The first thing to understand about barking is that, just like digging, chewing, and jumping up, it is a normal dog behavior. Your goal should never be to completely stop your dog from barking, but rather to reduce the frequency of barking in certain situations.
Why Is Your Dog Barking?
Although barking is common, it can be one of the more difficult behavior issues to address because it occurs for many different reasons, and each reason requires a different solution. If your dog is barking simply to get your attention, you’d use a very different approach than if the dog is barking because he is afraid of something or someone.
Here are a few of the most common reasons dogs bark:
- The dog is afraid of something/someone (Barking is often a dog’s way of attempting to drive away a perceived threat and can be misinterpreted as simply a nuisance behavior.)
- Alert barking (“There’s someone at the door!” or “There’s a bunny in my yard!”)
- Attention seeking/boredom (Sometimes called “demand barking,” this type of barking is a learned behavior.)
- It’s a habit (Barking can be self-reinforcing, and the dog has learned this as a “go-to” behavior.)
- Frustration (often occurs when the dog is on a leash or behind a window and cannot physically get to whatever he’s barking at; can be fueled or exacerbated by boredom)
- Excitement or play (usually upon greeting a favorite family member or a friend they haven’t seen in a while or while playing with a canine pal)
- Separation anxiety (often occurs immediately after the family has left the home. If the dog is anxious about being home alone, he may bark to try and get their attention.)
And sometimes a dog may bark for a combination of the above reasons (for example, it is possible for a dog to bark an alert and be somewhat afraid).
A key part of addressing barking is figuring out what’s reinforcing the barking (in other words, why does it continue day after day?). Dogs repeat behaviors that work for them, so if the barking continues, something is maintaining it. For example: dog barks at person/dog he finds scary, person/dog moves away, dog learns: “I’ve done my job and made the person/dog go away. I will bark again next time.”
In another common example: Dog barks to get your attention. You grumble, “Knock it off!” (thus giving him some verbal attention). Dog keeps barking. You say it again, possibly even moving closer to the dog, telling him “Shhh” or, if out in public, potentially even petting or touching him in an attempt to quiet him. Dog learns: “Barking gets Mom or Dad’s attention. I will bark next time I want their attention.” (Remember, even “negative” attention is attention).
Because barking is loud, unpleasant, and sometimes embarrassing, we tend to want to fix it immediately, so we might reach for a “quick-fix” solution such as an anti-barking collar. But, like all punishment-based solutions, that comes with a steep emotional price. First of all, we risk damaging the human-animal bond: any time we use punishment, we contribute to a breakdown in trust and put a strain on our relationship with the dog. Additionally, if the barking occurs out of fear or anxiety (as is often the case), we will most likely make the dog’s fear or anxiety worse by adding punishment to the equation.
Furthermore, if we punish the barking, we have done nothing to change the underlying emotions behind it. If a dog was barking out of fear, he is still every bit as scared or upset, but now must find some other way to dissipate that nervous energy, since the barking option has been punished away. It is likely the dog will replace the barking with another, potentially more harmful, behavior. Some dogs might skip the barking step and progress straight to aggression, redirecting their energy onto whatever or whoever is nearby. Other dogs might begin engaging in self-injurious behaviors like excessive licking or chewing at a spot on their body. Still others might try to self-soothe by engaging in destructive chewing of household items. Some dogs might shut down entirely, still afraid of the trigger, and now also afraid to ever bark.
Now let’s look at some better solutions for some common barking causes.
- Fear/anxiety-based barking: It’s crucial that punishment is never, ever used with a dog who is barking out of fear, anxiety, or stress. You are likely to cause the dog to be more afraid of whatever is causing them to bark, and possibly to start fearing you. A behavior modification plan should be guided by a positive reinforcement trainer such as a Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer, a behavior consultant, and/or a veterinary behaviorist. The plan should include pairing treats with the trigger that’s causing the barking – this teaches the dog that a previously scary thing now predicts tasty treats. It will likely also include management strategies such as closing the blinds, putting up an opaque window film, or walking the dog along a different route or at a less busy time of day. Consider adding white noise like a fan or air conditioner or calming music to help muffle sounds that might trigger barking. Depending on the severity and frequency of the barking, a veterinarian might recommend calming supplements or medications to help the dog feel less anxious and be more able to learn new, calmer responses to their trigger(s).
- Alert barking: Whether to address alert barking is your call. Many people appreciate it when their dog alerts them to the presence of another person or animal on the property. If that’s the case, no “solution” is needed. If you want to decrease your dog’s alert barking, try feeding the dog some favorite treats when he sees or hears a person, animal, or other trigger. The treats can distract and calm the dog and decrease the amount of barking. Plus, if there is a fear component, you will be helping to teach the dog that new people or animals predict good things.
- Attention seeking/boredom/habit: Unlike with fear-based barking, try to avoid feeding treats or reinforcing attention-based barking with any kind of attention (positive or negative). Instead, use treats to teach your dog a cue that means “quiet” https://www.fearfreehappyhomes.com/be-quiet-how-to-cue-up-silence/. Increase enrichment activities and daily exercise to alleviate boredom.
- Frustration: Consider closing blinds/curtains, applying an opaque window film, or using other visual barriers to manage the situation. If out on a walk, increase the distance between the dog and trigger by doing a quick about turn, crossing the street, or walking behind a car or building. If the barking occurs mostly indoors, increase the dog’s daily enrichment and exercise to help stave off boredom and promote sleep. Also, pair treats with the sight/sound of the dog’s trigger.
If you aren’t sure why your dog is barking, enlist the help of a Fear Free Certified professional to help you figure out why it is happening and what is reinforcing it. That way you can be sure to apply the right solution. The most useful thing you can do is to try to see things from your dog’s point of view. Viewing barking as the symptom rather than the problem can help a lot. Think about fixing the anxiety, frustration, boredom, or attention-seeking, rather than the barking.
So, how do you solve your dog’s barking problem? With empathy.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Lori Chamberland, KPA CTP, is the Education Manager at Fear Free, where she and her team create science-backed, engaging online courses, videos, handouts, webinars, and more. Before joining Fear Free, Lori was the director of Karen Pryor Academy, where she oversaw its worldwide faculty and staff and the development of its positive reinforcement training courses. She is a skilled positive reinforcement trainer and a passionate teacher who thrives on making learning fun for pets and their humans. Lori has written numerous articles for newspapers, magazines, and websites, and has four articles published in the book Better Together: The Collected Wisdom of Modern Dog Trainers. She is owned by two Border Collies, Blink and Brio.
Published April 25, 2022