Excessive barking of dogs is a very common problem and is second only to aggression in those behavioural problems for which dog owners seek professional attention.
Solving the problem means looking at why your dog is barking in the first place.
Why do dogs bark?
Mostly, dogs bark because they are protecting their territory, they are fearful, they have an anxiety disorder such as a separation anxiety or they are seeking attention. Some old dogs bark when they have a senile behaviour disorder similar to Alzheimer’s Disease and in some rare cases, excessive barking is a compulsive disorder.
How can barking be reduced?
There are many ways to limit a dog’s barking behaviour but the most effective methods are those that treat the underlying reason for the barking.
If you are home when the barking is occurring, the therapies are usually very different to the processes you use when you are away from home.
‘At home’ therapies
The therapies for ‘at home’ barking mostly rely on:
- Reducing the access to the stimuli that cause barking
- Setting a limit to the amount of barking you will allow
- Using reward-based therapies to strengthen quiet behaviour when you achieve it.
Sadly, most dog owners rely on punishment to control barking. When punishment-based methods are used to reduce an unwanted behaviour, they usually slow down the ability of a dog to learn the alternative good behaviours. Even the most intelligent dog is still fairly dumb compared with humans! When a dog is aroused by stimuli that cause barking it quickly loses the ability to learn and to remember the new techniques you are attempting to teach it.
However if an owner’s focus is on creating calm behaviour without punishment and then rewarding the calm behaviour that results, progress is usually quite quick.
Reducing access to the stimuli that cause barking can involve many things but in practical terms often means:
- Altering the fence by changing its construction or location to stop the dog’s vision of passing stimuli
- Giving the dog alternative ‘stimuli’ to entertain and to absorb its interest.
- Treating any underlying medical disorder that is making the dog uncomfortable, such as arthritis, skin irritations and so forth.
Setting a limit to the amount of barking you will allow is an important rule:
- At the start of a bark-reduction programme, deal with the first bark whenever you can, using command-based therapies.
- If your dog does not respond, be ready to physically intervene with its barking to limit it. This does not mean using punishment but usually involves moving the dog away from the location of barking. There are many useful strategies for achieving this.
Using reward-based therapies is very sensible.
- When your commands create silence, use pats, hugs and kinds words to reward the dog.
- In the early stages, food treats are used to create an interest in the new methods but food is replaced by pats and cuddles as the dog learns.
- Cognitive therapy achieves this easily and involves teaching the dog a series of commands in a game-play routine that, when learnt, can then be applied to the problem.
How can you reduce barking when you are not at home to do it? Treating the underlying problem is, again, the answer. For this reason, I never recommend the operation called de-barking and I stay away from the electronic shock collars. In my opinion, such strategies don’t treat the underlying malady.
- Attention to the fence is often important
- ‘Home-alone’ barking is often caused by a genuine anxiety disorder, the most common of which is a separation anxiety. Because dogs are social animals, many are not happy when left alone.
- The treatment of home-alone barking, usually involves the provision of a rich and ever-changing lifestyle for those alone times.
- For genuine separation anxieties, the sensible use of low side-effect anti-anxiety medication is often needed.
Excessive barking stems from many causes and it is wrong to presume that all cases of barking can be solved with one strategy. However humane solutions do work.
For more information on managing barking behaviour, contact your veterinarian.
By Dr Cam Day BVSC