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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.
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.
The Root of the Dog’s Excessive 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:
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.
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.
Treatment for Dogs That Excessively Bark
Treatment is based on the causes of the barking. A treatment plan may include one or more of the following:
Avoidance of stimuli that may cause barking: This is a common management technique used for many behavioral problems. Altering behavior can take time and work. Sometimes it is easier to prevent the triggers of your dog’s barking than to change her reaction to it. This technique should work, at least temporarily, for barking caused by separation anxiety and territorial or protective barking. Avoiding the triggers that cause barking may entail sending your dog to doggie day care, keeping her inside, not allowing her to see out of the window, or keeping her away from the door. Management techniques are based on what is causing the barking problem and do nothing to address the problem directly. The next time your dog is exposed to the stimulus or left alone, she is likely to bark.
Extinction: This technique involves ignoring your dog when she is barking, and is recommended when your dog is barking to get your attention. Owners and neighbors should be aware that the barking will likely get worse before it gets better. Eventually your dog’s barking will lessen, though, as she learns that barking is no longer an effective way of getting what she wants. It is important to be consistent. Avoid petting and talking to your dog while she is barking, and avoid making eye contact and scolding her. If you give in and respond to the barking, you will be teaching your dog to bark for even longer the next time she wants something.
Punishment: Punishment is the most common technique used by owners to control barking in dogs. However, it may be inappropriate or unsuccessful in some types of barking dogs. When punishment is used with anxious or fearful dogs, the barking may worsen. Punishment can come in the form of bark-activated collars, water sprays and loud noises (air horns, coin-filled “rattle” cans). In order to be effective, the punishment must be administered immediately at the onset of each episode of barking. Yelling is not usually an effective punishment as the dog may just think that you are joining in. There are three main types of bark-activated collars. They are designed to make an audible or ultrasonic noise, spray citronella mist, or give an electric shock when activated by vibration or when remotely triggered.
Citronella is a citrus oil that dogs find distasteful. In a study where citronella collars were compared to shock collars, citronella collars were found more effective in controlling barking. When working correctly, anti-bark collars deliver immediate and consistent punishment. However, these collars can be accidentally triggered and shock collars have been known to elicit aggressive behavior. These devices should not be used as the only technique to eliminate barking, and their use should be supervised by an experienced individual.
Counterconditioning and desensitization: Counterconditioning involves teaching your dog an alternative behavior in response to a stimulus that would normally make her bark. Desensitization involves exposing your pet to a weak version of the stimulus and gradually increasing its intensity. These behavioral modification techniques are usually combined to change your dog’s reaction to a stimulus. For example, if your dog barks at other dogs while on walks, you can use these techniques to train your dog to focus quietly on you (rather than the other dog) for a food treat. Your practice sessions may start with a dog that your pet knows at a great distance and should progress gradually by decreasing the distance between the dogs. The next stages involve working in a similar way with less familiar and then unfamiliar dogs.
Positive reinforcement: Praising your dog when he does not bark, especially when exposed to a stimulus, can be an effective way of controlling barking. You can also use positive reinforcement to teach your dog to obey a “quiet” command using praise or food treats.
Medical treatment of disease: If barking is due to pain, the source should be identified and treated.
Therapeutic medication: Dogs that have medical conditions or severe behavioral problems, such as separation anxiety, may require medication.
Surgical debarking: Many veterinarians do not perform this procedure, which involves removing the vocal cords. Some dogs still have a raspy bark after the procedure and the degree of effectiveness of the procedure varies considerably. It is our position that debarking dogs is not only of dubious efficacy but is an inhumane practice that should never be performed. If you don’t like dogs barking you should get a cat.
Because there are many reasons for barking, treatment must be based on the specific cause. A behaviorist can help you with a treatment plan.
Until you receive help, prevent your dog’s exposure to stimuli that cause barking. This may include keeping your dog inside or away from the windows, keeping windows closed to minimize noise, using a doggie day care service or leaving the dog with someone when you are away. Bark collars (citronella or shock) should not be used without guidance from a professional. Excessive use of shock collars is cruel and may even make the barking worse.