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Dog Behaviour >>BARKING DOGS

Dog in run barking: 
Likely territorial aggression.

Please make it stop!  Is that how you feel?   Me too.  I have a low tolerance for noise and find barking dogs very frustrating to be around.  But, I have to remind myself that they are just being dogs.  Also, there are several reasons that dogs bark and understanding those can help sort out the best way to solve the problem.  Basically dogs bark due to frustration, anxiety, boredom or high levels of excitement.   Usually the underlying problem fits into one of the following categories:

  • Separation Related Anxiety
  • Compulsive Behaviour
  • Territorial/Fear Based Aggression
  • Noise Phobia
  • Cognitive Decline (old dogs that are having age related brain changes)

(List from BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine)

By filling out a behavioural questionnaire, your veterinarian or a behaviourist will be able to help you determine the cause, but here are some clues.  Sometimes a consultation or video is also necessary.

  •  Separation Related Anxiety – occurs in the absence of the owner or sometimes when one specific person that the dog is overly bonded to leaves.
  • Compulsive Behaviour – The barking is repetitive and the tone doesn’t change and there doesn’t seem to be any trigger.
  • Territorial/Fear Based Aggression – Occurs when strangers approach or the dog is any fearful situation.
  • Noise Phobia – should be an obvious noise trigger and the bark is often fast and high pitched.
  • Cognitive Decline – older dog, no obvious triggers and a tone of bark that doesn’t change.

So as you can see, there are several causes.   One thing that is fairly common is that most start off with a fear component and then become a learned behaviour or habit.  If your pet is suffering from Separation Anxiety, Territorial or Fear Based Aggression, or a Noise Phobia then diagnosing and treating these issues will deal with the problem.
Remember that because these are often fear based issues and/or learned issues, punishment is not recommended.  In a fearful or aggressive dog punishment will lead to worse fear and barking or sometimes outright aggression towards the owner.   Also, yelling and inconsistent punishment will worsen the barking.  The reason the barking often worsens is that the pet may have learned to bark to get attention.  Just like kids act out to get attention, dogs will bark or do other bad behaviours to get attention.  This is often the case for the dogs that starts barking when you are on the phone.   It is also similar to what I call the gambling effect…  you put your money in the slot machine and you lose (punishment), lose again (punishment), then win (no punishment..reward!).  If after the second time the person was thinking ‘maybe I should quit’, usually the win encourages the person to continue.  Often they will spend more and think ‘if I just persist, I’ll win again’.  This is how gambling addictions occur.  So to put this into perspective with your dog.. he barks (punishment), barks again (punishment), barks again (no punishment..  rewarded behaviour)…bark, bark, bark! 

Many articles promote various types of collars that stop barking.  I personally do not feel comfortable recommending these devices as they often do not resolve the underlying cause of the barking.  I do not feel these products are humane.  We need to deal with the frustration, anxiety, fear, boredom etc.  Even if it a collar works and the barking stops the underlying emotions will likely still be there and possibly be worse.   I did try one on my older dog Bud and if you are interested and contact me I can discuss more specifics of the situation that lead me to the stance I am taking here. 

I have had an opportunity with my second dog to test my theories on barking so also see the blurb at the end about Cody and his barking and how much better this went without any punishment!

Treatment By Behaviour Modification:

There are several video links at the end of this article that you may find very useful as well as the text below!

So how can you make it stop.  Again, a specific program is recommended but I’ll describe the basics as I see them. 

  • First, all punishment must be stopped.  Ignore the dog when it barks and even leave the house or go to a separate room if you can’t take it.  Don’t say anything, don’t yell, don’t look at the dog.  Leaving and ignoring the dog sends a strong message that this behaviour doesn’t get any attention.  Note:  If the dog is barking to get attention then typically the dog will try harder for a while before you see the behaviour stopping.  Basically they bark louder and harder thinking you didn’t hear them!  Just before the behaviour stops you will often get a very sudden worsening and you’ll be tempted to think that it isn’t working.  If you give in to your urge to punish or yell then the behaviour will worsen.  If you can just get through this you are usually close to a breakthrough!  This behaviour is called an extinction burst.
  • Second, look at the handout on ‘Preventing Behavioural Problems’.  Following the protocols for adequate exercise, rewarding what you want (quiet!) and leadership training will give you a good start and may alone greatly reduce the problem.  If your dog has never had obedience training (positive training) then this may be a way to get some help in the process and learn some obedience commands that you can do at home.
  • Third, if there are known triggers see if you can either prevent triggers or desensitize and counter condition to them.  Using a head halter such as a Halti can be very helpful with this (see article on Introduction to Head Collars..).  First, desensitize the dog to the Halti and read up on training treats.  Attach the Halti to a leash and tie it to your belt so your dog is with you all the time.  With the Halti on, teach the dog to sit.  When the dog is sitting nicely, say quiet and give a treat as long as the dog is quiet.  The release the dog using OK and give it some play time.  Then ask the dog to sit again and say quiet and wait a little longer, then release and say good dog and play.  Continue in a pattern something like this:
    • Sit, quiet for 3 seconds – reward.
    • Sit, quiet for 1 second – reward.
    • Sit quiet for 4 seconds – reward.
    • Sit and quiet for 2 seconds – reward.

Continue this varying from long, medium and short intervals.  If the dog barks while on a quiet, simply stop the game, ignore the dog for 5 – 10 minutes and don’t give a treat.  Work up to 1 minute quiet. 

  • Once the dog is doing well, then start using your new method as follows:
  • Dog barks – you respond “Fido, sit”..  “Fido quiet”, then ‘good dog’ and treat once the barking has stopped for a few seconds at least.  Then move on to whatever you were doing.  (You don’t have to rename your dog Fido… hee,hee).
  • If the dog continues to bark then just slowly and gently pull straight up on the Halti until you close the dog’s mouth and Fido is quiet.  Don’t repeat your commands, just wait it out.  Then do as above.
  • After this is working well then consider asking Fido to do a down stay on a mat and give the quiet command and set a timer for 10 seconds, then 2, then 20, then 5 (or something like that varying long, medium and short times). If the dog complies, then give a treat and release off the down stay.  If there is a trigger and the dog starts barking, bring the dog back to the mat and stay close and do a few short then long quiet intervals.
  • If able, try to set triggers up at low levels of intensity to practice.  So, if cars passing by a window is a trigger, ask a family member to drive by and stop in front of the house until the barking stops (leave windows open so the driver can hear or use cell phones to signal) and then drive away.  The handler in the house would be actively doing the exercise above.   Barking at passersby often becomes a self rewarding behaviour from the dog’s point of view.  I barked and the car or the people left, is probably how they interpret it.  So, getting people and cars to stop until the dog is no longer barking is great.  So the dog then learns that stopping barking gets the intruders to leave.
  • If the phone is a trigger then set your dog up at first by pretending the phone rang and going and having a pretend conversation (with the dog attached to you).  If the dog starts barking then say, just one minute and set the phone down and get the behaviour under control then go back to your fake phone call.  You will feel silly but it is very important.  Once your dog does this well then ask a friend to phone and help you at a time when they can let you get the dog under control.  They can phone you while they are doing dishes or laundry and just temporarily set the phone down while you get the dog(s) under control.  Don’t be afraid to ask people to wait until you get the dog under control, or ask them to hang up and you can put the dog(s) outside and call them back later.  If they hang up, you can pretend they are still there and carry on the exercise.
  • If you are getting frustrated it is OK to have a time out area or room or leave the house for a little bit.  The dogs that are trying to get attention may even be rewarded by your frustration so it is best to just remove yourself from the situation!  Never use the kennel for punishment though. The time out area should be separate.
  • If your dog is very highly aroused when he/she is barking there are a few other methods.  As above, if you take your pet to a time out area every time it barks it will often eventually solve the problem.  Don’t be angry or mad just say too bad, time out and off you go.  You don’t want to get in a catching game though so still have a leash attached.  Give them a 5 minute time out (that is 5 minutes of not barking..set a timer) and release when they are good.   Note, this is not for dogs with separation anxiety though as this will worsen the behaviour.  This is for the attention seeking or noise or activity stimulated dog. If your dog is not used to confinement and barks continually in confinement then this will need to be taught first.
  • Another great method that is quite useful is to teach the quiet command and then throw a toy for them to play with once they are quiet.  They can’t bark with a toy in their mouth and it uses their high level of arousal for a different behaviour.  Or send them to get a toy out of their toy basket.  Then reward with a short game.  There is a very good video at the end that shows the finished product. 
  • Teaching the dog to bark on cue and then be quiet on cue is also quite useful.  You can use the method described above.  Just reward the bark with a good bark or good speak and then follow with the quiet command steps above.  Once the dog is consistent if you say bark or speak (whatever command you’ve chosen) in a high pitched excited tone your dog will likely bark on command.  Then say quiet in a calm, quiet tone, and reward the dog if he/she complies.  See the finished product on the You Tube Video noted at the end of the section.
  • A Personal Note that might give you hope:  My dog Cody was very sensitive to noise or movement outside windows when we first got him.  He was especially bad at night and would often startle us awake.  We did a lot of the prevention techniques, especially increased exercise and mental stimulation and rewards when quiet and calm.  Over time, the barking has reduced by about 90% and is at a level we can tolerate.  So, if the counter conditioning or desensitizing is too much of a commitment, just doing the other recommendations might be acceptable. 

Best of luck and may your future be calm, quiet and peaceful..

Dr. Liana Mawer