can be characterised as howling, growling, crying, whining or barking. The one your dog uses will depend entirely on what he is trying to say and how urgent is the situation.
Excitable dogs bark
When dogs get excited their whole body springs into action; adrenaline flows, the heart rate increases, they breathe faster and they become more alert. All this means that, instead of considering things in a thoughtful way, they start reacting much faster to what is happening around them. For many dogs this means that they bark, whine or even howl.
Many dogs get excited about something. Most often it happens when visitors arrive or they are getting ready to go for a walk. But in all cases, it serves no real purpose to us. If it is persistent, it can be extremely annoying to everyone that has to listen to it.
What can you do about it?
You will never quiet a dog that is excitable and barking, by getting excited and barking yourself! So the first step is to completely calm yourself and then you can ignore him. Stop everything you are doing and just wait – patiently. It could take a while for your dog to settle. And even then, he may get excited again as soon as you continue with the activity you were originally attempting. But, if this happens, you should just stop and ignore him again. This way, the activity that your dog is so excited about now becomes a reward for quiet, calm behaviour.
Barking for attention
Barking and crying for attention is something most dogs first learn to do at just a few weeks of age. It is an essential early form of communication, and it could be the difference between life or death. This natural behaviour is designed to get mums attention and let her know that there is a problem. Maybe the pup has become separated from his mum, he could be hungry or even cold. In any case, she is biologically wired to quickly respond to the high pitched calls of her pups.
As your pup ages, he remembers how easily he got attention using his voice, and experiments on his human family. We often find it just as hard to resist as his mum did. So, it doesn’t take him long to perfect this skill. And in no time at all he will have you petting him, feeding him, fetching his toys and even walking him on command!
Learned behaviour can be unlearned
As this behaviour is entirely learned, it can be unlearned. You just need the patience to see it through. Just remember, your dog has been getting away with this behaviour for a while, and it will not be stopped overnight. Patience is king!
So, to stop attention barking, you must stop it from working for him. The only way to do that is to completely ignore it. No matter how hard it is. You must resist the urge to give him the titbit or give him that belly rub. Because it has worked so well in the past, it is common for this type of behaviour to get worse before it gets better. Don’t worry, he will soon realise it is not working, just as long as you remain determined, and calm.
Territorial barking is very important. Years ago dogs were selectively bred for it and it is an instinct that remains in our pet dogs today. Although, these days it is perhaps not so useful. Your dog will still feel the need to bark at people and animals that come near his territory. Whether that be the next door neighbours, the postman or even a dog on the TV.
As a wild dog, territorial barking was essential to alert the rest of the pack to a possible threat. It works better than any other form of communication as the sound can carry for a fair distance. Pack members would have heard the calls and hurried back to the den to deal with the threat.
These days, many people report this type of barking as a nuisance and are seeking help to stop it. But, it’s ok to allow a certain amount of barking. This allows your dog to behave normally and also helps him feel useful. You certainly wouldn’t be cross if he barked at an uninvited guest! However, a couple of barks to get your attention can easily get out of control and when this happens; it is perfectly fine to want to discourage most of it.
Finding a balance
The first step to solving this problem is to thank the dog for a job well done. So, when he starts barking, casually go to him and say a warm “thank you”. Then calmly back him away from whatever he is barking at and keep him away until he is calm, and quiet. It is important that you act casual and don’t shout. Your dog is reacting to a threatening situation, if you rush in shouting he will think you are joining in and that will only reinforce his unwanted behaviour. So do the opposite and he will see how calm and in control you are, and will feel reassured by your demeanour.
Barking and growling are effective ways communicate if your dog is feeling threatened. These vocalisations work well to warn another dog or person that he may become aggressive if they do not change their behaviour. They also work to alert the rest of his pack that he is in trouble and that he wants support.
This type of vocalisation is very natural and must never be discouraged. To deny your dog his right to express his unease in that, or any way for that matter, would most likely result in a very unpredictable and possibly dangerous dog. We have all heard stories about dogs that bite without warning, but was it really out the blue? Very often this dog has been scolded for his aggressive behaviour in the past and is now afraid to use it. This is the sad result.
Instead, when you are faced with a growling dog, or a dog that is barking aggressively, first try to figure out what the dog wants from you. Maybe, he wants you to back away from him. Perhaps he wants the food or toy in your hand. Whatever it is, carefully and quietly, do what ever he wants. Once the situation has calmed, and the danger has passed, you can worry about how to fix the problem.
But don’t try to fix the problem yourself. If your dog has shown aggressive behaviour, at any level, you must seek help from a professional. They will properly assess your dogs behaviour and give you appropriate, and safe, advice about how to fix it.
When dogs play with each other, they practice lots of behaviours that are natural to them. As well as fighting and hunting behaviour, they also practise ways of communicating. This will include the use of body language (aggressive and submissive) and, of course, barking. This keeps their skills sharp, just in case they should ever really need them. So unless barking becomes aggressive, fearful or the dog is over excited, he should be allowed to bark and cry a bit when playing. If it does become a problem, then you must pause play time for your dog. Once he has settled, play can continue safely.
Barking out of fear
When dogs bark or cry out of fear, they are usually trying to call their pack or scare something away.
Dogs that have separation anxiety cry or howl because they can’t cope with being left alone. It is actually perfectly natural for a dog to feel like this as he is a social animal. He only truly feels secure when he is in the comfort of his family. However, it’s not always possible to be with our dogs 24 hours a day (no matter how much we would like to be). So they must learn to adapt slightly to our busy lifestyles. Most dogs can learn to cope for around four hours in a day. But, if they are struggling, then action must be taken to make them feel safe and confident.
Creating a safe space
Separation anxiety is a tricky problem to solve. Most dogs will feel better with reduced amounts of attention before you leave and after you return. A safe place, like a covered crate, can also provide comfort to a frightened dog.
If needed, you might consider some artificial anxiety relievers such as plug-ins, collars or natural remedies. With all this in place, start small and gradually increase the amount of time you leave your dog.
If your dog is trying to scare something away, such as another dog or maybe a particular object; the solution is not to discourage the barking. Instead, re-introduce him in to the stimulus in a positive way. With this type of approach, he will, in time, no longer feel the need to bark and will be able to cope better in that situation. He will also feel empowered to express himself in the future.
Last but not least, dogs sometimes bark, cry or howl out of boredom. This can look like separation anxiety as it will only happen when the dog is alone, but the solution is very different. This dog simply needs more company, more physical exercise, and he needs more mental stimulation. This could be achieved with a few problem solving activities. Or maybe you could start working on improving his obedience at a training class, or take up dog agility or flyball. Whatever you do, do it with him, and make it fun.
There are a number of stop-barking collars and devises that are available on the market. They all work in slightly different ways, and suit a range of budgets, however, I do not recommend using these, or similar devices. If your dog is barking, it is because he is trying to tell you something. Banning the barking will not solve the underlying problem. Instead, your dog will seek out a different way to express himself, or he will suppress his instinct and suffer inwardly until he snaps out of frustration. I always recommend getting to the root of the problem instead. With a little understanding and training, you will soon have excessive barking under control, and you’ll have a happy and contented dog.
As we can see, almost all barking is normal and serves a purpose. In most cases, barking is just a part of owning a dog. However, sometimes it does become excessive, and when it does it can be difficult to put up with. Whatever the cause of the problem, the best advice is always to stay calm and ignore. It will never help to shout at a barking dog, nor will it help to get over excited yourself.
And if all else fails? Then, seek out a professional who can help you to understand your dogs barking better, and offer a practical, and kind, training solution.
What causes your dog to bark?
I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.
I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.
In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.