By Margaret R. Pender, owner, DogGone Right! Inc.
I am often asked, “How do I get my dog to stop barking when… someone comes to the door? / someone walks past our house? / another dog walks past the house? / they hear another dog barking in the neighbourhood? / they are playing? / they want something?”
Barking is one the most difficult behaviours to deal with because barking actually physically feels good to dogs. Before we can deal appropriately with a barking dog, we need to understand why the dog is barking in the first place and how the barking is being reinforced.
Some breeds of dog were bred to bark. It’s in their genes. Scent hounds will often bark to tell you “here it is.” Herding breeds will often control sheep or cows with an excited and consistent bark. Then there are the toy breeds and terriers, who just seem to love barking.
Other reasons a dog will bark include excitement, loneliness, anxiety, fear, boredom, attention, during play, and when needing to urinate or defecate.
“Hey there’s someone at the door!” “Something smells funny here… Is it smoke?” “Watch out for that squirrel on the front lawn. He may be a burglar!”
Sometimes, what a dog considers alarming may not be so for us.
I don’t want to stop this type of barking, but I also want my dog to stop barking when I give the all clear. Consider managing this behaviour by reducing your dog’s access to the visual stimulus by closing the blinds or drapery, moving the couch away from the front window, putting window film on the bottom half of the window, and/or limiting your dog’s access to the front windows and doorway.
What starts out as a low grumble can quickly turn into a full-blown, consistent bark until you pay attention to your dog. I often equate this to a small child trying to get their parent’s attention. Fortunately this type of barking is one of the easiest to deal with.
Ignore this behaviour. Your dog should not receive any attention – no treats, no pets, no shush, not even eye contact.
But beware of what we call extinction bursts. This means that if you start ignoring your dog, you may find his behaviour becomes worse. If this happens, you need to steel yourself because if you give in now you will only reinforce this more intense behaviour.
Barking from Boredom
Dogs who are left alone a lot will often resort to barking from boredom. They have nothing else to do.
This seems obvious, but if the dog is outside, bring her inside and give her something to do. If the dog is inside, you still need to give her something to do. Give her puzzle toys or food-dispensing toys, or stuff a Kong or two, freeze them, and then give them to your dog. Freezing them means it will take your dog longer to work her way through it. You can give your dog her entire day’s ration of food in food-dispensing toys, which will keep her busy throughout the day.
You will most often see this type of barking when you arrive home or when your dog sees someone he hasn’t seen in a while. He is excited and just as happy to see you as you are to see him, I’m sure.
You will have to remain calm and, if needed, ignore your dog until he stops barking. If you respond by telling your dog to be quiet, you might just be encouraging the barking. Think of it this way: your dog is barking to say “Hello! I’m so excited to see you! Where have you been? I’ve missed you!” You say “Quiet,” but your dog may interpret that as “Cool. She’s starting a conversation with me.”
Many dogs will bark when trying to initiate play with their humans or another dog. Lots of them will become so excited when playing that they start barking. Playing is fun, exciting, and very stimulating, and it is sometimes hard for dogs to control their excitement, so they bark. This type of barking is usually found in herding breeds.
I let my dogs bark when playing, as long as it’s not late at night and we are not disturbing the neighbours. They are enjoying themselves. But I watch to make sure they do not become over aroused, which can lead to some unwanted behaviours, especially with other dogs. If my dogs become over aroused and the barking becomes more frantic, we stop the play and go inside, wait for them to calm down, and then go back outside to play some more. They soon learn that over-zealous barking means playtime stops, and they learn to control their barking when I ask them to calm down.
Barking to Go Outside
Dogs will often bark at the back door to let you know they need to urinate or excrete or, sometimes (I have a foster dog like this), the dog comes in front of you and lets out a couple of quick, sharp barks to let you know she has to go outside. They stop barking when you head toward the door to let them out. Most people would like their dog to bark in this scenario. I make sure to get up quickly and let the dog out, and I would not discourage this behaviour.
Anxiety, Loneliness, and Stress Barking
Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety, isolation distress,* or stress often bark, howl, and whine when left alone. They become panicked and show other signs of distress, such as salivating, destruction, and fluid loss. This is a serious concern, and you need to speak with a specialist to help you and your dog work through this particular issue.