Drs. J. Michelle Posage & Amy Marder
Excessive barking is a common canine behavior problem that can lead to sleepless nights for the dog owners, frustration, angry neighbors, legal action and even eviction. For the dog, this behavior can lead to abandonment, abuse by neighbors or owners, or even euthanasia. Separation anxiety: Dogs that become anxious when separated from their owners often bark or make other noises. They may also become destructive or eliminate in the home. The barking usually begins at or shortly after the owner's departure, and may be continuous or intermittent for up to several hours. This type of barking only occurs in the owner's absence, and is usually predictable.
However, most barking dogs are not behaving abnormally. Rather, they are responding to an environmental stimulus and/or displaying normal alerting behavior. Some breeds tend to bark more than others. Whining and howling often accompany barking.
To solve a problem with barking, a definite cause for the behavior must be sought and addressed. Barking is a sign of a problem, not a diagnosis. There are many reasons why dogs bark excessively. Some of these include:
Reaction to specific stimuli: Some dogs bark in response to certain exciting stimuli, such as delivery people, loose dogs or cats, squirrels or unfamiliar noises. This type of barking may be merely an arousal response or a combination of alerting, protective and fearful behaviors. Unlike dogs with separation anxiety, these dogs bark despite the owner's presence, and the barking stops when the stimulus is removed. This type of barking may be self-reinforcing. For example, take the dog that barks at the approach of a postal carrier: That person leaves after dropping off the mail, but the dog believes his barking caused the person to leave, thus emboldening him to do it again. Dogs will also bark as part of a chain reaction: one dog barks at something and others join in.
Attention seeking: Many dogs bark because they have been inadvertently rewarded for barking by being given attention or praise (i.e. telling them "it's okay) by their owners. Dogs may bark at their owners to get what they want or when they are being ignored. This type of barking is sometimes associated with other annoying behaviors, such as pawing or jumping up. Even scolding by the owner might be seen as reinforcement by the dog - because scolding involves the owner paying attention to the dog. Any attention is better than no attention.
Play behavior: Barking can be a normal component of play, and can be directed towards people, other animals or toys. This type of barking can be reinforced as a learned behavior. For example, a dog drops a ball in the owner's lap and then barks. The owner throws the ball to stop the barking. The dog learns to bark to get the owner to throw the ball.
Medical problems: Older dogs that suffer from deafness, cognitive problems, or other brain diseases may bark excessively. Dogs that are in pain may also bark.
It's important to have your dog thoroughly examined by a veterinarian to rule out any contributing medical problems. This examination is an important part of any behavioral work-up. Blood tests may be recommended, especially if drug therapy is part of the treatment plan.
When you consult with a behaviorist, be prepared to answer many detailed questions regarding your dog and her behavior. The answers will help lead the behaviorist to the cause of the barking, which will help in developing an individualized approach to resolving the problem. An initial consultation may take a couple of hours. A good behaviorist will follow-up with you until the problem is resolved.
Direct observation of your dog's behavior is important. Note what circumstances cause the barking, how long the barking lasts, and what causes it to end. Also, note what your dog looks like when she is barking. Video- or audio-taping may be necessary if you are not home when the barking occurs.