Barking Mad!

David Appleby MAPBC

Do you get complaints from the neighbours when you go out, or wish you could hear yourself speak while on the telephone? You're not alone! Barking comes naturally, but many people find it one of the most difficult problems to treat.

Did you know that dogs can communicate by using ten different types of sound, ranging from whimpering to growling.

By varying the tone of those sounds, they can convey no less than 39 different meanings. For example, a dog can use one type of growl if it's being defensive, and a slightly different growling sound if it intends to be aggressive. The complete repertoire of canine audible communication is grunting, whining,yelping, screaming, howling, growling, tooth snapping, panting as a form of play soliciting and a type of cough that is some times used in defence, or as a threat. What most dogs excel at, of course, is barking. Dogs bark for a variety of reasons. The only time dogs won't bark to communicate, is when they are displaying submissive behaviour.

Although barking is useful and normal as a means of communication, in excess it can be a nuisance for the humans who live in the dog's pack, and for their neighbours.

Barking to deter people from entering the owner's property is fine if there's an occasional intrusion up the garden path, but if there's a succession of people passing the property and the dog barks at them all, it can become an annoyance. Unfortunately, owners often attempt to silence their dog by shouting at it, but as the dog's communication skills don't extend to understanding English, it simply assumes the owners are barking too, and continues undeterred, or even redoubles its effort.

Others discover barking makes their owner give then attention, if only to shout 'Shut up!' Eventually the dog may seem to develop an imagination, and bark at nothing at all, just to get a response from its owner.

However, the main reason why dogs learn to bark excessively at every person who passes their territory is the simple fact that most of those people go away again. The dog doesn't realise they didn't want to come in - it thinks it has successfully chased them off.

Dog owners often fall foul of the local environmental health department because their dogs bark incessantly when left alone. Such dogs are attempting to call their owners back home again, but because they do eventually come back, the dog thinks that barking was effective - so barks with even more determination next time. The cause of this problem behaviour normally lies in the dog's overly close relationship with its owners when they are at home. This causes anxiety when they leave, because it cannot cope without them.

In the wild, the dog's ancestor, the wolf howls to enable it to communicate and relocate its pack. As permanently immature versions of their relatives, dogs generally tend to bark rather than howl, just as adolescent wolves do. For some owners however, their dog's company craving vocal behaviour is not limited to when they go out. No doubt you have visited a friend's house for a chat, only to find their dog drowns out the conversation by barking for ten minutes after you have arrived, or throughout the entire visit. In an attempt to stop the deafening barrage, your friend rugby tackles the dog, tells it to be quiet, or puts a hand down to stroke it. Of course, any of these strategies will simply encourage the dog to continue barking as soon as it is ignored again.

Plenty of couples also have to check carefully where their dog is before they have a kiss and a cuddle. If they are observed, their affectionate display is likely to be quickly terminated by an apparently jealous dog, shouting at the top of its voice. The same sort of attention seeking barking can occur if the owner is on the phone, watching television or concentrating on driving the car.


For example, if every time your dog barks for attention you get up and walk out of the room, or silently turn your back, it will eventually learn that barking is counter-productive. However, more entrenched displays of vocal behaviour may require some means of inhibition, with specialised help from a behaviour counsellor, such as a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, and should be sought via your veterinary surgeon.

I would not recommend any device to stop vocalization without an attempt to address the reasons for the noise. For example, if a dog has a tendency to bark for attention, it would be harsh to try and stop the barking, without showing the owners how the dog tries even harder to get noticed when they are preoccupied. Giving attention when the owners decide improves their dog's capacity to cope with being ignored. Only when this has been achieved is it time to think of ways of stopping the habitual barking that remains. To use an analogy, you have to disengage the drive from the engine before it's safe to apply the breaks.

Believe it or not, one of the simplest ways to teach a dog not to bark is to teach it to bark on command. First, find a way of enticing your dog to bark. You may find it will bark out of excitement if you hold its food bowl up in the air, or you may only need to use a titbit, or a toy. Tying your dog up safely may also increase frustration, and stimulate it to be vocal. When, with a bit of friendly teasing, your dog does bark, praise it and repeat the word 'speak!'. If you do the exercise often enough, your dog will associate the word 'speak' with the act of barking and you will be able to get it to bark on command. The point of the exercise is then to introduce the word, 'quiet!' or 'stop!' while your dog is barking, and give it a toy or food treat. If the exercise is repeated often enough, your dog will associate the signal to be quiet with the cessation of barking and a reward.

Reward is, of course, the best motivation of behaviour, so it's important to praise the dog at the time it's doing the right thing, not afterwards. This means rewarding it when it stops barking, and also when it doesn't bark in a situation which would normally set it off. When your dog is lying quietly and allowing you to chat to visitors unmolested, or when your neighbours come home and your dog doesn't bark, you can praise and reward it, which will encourage the dog to remain quiet the next time too.

Good luck, and go in peace!

Copyright: David Appleby

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