Why Dogs Bark and How You Can Control It
Ever wonder why your dog barks so much? He barks when there are people walking by. He barks when he wants you to play with him or take him out. He barks when you leave the house. Or he barks at night. Sometimes you appreciate the barking when you are at home alone and he alerts you to a strange sound. Sometimes though, it might be nice to have some peace and quiet instead of knowing about every squirrel that crosses the backyard.
Barking serves many purposes in the dog-human relationship, but almost all barks can pretty much be boiled down to one thing: communication. Once you figure out what your dog is trying to say, the fixes are pretty straightforward.
Why Is Your Dog Barking?
Barking is a normal behavior that can communicate many different emotional states or needs. Some of the most common reasons for barking include:
- Fear, anxiety, stress (storm phobia, noise phobia, separation anxiety, strangers in the house)
- To alert the family to a perceived threat (people, dogs walking by)
- Display frustration (squirrels just outside of his reach)
- To get attention for play, petting, to go outside, or come back into the house
- Pain or discomfort
While dogs bark to communicate many different emotional states or needs, what keeps them barking is pretty straightforward: reinforcement. Reinforcement is the scientific word for reward. It is the jet fuel that keeps the behavior going. If your dog has a full tank (lots of reinforcement) the jet can go across the world. If you can control or eliminate the reinforcement, your dog’s jet will run out of fuel and he will be quiet as a church mouse. Well, maybe not that quiet, but he will bark a lot less.
Are You Reinforcing Barking?
Dogs are smart creatures and don’t do things that aren’t reinforcing to them. For instance:
- Your dog barks at you to take him out. You get up from your comfy chair and walk him. Barking reinforced.
- Your dog barks at you after dropping a ball at your feet. You toss the ball. Barking reinforced.
- Your dog barks at neighbors going by the house. The people leave (they were walking by anyway). Barking reinforced.
All that reinforcement keeps your dog’s barking behavior strong. The more that he does it, the more he will do it.
This discussion wouldn’t be complete without giving special attention to the barking that’s exhibited when your dog is fearful, anxious, or stressed. Very often, when dogs bark at strangers or new things on walks, it’s because those things are scary. This type of barking is unique in that the reinforcement isn’t always under your control. Also, using the incorrect technique to try to change this type of barking can backfire, pushing your dog into a place where he will bite someone. Because of this, the fix for this type of barking is a little more complex. More on that later.
How to Stop a Dog from Barking
You want to stop your dog from barking at night. You want your dog to stop barking at other dogs. You want your dog to stop barking at the window. Follow the tips below to help your dog to know when he can bark and when he should be quiet.
Take a Long Hard Look in the Mirror. Yes, we are starting with your behavior. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot love that your dog barks at people who approach your house, but get upset with him when he barks at people when they come into the house. He is not a mind reader. He doesn’t know which people are friends or foes. He may be fearful, anxious, or stressed (remember when we talked about how that emotional state is more complex to treat?) which will cause him to be less responsive to you. Modify your expectations to be realistic. What would you expect of a 2-year-old child? That is an appropriate expectation for your dog. What have you truly taught him? Only those behaviors which he knows very well can be expected to be performed. If you didn’t teach it, don’t expect it.
Avoid Situations Where Your Dog Might Bark, But Shouldn’t. Avoidance is easy, free, and highly effective. It is the first step for lots of dogs regardless of why they bark. Here’s how avoidance might help your dog in the most common situations:
- To stop your dog from barking at strangers: Put her in a separate room before strangers come over.
- To stop your dog from barking at the window: Block off the windows or that part of the house.
- To stop your dog from barking at you for attention: Ignore him and/or walk away.
Teach an Alternate Behavior. Everyone is focused on correcting their dog’s behavior. Let’s focus on teaching your dog what he can do to earn reinforcement. For instance, instead of barking, you might direct your dog to go to a bed and lie down, be quiet, or hold a toy and go to another room. You can find easy-to-implement, effective techniques on how to train these behaviors in a positive way in the book From Fearful to Fear Free by Becker, Radosta, Sung, Becker.
Distract Your Dog. This is another easy, inexpensive technique that works to stop a dog from barking. When your dog is barking, get his attention by shaking a treat bag or introducing his favorite toy. Keep him occupied, away from the thing at which he is barking, until it is gone. Wait! Won’t you reinforce the barking? Will your dog learn to bark for the toy or treat? Well, it is more complex than that, but let’s just say, maybe. However, the barking that your dog does for the toy or treat in this situation will be short-lived and easy to control unlike the all-day barking he does as he lies on the back of the couch staring out the window.
Don’t go straight for punishment. Yelling, grabbing dogs, and shocking them with electric collars isn’t necessary and isn’t the most effective way to get your dog to listen to you and stop barking. If your dog has those special exception emotional states (fear, anxiety, and stress) you will make his behavior worse which is not what we want to do!
When Should You Get Pro Help to Stop a Dog from Barking?
Dogs are voiceless. They cannot tell you when they don’t feel well. Any changes in your dog’s behavior, even if they came on slowly, should start with a physical examination. Schedule a visit with your veterinarian to rule out physical causes for your dog’s vocalizations.
If you aren’t making progress with simple fixes like the ones outlined in this article, you may need help from a positive reinforcement trainer. Visit my site to find out more about how to find a good positive reinforcement trainer.
Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists are another professional option you can investigate. These pros are essentially veterinary psychiatrists. They are experts in all things behavior and are veterinarians so they understand how pain, discomfort, and disease can cause the signs that you are seeing. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists can tell you more about how a veterinary behaviorist might help you, or help you find one in your area.
What if My Dog’s Barking is Due to Fear, Anxiety, or Stress?
These emotional states are unique. If you think your dog has any of these emotional states, go to your veterinarian and if necessary ask for a referral to a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist. If treated correctly, the barking and the fear can go bye-bye. If not, the consequences can be lifelong and very negative.
Barking is normal. Expect of your dog only what he can give, try to find out what he is trying to tell you, and teach him what he needs to know to bark only when necessary.